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When I say “pop-outs,” you say…

Photo: Global Surf Industries

“Pieces of shit.”

“Pieces of shit!”

“Costco. Lemons.”

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“Shit glass job and no soul.”

“China.”

“Donut holes.”

“Pieces of crap that will frustrate [you] to the point where you leave the beach with just your fins and leash.”

Let’s just admit that most of us think this way. As lovers of this sport/lifestyle/means of self-expression, we cherish our equipment/vehicles/sacred crafts, and we hold them to high standards. But surfers are open-minded. Right? Right. So SMASH invited Mark Kelly, Managing Director of Global Surf Industries, to speak at The Surfers Studio.

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GSI produces upwards of 50,000 boards a year and distributes them to 57 countries. In other words, pop-outs. As you’ve seen, the main reasons people tend to hate on pop-outs are:

  • Allegedly horrendous quality.
  • Starving local shapers.
  • Enormous carbon footprints.
  • Soullessness.

Mark jumped on the opportunity to refute these charges and tell us why his company is not the Kia of surfing. I had tonsillitis, so I got the play-by-play from SMASH’s Tyler Breuer and hustled up some additional info via mobile call with Mark.

Aside from the obvious contrast with the previous week’s Surfers Studio, which was about garage-shaped boards, the Mark Kelly event also took a completely different form. “This was really a sit down discussion–a Q&A,” says Tyler. Mark happened to be in New York and was happy to participate. He especially enjoyed when the mic was passed off to the audience–even though some of their questions were pretty direct.

“You know, there’s always a question about sustainability,” Mark says. “And you can make a sustainable surfboard, but it’s always the smallest part of the equation because people want to have a green surfboard but then they’ll drive their F250 to the beach a thousand times in the life of that surfboard.”

Still, GSI makes a solid effort to limit its environmental impact.

“There are a lot of rumors that go around about the boards being produced in a cheap factory, using slave labor, that it’s not environmentally friendly, and the standards aren’t very high,” says Tyler. “When you talk to Mark, you realize that the Cobra factory (in Thailand) makes more than just surfboards. They make million-dollar hulls for boats and other crazy stuff.” Like parts for Ferrari, Audi, and Ducati.

Mark adds, “They’re all made to a pretty high standard, and our surfboards fall under those production methods. Our factory isn’t every factory in Asia; nor is it every factory in the western world.” Instead of trying to do the minimum, GSI does all that they can to make the product better and the lives of the people who work in the factory easier. Mark says that GSI and the Cobra factory have obtained ISO 9000 certification, “which is about quality in production and helps minimize waste and overworking.” They are also working towards an ISO 14000, which is about environmental health. “You’ve got to reduce your waste by a third each year, for three years, among other things,” he explains.

And what about shipping boards all over the world? That’s got to leave a huge carbon footprint. In short, it does. However, you still have to ship foam to local shapers, who likely don’t have spotless environmental practices. So, with all of their other tweaks, like streamlined packaging, GSI is just trying to minimize their impact.

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“It was really cool talking to Mark about the production and the environmental qualities of the factory,” says Tyler. “It was really enlightening. Unfortunately, GSI is lumped in with other pop-outs and other boards produced overseas that don’t meet these standards, but [Surfers Studio] definitely dispelled a lot of myths out there.”

Plus, shipping boards to Sweden means exposure and, probably, a few new surfers.

“One of my thoughts is, if you can get someone to become a surfer and then they get into the water, they’re going to think of that water quality and the environment a lot more,” Mark says.

A major point of contention when it comes to factory-built boards is that they’re putting local shapers out of business. Global Surf Industries covers 13 brands and most of them are owned by shapers like Tom Wegener, Bob McTavish, and Thomas Meyerhoffer. Interestingly, Wegener says, “GSI can be viewed as the ultimate reward if you make something really spectacular. If you put a big effort into a new board that is years ahead of everyone else, that others can’t really reproduce and that thousands of surfers will want to buy, then you can go to GSI and you may get a deal.  There is no other way to make more than a subsistence wage from making surfboards. Otherwise, I feel that GSI has no effect on the custom surfboard shaper.”

Apparently, shops stand to make more of a profit in working with GSI, and that is something that Tyler appreciates as a shop owner. “With other shapers, you only make like a hundred bucks, if you’re lucky,” he says. “It’s not a huge increase, but you make probably about 30% or more on some [of GSI’s boards].” He also points out that when you order a board from GSI, it’s there within a week.

“Mark’s like, ‘You know, I’m not putting these guys out of business; they’re doing it to themselves. They’re making it easy for me by not calling back customers or not delivering on time.’”

If you’ve been making a mental list of pop-out pros and cons like I have, you’ve probably placed affordability in the pro column. I was surprised to discover that just about every board built under the umbrella of GSI costs between $500 and $900, depending (as usual) on size.

“Some of the brands are more beginner-oriented,” says Mark. “So if you look at the NSPs and the Blues, they’re priced more for entry-level [surfers] and we try to make them a little bit cheaper.” Alright, you can get an NSP funboard for $375. Still, though, GSI boards don’t seem like the bargain of the decade. “In the marketplace, the best brand in the market always control the pricing,” Mark says. “Channel Islands is pretty much controlling the pricing in the shortboard market. Everyone else prices themselves under that. [The price] depends on construction and different things.”

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And this brings us to the heated heart of the pop-out debate: quality.

All of the prototypes are hand-shaped, and then they go through rigorous testing, fine-tuning, and re-testing. It can take anywhere from four to nine months to get a new board design into production.

Mark rides GSI boards. Loads of them. “I’m really lucky, I live right near the beach [in Manly, NSW] and I’ve got about 70 different boards at home. I’ve got a lot of prototype stuff and… a bit of everything. For me, the ocean’s really a playground and I’ve got lots of toys.”

When dissatisfied customers post complaints on GSI’s message boards, Mark himself responds–often asking for a private message to arrange the details of replacing the faulty board.

“What struck me about Mark was just how humble he really is,” says Tyler. “He is really down to earth and really nice.” It’s counterintuitive in a way: it would be easy to assume that the guy who runs Global Surf Industries is just another callous mass-producer of commodity. But in reality, Mark Kelly is a really personable guy who genuinely cares about surfers.

“I think Mark has integrity,” Tyler says.

And finally, we arrive at soullessness.

GSI does not have central offices. In fact, most of the company’s meetings take place on Skype. “There’s none of that commuting for 2 hours a day that just sucks the life out of you,” Mark says. Do you know why that is? To blur the line between work and play, and allow GSI employees the same freedom Mark finds essential. Everyone at GSI wants to be there, which bolsters the company’s health and efficiency. “I really want to have the biggest smallest company I can have,” he says, “and then it’s easy. Sure, there are days that are harder than others, but at the end of the hard days, you just go for a surf and everything seems okay again.”

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A huge (little) company like GSI, has opportunities to spread surfing in ways that are just impossible for individual shapers. “Our philosophy is ‘Life is better when you surf,’” says Mark. “We really try to live that. There are a lot of people in the industry who want to be surfers as opposed to are surfers. You know, the only thing we do is surfboards, so if we’re not authentically living the lifestyle, then I think there’s something wrong. We’re fortunate to have a really good company and the ability to help other people, so we do a lot of charity and community stuff. We don’t really fly it up the flagpole, because it’s just a luxury that we can do that and help people understand what a fantastic thing surfing is.”

A small for instance: GSI donated 400 boards to Waves For Development, to help start a major surf school initiative in Peru.

“The more we can help people get into it, we reckon the world will probably be a better place,” says Mark.

“When I posted this event on some of the local message boards, there was definitely some push-back against it,” says Tyler. But by the end of the night, “it seemed like everyone there was quite convinced. There were a couple of guys who came in skeptical and left like, ‘Oh, you know what? That’s not that bad.’”

So maybe now, when someone says “pop-out,” you’ll think “eco-conscious,” “access,” or “McTavish,”  Or at least Thailand instead of China.

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