Rusty Preisendorfer Knows It’s All About Youth

Rusty Preisendorfer is a busy man. One of the most sought-after and knowledgeable shapers in the world, his namesake apparel brand has been a mainstay in the surf industry for almost a dozen years.

Preisendorfer’s schedule is particularly full these days. With the departure of International Brand Manager and frontman Peter Townend, and with the departure of National Sales Manager Jerry Lund and several designers, the brand is at a crossroads.

Some industry observers say the Rusty brand is looking to solidify its appeal with young surfers who these days have more brand choices than ever. Others expect Preisendorfer to take a larger role as spokesman and clear leader of the brand.

To find out what’s really going on, TransWorld SURF Business e-mailed Preisendorfer a long list of questions as he was preparing for a two-week-long trip to the Mentawai Islands.

Had there been time, we would’ve loved to ask a few follow-up questions — especially when it comes to whether Preisendorfer’s role in the brand is changing, his estimate of the number of boards shaped, the synergies between the hard- and softgoods business, and especially his view that surfing competitions have to change.

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TransWorld SURF Business: When did you start shaping, and what do you consider your “big break”?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I started when I was in eleventh grade at La Jolla High. It was 1969. I did a few boards with some friends during high school. One of my friends who lived at the La Jolla Shores had a chicken coop and a shed in his backyard. We evicted the birds and turned it into a surfboard factory! I really got going in 1971, during my first year at UCSD.

There have been a lot of people along the way who have helped me out one way or another, but I would have to say that having Occy go Richter on the first board I made him in the fall of ’83 is what set the stage.

TransWorld SURF Business: How many hours a week are you shaping boards, and how do you balance your time between the shaping bay and the rest of the business?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I still spend a few hours during the week shaping. It varies. I love to go in on the weekend and shape. I’m there quite a bit, actually. It’s quiet and I can focus without any interruptions. The nice thing about doing something you love is that it never seems like work. Whether I’m surfing, shaping, or “running the business,” it all ties together, and the important thing is to keep it balanced.

TransWorld SURF Business: What is your role in the day-to-day running of the Rusty apparel brand?

Rusty Preisendorfer: There are so many facets to the business — marketing, product design, sales, production, surfboards, and so much more. I listen to all of the people who work with me. Most of the time I look to them for fresh ideas and let them make decisions because they’re there for a reason: they love the lifestyle, they live it, and I believe in them.

TransWorld SURF Business: For the past several years, Peter Townend has been the front man for the Rusty brand — visible at trade shows, outspoken, and often taking a leadership role within the industry. Now that he has left the company, how has your role changed and what will you be doing differently?

Rusty Preisendorfer: Yes, PT has left. He’s a journalist at heart, and we wish him all the best. We are still very close friends.

We’re assembling a very young and a very strong team in marketing that will lead us into the future. I’m very excited about our plans for the upcoming year.

TransWorld SURF Business: A recent Orange County Register article said your apparel sales were flat and compared you to Op. Was this a fair characterization? Why or why not?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I don’t know why the article was even written. Why bother to interview somebody when you are going to write what you want to in order to “create a story.” There were misquotes and lines crossed that shouldn’t even have been issues.

The comparison to any branis off-base. We have a very strong business, our distribution is clean, and we have healthy partnerships with our accounts, who are almost exclusively small lifestyle stores. Our juniors program is going off. Our surfboard program is stronger than ever. Our rep force is young and lives the lifestyle. We have one of the youngest and best — if not the best — surf teams. We’ve got some great skaters. We have solid roots in hardgoods, and we still make a damn good surfboard. The people designing our products are young and live the lifestyle. Our marketing department is young and eats, sleeps, and breathes the lifestyle. Do I need to keep going?

TransWorld SURF Business: Who is the typical Rusty customer? How has that customer changed since the brand started?

Rusty Preisendorfer: Our customer is young and actively involved in not just surf, but skating, snowboarding, wakeboarding, motocross, BMX, and more. We also all have a common thread — music. Everyone has different tastes, but like the activities kids participate in these days, they are more eclectic than ever.

It’s all about being a kid, friendly competition, and having a good time. Innovation comes from that competitive mindset. Not formal competition, but an “anything you can do, I can do better” attitude. In the end it’s all good because they’ve taken whatever it is they love to do to new heights and extremes.

Today’s youth is so much more multidimensional than past generations. There’s the opportunity to do so much more these days. In the past it was divisional, and now it’s all cross-training. A good move is a good move, and they all respect that.

TransWorld SURF Business: What drives your customers to buy a Rusty product instead of one from another brand?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I believe it is a two-part equation. You can’t really separate marketing from product. The two have to be in synch. Marketing, word of mouth, and reputation drives the customer to the store. Once that customer is there, the product has to stand up.

TransWorld SURF Business: How has the pro surfer/shaper relationship changed in the last twenty years?

Rusty Preisendorfer: The importance of a good relationship hasn’t changed. In fact, in some ways it’s more critical than it has ever been, because for a pro there is so much more at stake these days.

On the other hand, the pressure they feel can cause them to be overanxious about their equipment — sometimes boards are never given a fair chance, and surfers miss the opportunity to discover new lines.

TransWorld SURF Business: Some knowledgeable folks in the industry estimate that 1,000,000 surfboards are shaped each year. What’s your estimate, and is this number significantly up, down, or flat?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I’m not really sure about the industry total. We’re busier than we have ever been.

TransWorld SURF Business: Obviously, the synergies between Rusty’s surfboard manufacturing business and apparel business are significant — especially when it comes to marketing the brand. How do you build these synergies, and have you maximized them yet?

Rusty Preisendorfer: I think the two complement each other. Innovation comes from using new technology to enhance function and utility. Boards are always changing — as is fashion. Ultimately, whether it’s a board or a clothing item, it has to look good, feel good, and hold up.

TransWorld SURF Business: The Anything But Three contest received a lot of coverage and placed you at the forefront of a select group of shapers driving change in surfboard design. Why do you think this change is necessary, and what types of changes will we see in the future?

Rusty Preisendorfer: The future is about diversity. There will be increasingly more options for people to choose from. What lines will I draw today? Where do I want my surfing to be a year from now? More and more, the equipment will evolve into mind machines where the only limits come from within.

The best surfers open our minds to what is possible. The challenge is to build equipment for the rest of the people out there so they can maximize their surfing experience.

TransWorld SURF Business: Did it surprise you that many of the competitors in the Anything But Three contest were surfing on slightly modified thrusters?

Rusty Preisendorfer: The outcome of the Anything But Three was a disappointment. I tried to provide a venue for change: new equipment, a progressive judging format, a way to reward shapers and surfers for taking risks and being creative. In the end, though, too many people focused on the money and lost sight of the spirit of the event.

TransWorld SURF Business: Overall, what percentage of Rusty boards use stock dimensions, and how many use dimensions supplied by a surf shop or surfer? What are the key trends you’ve seen in terms of length, width, thickness, rocker, tail configuration, materials, etc.?

Rusty Preisendorfer: It really depends on the type and amount of inventory a store wants to commit to. Our team represents a solid blend of competitive surfing and freesurfing, so we really get a wide range of feedback.

Needs tend to be regional and also tempered by the customer a particular store targets. We build an incredibly diverse range of boards.

The trend that I find really exciting is filling the huge void between shortboards and longboards. The expanding acceptance of hybrid designs is opening doors for so many people who may not have had much success with the homogenized surfboard market of five or ten years ago.

TransWorld SURF Business: The surf industry has been wrestling with what do with e-commerce quite a bit lately. What’s your take on the matter?

Rusty Preisendorfer: That’s easy. We have a special relationship with the stores that our friends work in and own. We’ve built our businesses together, and that’s the way it should continue.

TransWorld SURF Business: Should surfing as a sport/lifestyle be more visible to mainstream Americans? Why or why not? If yes, what needs to be done differently?

Rusty Preisendorfer: Yes. Competition has to change.

TransWorld SURF Business: How do you see the overall Rusty brand growing into the future, and where would you like to see the brand in ten years?

Rusty Preisendorfer: We have no plans to go public or start opening our own stores. We don’t want to be everything to everybody. We have a lifestyle we love and want to continue to share it with our friends.

TransWorld SURF Business: Envious minds want to know — how did you score the key to Black’s?

Rusty Preisendorfer: What key? I don’t have a key. The gate just always seems to be open when I pull up.minds to what is possible. The challenge is to build equipment for the rest of the people out there so they can maximize their surfing experience.

TransWorld SURF Business: Did it surprise you that many of the competitors in the Anything But Three contest were surfing on slightly modified thrusters?

Rusty Preisendorfer: The outcome of the Anything But Three was a disappointment. I tried to provide a venue for change: new equipment, a progressive judging format, a way to reward shapers and surfers for taking risks and being creative. In the end, though, too many people focused on the money and lost sight of the spirit of the event.

TransWorld SURF Business: Overall, what percentage of Rusty boards use stock dimensions, and how many use dimensions supplied by a surf shop or surfer? What are the key trends you’ve seen in terms of length, width, thickness, rocker, tail configuration, materials, etc.?

Rusty Preisendorfer: It really depends on the type and amount of inventory a store wants to commit to. Our team represents a solid blend of competitive surfing and freesurfing, so we really get a wide range of feedback.

Needs tend to be regional and also tempered by the customer a particular store targets. We build an incredibly diverse range of boards.

The trend that I find really exciting is filling the huge void between shortboards and longboards. The expanding acceptance of hybrid designs is opening doors for so many people who may not have had much success with the homogenized surfboard market of five or ten years ago.

TransWorld SURF Business: The surf industry has been wrestling with what do with e-commerce quite a bit lately. What’s your take on the matter?

Rusty Preisendorfer: That’s easy. We have a special relationship with the stores that our friends work in and own. We’ve built our businesses together, and that’s the way it should continue.

TransWorld SURF Business: Should surfing as a sport/lifestyle be more visible to mainstream Americans? Why or why not? If yes, what needs to be done differently?

Rusty Preisendorfer: Yes. Competition has to change.

TransWorld SURF Business: How do you see the overall Rusty brand growing into the future, and where would you like to see the brand in ten years?

Rusty Preisendorfer: We have no plans to go public or start opening our own stores. We don’t want to be everything to everybody. We have a lifestyle we love and want to continue to share it with our friends.

TransWorld SURF Business: Envious minds want to know — how did you score the key to Black’s?

Rusty Preisendorfer: What key? I don’t have a key. The gate just always seems to be open when I pull up.