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Meet the guys behind Phuket’s legendary surf shop: Freedom Boardsports
Saturday 9 September 2017, 10:00AM
Walking in to Freedom Boardsports for the first time, my jaw dropped at sheer number boards on display, lining the walls and stacked on shelves, there were hundreds of surf boards, wake boards, body boards, and stand-up paddle boards, taking up every bit of available space in the modestly-sized showroom. I was there to meet Rick Reynolds and Tom Fekete who, with their half century or more of combined local surf knowledge, are the brains behind Freedom Boardsports – the largest boardsports dealer in Southeast Asia. After some quick introductions, I sat down with Rick and Tom to talk about the history of the business and how they had steered it become such a prominent player in the Phuket’s, and indeed the whole of Southeast Asia’s, boardsport industry. As you might suspect, it wasn’t an overnight success story.   Rick, who opened the original Cobra Surf Shop in Phuket Town (because that’s where you had to go to buy anything, in those days!) has been a mainstay of the island’s boardsports community for more than 30 years. “We first opened in 1986 and we were a purely windsurfing company – we were a branch office for a large manufacturing company called Cobra International, which is now based in Chonburi. It was then, and still is now, the largest windsurf, surfboard and SUP manufacturer in the world,” says Rick. “We started off selling mostly windsurfing equipment and a few odds and ends. Over the years we expanded to become a comprehensive watersports supplier; selling hobie cats, kayaks, canoes, windsurfing equipment, body boards, snorkelling equipment and life jackets. “The main target in those days was hotel supply contracts. So we were very well known for a long time with a lot of the big resorts like the [Le] Meridien and all the Laguna Resorts. We were active on both coasts too, especially in Samui and Koh Phangan. The entire south of Thailand from Hua Hin down we supplied… I won’t say every hotel, we had competitors… but a lot of them,” says Rick. In the 1990s surfing took off in a huge way, quickly becoming a world-wide professional sport and a cultural phenomenon. Rick was riding the wave of the sport’s new-found popularity by organising surf competitions and helping to strengthen the local surf scene. It was during just such a competition that Rick first metTom Fekete – a lifelong surfer hailing from California’s Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles. They didn’t know it at the time, but that fateful meeting would serve as the foundation for what would become their long-standing business partnership. I was around 2014 when Rick, then the sole owner and operator of his Cobra Surf Shop, found himself in search of partner that could help him modernise and revitalise his business. “There were a lot of missed opportunities being a one man show, so I was very actively looking for a partner, but I’m very fussy… and Tom’s name ended up at the top of the list,” says Rick. As luck would have it, Rick caught Tom at the perfect time, he had only recently sold off his surf-safari charter business in Indonesia after his largest boat was severely damaged in a tsunami. As soon as they had shaken hands on the deal, Tom wasted no time – transforming the company from a laidback local surf shop to a modern, online and tech-savvy enterprise. And it seems to have worked, says Tom, they’ve had steady positive growth over the last three years, that shows no sign of stopping. “Freedom Boardsports was Tom’s brainchild and he built up our brand very effectively, it has really just been growing like a mushroom. Our reputation online is very solid, Tom does our social media and our website, which he maintains on a daily basis, and he is very, very active on it,” says Rick. “The new website was key to the modernisation, I had some ideas for layout of the shop and I’m a little bit more active in the local surfing community. I’m out there everyday surfing and talking to everyone, so I’m a bit more familiar with the products, the new trends and what people want,” adds Tom. Their online business is booming too, the only thing holding them back is high-shipping costs and cross-border tax and monetary law red tape.   “I’d say almost half of our business is taken care of online, even though we don’t have our online shopping cart open; due to issues with credit cards and the laws allowing us to charge over the internet. But nevertheless, all the communication goes through the website,” says Tom. Both Tom and Rick agree that the current boom in stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) has been great for business and is just getting started. “Thailand has been slow to get traction on SUPs, they are about five years behind on the popularity compared to other countries. But now, with the balance between surf season and the SUP sales, we have a much more even rate of sales throughout the year,” says Rick. Adding to their booming SUP sales, Freedom has secured a contract with the Phuket Lifeguard Service to supply all of their surf-rescue boards. They make their own custom board-bags right in the shop. To top it all off, they even had a member of the Thai Royal Family drop in unexpectedly to purchase a surfboard. Further strengthening the market, according to Tom, is the fact that surfing seems to be rapidly gaining in popularity among sports-minded Thais and they often prove to be particularly discerning customers. “The Thais are starting to get into surfing more and more. Whereas before they were all on hand-me-down boards, now they come in and want the best. We’re even selling boards in Bangkok, no one used to want a tan, but now it’s becoming cool. I see kids from Bangkok down on the beach here all the time,” says Tom. Another little-known reality of the boardsport industry is that Thailand is home to some of largest and best board manufactures in the world – most notably Cobra International Co. Ltd – the largest board manufacturer in Asia. “Up to about fifteen years ago they used to hide the fact that the boards where made in Thailand, well not hide… but just not promote it. Nowadays, it’s a badge of quality to say a surfboard, or any board, was made in Thailand – usually at either at Cobra or at another factory called Firewire – both of which we represent exclusively. It’s a badge of quality, as opposed to ‘Made in China’, says Rick. The other pillar of their success, says Rick, has been to stock the best quality brands and provide the highest level of customer service possible. “Every product in this shop is top end, we get top of the line brand name products under strict quality controls, we don’t deal with cheap off-brand products, so we feel we can stand completely behind our products,” says Tom. “When it comes to online shopping, we are a true bricks-and-mortar company and with our stock, if people see it on the website, they can come in the next day and buy it. Or we can ship it straight out to you. We ship overseas very frequently, mainly in the Southeast Asia,” he adds So what’s next for Freedom Boardsports? I ask Tom and Rick. The gregarious pair seem a bit more tight-lipped about the future, but hint at plans to expand to become a region-wide distributor for some of the biggest manufactures in the industry. “That’s what we’re tirelessly working towards,” says Rick, “fortunately we have the advantage of longevity, reputation and connections in the industry developed over 30-odd years,” he adds.   For more information visit Freedom Boardsports online.
A Meal With... A brunch with Bruce Stanley
Sunday 26 March 2017, 09:00AM
Welcome to this new regular column which is titled “A Meal with...” For each article, I have the great pleasure of inviting one of Phuket’s best known personalities to join me for a meal in one of their favourite eateries. Not content to luxuriate in a cocoon of indulgent hedonism however, we will also turn our attention to one weighty question that concerns all of us here in Phuket: “Where is Phuket going?” While nibbling on fine comestibles and quaffing enlivening libations, we will seek to define where our beloved “tropical island paradise” is heading, for better or worse, and what, if anything, we can do about it. My first guest (or victim) is Bruce Stanley, certainly one of the island’s best-known media personalities who has been visiting Phuket since 1971 and has called it his home for over 25 years. I am fortunate in counting Bruce as a close friend and he is an archetypical example of the man who seems to know everybody and whom everybody seems to know. Bruce began his illustrious career as a foreign reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, while still in university. He travelled and filed stories from regional wars in Central America, the civil war in Nigeria, and for the independence of Bangladesh. Bruce became a freelance writer in 1971 but first arrived in Phuket to cover the openings of the island’s first five-star resorts, Le Meridien Phuket, Phuket Yacht Club (now The Nai Harn), the Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket, and the former Phuket Arcadia (now the Phuket Hilton) all of which opened in 1987 and brought the first waves of international tourists. He visited Phuket often after that and finally settled on the island in 1991 to work in the developing English media sector. Our meal together was a fabulous Sunday brunch at Sail’s, the lustrous poolside restaurant in the Hilton Arcadia. Amidst an explosion of pool-side vegetation Bruce and I nibbled on a fantastic range of fine cuisine including domestic and imported seafood, splendid sushi and sashimi, a huge meat selection, complementary salads, always remembering to leave tummy space for the great assortment of different cheeses and cold cuts, and finally the various kinds of dessert, from mango puddings to delicious tiramisu that awaited us. In many ways this brunch seems to exemplify all that is best about Phuket – fabulous scenery, tropical vegetation, happy families and kiddies enjoying the great outdoors and the very best in food, hospitality and holiday entertainment. However, Bruce pointed that in the early days, things were not at all like this. In the first decade of international tourism, the winter season saw primarily European visitors eager to sample the pleasures of tropical Southeast Asia. The monsoon season brought the Japanese who supported the new resorts during a quieter (less costly) time. Bruce notes that life was not particularly easy on Phuket in the early years as there were daily power cuts that left everyone gasping for air. Only the best resorts had high-powered generators to provide relief. There was little or no air conditioning on the island. Only one store provided Western foodstuff to the expat community as the local Thais generally did not consume butter, cheese or coffee. Since there were fewer cars on the island, this allowed those on motorcycles to drive even faster and more erratically. And says Bruce, raising a knowing eyebrow, “There’s no need for me to talk about the police and immigration services in those early day.” Time passes and now in 2017, 46 years after Bruce’s arrival in Phuket, he offers up a few key thoughts on the future of tourism for the island. 1. While in the early years, resorts would focus on a single market and hope to make them feel comfortable in each other’s company, we have seen a gradual growth in mixed tourism whereby many nationalities share tourism facilities. 2. The debate that has raged for many years about whether the future for Phuket tourism centres on attracting high-end visitors, or accepting the mass market. It seems the latter argument has won with many former high-end visitors now having holidays in a wide variety of competitive destinations far from the rumble of huge tour buses. 3. The efficiency and transparency of local government continues to improve to meet the requirements of small and big investors and the government agencies in Bangkok who monitor issues regarding safety and legal proceedings. 4. We continue to see the growth and diversity of food stuffs, wines and beers on offer to meet the tastes of an ever more diverse collection of visitors. While 30 years ago, only a few hundred thousand international visitors bravely arrived to a somewhat unknown Phuket, today that figure has grown into many millions, creating an enormous demand for services which the local authorities and tourism leaders struggle, not unsuccessfully, to meet. 5. We see continued improvement in medical care. Thirty years ago, there were only two small hospitals on Phuket neither of which could provide complex treatments.   Today the number of hospitals continues to grow providing services to fit most budgets and medical and dental tourism are huge money-spinners. Bruce emphasises that while it is easy to be critical about the problems of growth and the blight of infrastructure on Phuket, we should acknowledge the tremendous planning and control that is needed to cope with the development of one of the world’s most successful tourism hubs. Phuket is not what it was 30 years ago. Those looking for a tropical paradise have either departed to other islands, or are preparing to do so. The island is now an urban tropical resort destination not unlike Bali, or the resort communities in Florida or Mexico, where millions arrive wanting sun, sea and sand. Thirty years ago the local Thais did not speak much English but wanted the lucrative jobs in the international resorts. That led to a lot of frustration with guests and Thais had to learn about saving face when someone would yell at them. Increasingly, Thai tourism workers speak English and are well trained. Many are the second generation of their family in tourism and they are no longer intimidated by foreigners at work. Also there were no trained hospitality managers 30 years ago but today and in the future we see more Thai general managers who have years of experience. Bruce concluded by saying; “I’d like to stress the diversity of arrivals into Phuket these days, a trend, along with the increase in sophisticated travellers, which is bound to continue. I recall in the 1990s, some nationalities, brought their own food in suitcases as they were terrified to eat anything besides their national dishes. “There were stories of others who always brought scissors with them so that they could deftly cut out carpet pieces from under the beds to take home as souvenirs. The visitors of the future will have been to many destinations, sampled the cuisine of many cultures and travel oblivious to the dangers of being in a strange place. The internet and mass, low-cost airlines have a lot to answer for!”