Surf Shop Founders and Their Kids Discuss Passing the Torch
From free labor to handing over the keys, dads and their kids from some of the industry’s most influential retailers talk about their experiences in transitioning the business to a new generation.
It wasn’t always easy, nor was succession set in stone. However, for those who have managed it successfully, they continue a tradition of being independent and family-owned businesses.
What follows are insights gleaned from some of the industry’s many family-run businesses in honor of the upcoming Father’s Day holiday.
Location: San Clemente, California.
The Family: Bill Stewart, founder; daughter Ashley Stewart Leines and her husband Erik Leines, co-owners as of 2021.
As told by Bill Stewart and Ashley Stewart Leines.
Bill: “You’d think your son, who’s a surfer dude, would take over the business. With my son, he surfed all the time. Ashley was the epitome of a fair-weather surfer. Hell or high water, I surfed my whole life. I came from Florida in a $500 van, so my surfing obsession is why I ended up with a surf shop.”
Ashley: “I definitely did not plan on this, but having grown up in the business I have really strong memories of my entire childhood being wrapped up around surfing and Stewart Surfboards. So when my dad said he was considering selling the business, I thought ‘I don’t like that idea.’ I don’t like the idea of some other person, who cares more about money, coming in and potentially ruining it.
“It’s awesome. My dad and I will often look at each other and say, ‘Thank you so much’ and the other says, ‘No, thank you so much,’ because it’s a beautiful thing. It’s an incredible opportunity for my husband and me to come in and take this ship that’s full sail and try to take it to the next level.”
Division of Labor
Ashley: “He’s still very much involved as much as he likes to say he got fired and walked out. He’s there as an advisor as well as creating the new designs. He just doesn’t have to deal with crunching the numbers.”
Bill: “The best thing about it is, when you step away, you get to stay in what you want to be in. I don’t have to handle the day-to-day operations. This is not just a surf shop; it never has been. We shape, create, and design. There’s wholesale, retail, international licensees. There are so many entities to what we do. It’s 10 times more complicated.
“The funny thing was Ashley worked here six years hardcore before I turned the business over and she had said to me, ‘I had no idea what you were dealing with.’ The breadth of the business was hard to explain to people. You don’t own the business; it owns you.”
Bill: “At my age, I was becoming obsolete. I was a really good marketing guy. I designed all my stuff. And for those reasons, the business grew and was successful. But, at this point, I’m not an electronic genius and that’s where Ashley stepped in.
Ashley: “I decided long before COVID that we needed to transition our POS system. So I transitioned the whole store over a period of about six months, getting everything onto Shopify. That was something Bill said was insane and ‘You’re never going to sell a surfboard online.’ I said, ‘Alright, well, let me try this anyway’ and I did, and we subsequently sold two boards the first day the site was launched.”
Bill: “The boards to me aren’t hubcaps. I don’t give a s–t about a Sony television hanging on the wall and getting stolen, but if you stole my best board, I’d want to kill you. So buying online seemed senseless and disconnected to me.”
On Passing the Torch
Bill: “For people who are 60 years old and they’re contemplating this move, I think the most critical thing to ask is if your daughter or son-in-law or son or whoever you’re considering taking it over, are they really a 10? Or are they a two and you’re going to allow them to come in and destroy what you created? You can’t be sympathetic just because they don’t have a house on the hill.
“You have to earn what you get in this world. You don’t sit around and wait for your parents to get old and inherit something. Ashley was chosen and agreed upon because of her qualifications, not because she’s my daughter.”
17th Street Surf Shop
Locations: Four stores in Virginia and two in North Carolina.
As told by Tom Brown.
Next Generation: “Tyler was 5 years old when I came to 17th Street in 1992. He grew up skating, surfing, and wearing the lifestyle clothing. Working in the stores through high school, he met many of the traveling icons in the sport. He attended a couple Surf Summits and met the owners and executives driving the trends in the action sports business.
“In college he spent a summer in California interning for Billabong. That gave him a better understanding of the wholesale side of the business.
“Upon graduating from college in 2009, he joined me full time at 17th Street. In 2011 he was promoted to men’s buyer. Due to his success, he was promoted to vice president in 2016. His job was managing the day-to-day operations of the business.
“I began living in Florida for six months a year and would come back to Virginia in May to help with long-term financial planning and strategic growth plans.
“The pandemic changed everything. His managing of the business through those two years really proved to me that I was not involved and had very little to offer in the way of how retail runs. Since 2021, I have limited time in the office now, offering to help out with special projects. He has, for the most part, been on his own since 2022.”
Lessons Learned: “In corporate retail we studied a lot of data to decide what direction to take in our inventory decisions. We relied on what sold last year, and what to repeat. New vendors had to be tested to get some data before we jumped in. I now call that Rear View Merchandising.
“Tyler is more of a trend guy and goes with his gut about what the next big thing will be. He wants to lead the community to the next great item. He went big into Yeti when I questioned the price points. He was on the front side of elastic shorts and swim when I would have spent time testing the waters.
“His success with new items is the reason I have not looked at a line in six years with him. I no longer have the same understanding of the customer.”
Challenges/Opportunities Working with Family: “The challenges are getting them to understand that as a mentor you are the boss and no longer a parent.
“The day Tyler started in the central office I was ‘Tom’ and no longer Dad. The expectations I put on my staff were no different for him as my son. He could bring his own methods to the table as long as they got the desired results. His success was his success and not an imitation of what I told him to do. My challenge was to be patient and not expect him to be immediately successful.
“The upside is he will continue a company that has been around since 1970. Many of our staff have been here for 15 to 30 years and will continue to work in the business they love. He has endless opportunities to write the next chapter for a company with a long history in the surf and skate culture.”
Advice on Bringing the Kids into the Business: “My accountant warned me early on about the amount of failure he had seen in companies transferring management to children. I believe it has worked for us because I started my kids early, while in high school. They worked in the stores and not directly with me. Their level of interest was documented by trusted managers who knew that they were not to get special treatment. The choices they made after college were theirs to follow in careers they would enjoy.
“If they choose to work for you, they must show a passion for the business and a desire to lead people. That is the only way it will work. For me the good news is whatever they choose, they know as a parent you will love and support their decisions. The rest is up to them.”
Wave Riding Vehicles
Headquarters: Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The Family: Les Shaw, co-founder; Joni Shaw, original head buyer of the WRV stores; President LG Shaw and wife and Brand Director Stacy Shaw; Carley Shaw, who is a graphic designer and buyer.
As told by LG Shaw.
I Started Working Here: “When we were little, there was an apartment above one of the shops in the Outer Banks. I remember my dad used to pay me $1.50 an hour to work in the shop: $1 the first hour, $2 the second. I figured out myself it was $1.50 an hour.
“I’ve been working here since I was a peanut, probably eight or 10 was when I started really trying to help more. and then I would get on the road to deliver boards when I was 12 or 14 years old.
“I think I was molded into it from pretty early on. He always said there isn’t anything they (in college) are going to teach you that he couldn’t teach me here. And then my sister Carley has been active in the business throughout the years.
“So, (joining the business) was highly encouraged.”
Challenges/Opportunities Working with Family: “It was the generational divide. My approach wouldn’t work then, and I don’t know that his approach would work as well now.
“What he was brought up in, and the way he muscled this business into existence before surf trunks were a thing and before bikinis were a thing, he had what it took to get it going at the time. And time will tell if my way works.
“It’s always challenging to be in those positions with family, but it’s rewarding. When it all comes together, it’s fun.”
Same Page: “One of the nice things before my dad had that stroke (two-and-a-half years ago), is that he and I had been strategizing. In 2019, we had a great year. We really got drilled in 2008 during the big economic collapse, and it took us a long time to crawl back out of that. By 2019, we were getting really optimistic about growth opportunities. So, he and I laid out a rough, five-year plan.
“We build our own surfboards and print all of our shirts, so we were looking to grow that side of the business…. Of course, COVID hit and sidelined anybody’s plans for anything, but we have been able to get back on course as things have stabilized.”
Conflict Resolution: “If I was really hell-bent on an idea, usually I would just try to pursue it anyway in some soft manner. Obviously, if he was hell-bent on something he would do it. A lot of times, you just had to let things run their course and see who was right. Sometimes that cost time and money.
“It’s not like he was wrong all that often, and I want to say the same for myself. Most of the time, he and I could talk and find a middle ground.”
Lessons Learned: “Something he always said, especially through COVID and a lot of other areas of life, is if things aren’t going right or you’re not feeling centered, just get to work. Just getting out of your head and getting to work usually will clear your mind and help you get through any situation.”
Location: Encinitas, California.
As told by Josh Hansen.
I Started Working Here: “In 2001. I went to business school and graduated from the University of Vermont. When I graduated, I came straight out here. It was right during the dotcom bust.
“I always had an interest in business in general – how they work and function, management, and leadership.
“I think it was always in the plan that eventually I would end up in the family business. My parents, they always wanted all the kids to eventually work in the business.
“My dad’s 86 years old. He spends half the year in Montana. The other half of the year he’ll come in for an hour or two in the morning and read his paper and do all of that. He was way more active 10 years ago (in the business).”
What Business School Didn’t Teach Me: “Inevitably, when you’re in the trenches, that’s where you do most of your learning. I was very blessed that my father had a long career running Hansen’s. He was also a co-founder of Ocean Pacific. So, he had a lot of experience running businesses and always kept me going in the right direction. I always say he was the guardrail as I started to take on more responsibility. He was always there to make sure I didn’t make any major mistakes.
“But I would also tell you through college and business school, there were things that I took from school and was able to apply to our family business.”
Challenges/Opportunities Working with Family: “When you work in a real family business, and I would say we’re the epitome of that, there are a lot of dynamics that are part of that whole relationship. All my siblings have different skill sets, so it was always very clear as to where everybody fit in the business. That can actually be uncomfortable at times because that’s not always what everybody feels are their capabilities, but my dad was always very transparent and candid about who’s going to do what in the business. And then from there, there’s buy-in and I think we’ve done a relatively good job. Although, admittedly, it’s not always easy and, at times, can be messy.
“Everybody always asks, ‘How do you manage the family business?’ I always say it’s just a lot of patience. You’ve got to think and do what’s good for the family and not always necessarily what’s good for you.”
Lessons Learned: “My dad has always taught us to be conservative. Some guys might read that and say, ‘You’re not finding your full potential,’ but we’ve been blessed with a sustainable, great family business in Encinitas. There’s a good thing going here, so let’s not reinvent the wheel.
“But, the biggest thing my father taught me, my sister, and my brother is to treat people right and do the right thing.
“And then I think your siblings always keep you honest. You learn to work with them and communicate with them. That’s something that’s not only a lesson from my siblings, but other employees in the business. I’ve had to personally grow a lot and learn to be a better communicator. I’m not a real big fan of meetings but inevitably they’re an important aspect of a business, especially as it’s growing and there are new employees and new departments.”
Huntington Surf & Sport
Locations: Four stores in Huntington Beach, California.
The Family: Aaron Pai, owner, along with Pai’s wife Sher, who helps “behind the scenes”; sons Trevor and Taylor, owners and co-vice presidents; daughter Ashlyn, owner and women’s creative director; and daughter Lindsay, who helps with design.
As told by Aaron Pai.
On Transitioning Ownership: “My kids Trevor, Taylor, Ashlyn, and Lindsay started coming to work with me when they were groms. HSS and surfing has always been part of their lives, so it was a very organic process. When you love what you do, it’s not really work. So, they all started very young in the business.
“Simply put, each of them have been working at HSS for over 30 years.”
Long-Term Outlook on Business, Leadership: “I try to focus on the present and enjoy the time we have working and surfing with my family right now. Life is so short, and a lot of things are out of our control when it comes to planning. I want my kids to be happy in whatever they choose to do.
“Trevor and Taylor have taken the helm and are leading and running the business in 2023 and the future. They are faster, lighter, smarter, and they sharpen me every day in the workplace and out in the water. I love teaching them what I have learned over the past four decades and even more so, I love learning from them. We complement each other by blending the old and the new.
“My daughters Ashlyn and Lindsay and wife Sher add the sweet buttery love to the business and help round the edges.”
Lessons Learned: “I have learned so much from working with my kids. It’s difficult to pick just one thing. I would say one of the biggest things I have learned from them is to be open to change and flexible to adapt. Also, to be yourself and live your best life.”
Challenges/Opportunities Working with Family: “The upsides outweigh the challenges hands down. To get to spend time with my family every day at HSS and out in the water is a real gift and a true blessing. I couldn’t imagine doing this without them.
“We make decisions together about the business and that can sometimes be a challenge as we all have different views and opinions. We have so much love and respect for each other and a like-minded vision of running the business.
“The real beauty of that is the end result is well rounded and a piece of each of us. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Advice on Bringing the Kids into the Business: “Do it. Love them hard and hold them close. Life is precious. Spend it with those you love and those who have your back.
“Simply put, I love working with my sons Trevor, Taylor, my daughter Ashlyn, and the entire Pai family.”
Locations: Valley Village, Woodland Hills, Thousand Oaks, and Valencia in California.
The Family: Founders Bill Richards, along with sons Mark, Kurt, and Eric; Mark’s sons Brandon Richards, president, and Blake Richards, vice president; and Kurt’s daughter Denise Richards, secretary/treasurer.
As told by Mark Richards.
Next Generation: “Brandon, Blake and Denise, who’s my brother Kurt’s daughter, began working at Val Surf in their teens with limited time during their college years. For some time now they have been the president, vice president, and secretary/treasurer, respectively.
“In addition to the responsibilities that go along with those roles, they are also all very active with hands on in many other areas as well such as buying, scheduling, marketing, sales, HR, et cetera.”
Lessons Learned: “There’s a lot that they have contributed from their youthful vantage point about how they see and deal with the goings on of our business. This includes how to relate, respond, and adjust to the current climate of the surf/skate/snow industry and, most importantly, to the constantly transitioning and changing character and interests of the customer base and employees.
“Having a handle on that is paramount as this feeds into our system by way of so many social media channels, plus the interacting and navigating through.”
Challenges/Opportunities Working with Family: “It could go without saying that being a family business from the very inception back in 1962, we have been constantly hearing about how great the upsides must be. Well, yes, in large part that is true.
“However, we would be naive to say that always means a smooth, profitable, and successful running business. We do have differences of opinions that surface on occasion and need to be addressed as in any business, whether led by family or a mix of employees from within.”
On Bringing the Kids into the Business: “I believe, as in my case with my boys, that it is essential that the drive is more than just their interests and being active participants in the surf/skate/snow lifestyle, although that is most important as well. This was the driving force that brought out the concept of opening the first surf/skate inland shop back in the day with our family having little or no business background at the time.
“But of course, this is still a retail business, first and foremost. That will continue to present constant challenges and outside elements to tackle and resolve.”
Kari Hamanaka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: For more on succession planning at surf shops, see our story “Succession Planning the Surf Shop Way.”