T&C Profile: Finding The Balance

Ask surfers what the yin-yang symbol represents and a lot of them will say Town and Country. While that say doesn’t much about the level of enlightenment among surfers, it’s a testament to the strength of the brand that Craig Sugihara, a young shaper from O’ahu’s West Side, created nearly thirty years ago.

[IMAGE 2]It’s still to be seen whether Town and Country Surfboards has achieved its ultimate balance, but the brand has certainly proven that it’s a mainstay in the industry. Guided by the soft-spoken Sugihara and his wife Linda, T&C rolled through the surf industry’s rough waters of the early 1990s, and emerged a multifaceted brand with eight international licensees.

While surfboards continue to be the focal point for the brand — the company’s surfboard factory pumps out 30 boards a day — Town and Country is one of Hawai’i's top-three surfwear retailers with eight stores on O’ahu. In addition, its California-based wholesale division continues to grow, adding more accounts every year.

TransWorld SURF Business caught up with T&C Licensed Division Manager Adam Borrello in between rounds at Pipe Masters for a tour of the company’s surfboard factory near Ewa Beach, and also found out what’s in store for the brand during its thirtieth anniversary.

TransWorld SURF Business: When you guys first got going, Larry Bertleman and Dane Kealoha pretty much put the brand on the map. Is that the same strategy now — to use surfers to promote the brand?

Borrello: Town and Country has always been rooted in Hawai’i, and the flavor of our team moving forward will reflect that. Craig really values the young, local surfers and has a lot of confidence in their abilities. If you look right now at what’s going on in surfing, there’s a real strong showing by the Hawai’ians — especially the youth. And with Sunny doing what he did this year there’s a chance for a resurgence based of that because these kids really feed off each other. Like that whole Ewa Beach crew — Joel Centeio, Kekola Bacalso, and Dustin Cuizon. These guys grew up surfing that Ewa slop together and they kill it. None of them would be as good as they are without surfing with one another.

TransWorld Surf Business: How loyal are the Hawai’ian surfers to local brands?

Borrello: One thing that really happy for is we just closed a deal with Fred Patacchia. We think Fred has a lot of potential, and we’re happy to see that he really does value that Hawaiian connection. He’s excited to be connected with a board manufacturer that’s Hawaiian-based.

We’ve got a state-of-the-art shaping facility and we’ve got a good stable of excellent shapers who shape boards to be used in everything from little high-performance waves to big waves. That’s cool for the surfer — to be able to feel like they’re going to work for a company that has a multi-faceted ability to provide them with solid boards.

TransWorld Surf Business: Town and Country does retail, licensing, board manufacturing, and wholesale. Which one’s the priority?[IMAGE 1]Borrello: That’s a difficult question. But I think the root of our company truly is surfboards — that’s where Craig started out. He has a high value for that. We believe it drives the other parts of our company. It’s really important for us at retail to have our boards in the store because it keeps us kind of core as a surf company. We encourage the same out of all our licensees.

We license board production, not only domestically but worldwide. We ship boards to California, so you could buy a Cino Magallenes at somewhere like Jack’s, but then we also license our boards with Mike Estrada. He services some of California — his boards are more dialed into the California conditions. We do the same on the East Coast.

TransWorld Surf Business: Where are your licensees located?

Borrello: We have clothing licensees in Peru, France — and France has all of Europe — Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia. And then we have a watch linsee in Japan.

TransWorld Surf Business: Anything in South Africa?

Borrello: We do have South Africa as well, but we’re kind of in a transition period there. We have a licensee there, but he’s operating more as a distributor. He’s getting goods from other licensees and then selling rather than producing.

For most of our other markets we provide design out of our wholesale operation in California. The licensees use the design that they think crosses over to their market well, and then they’ll modify their offering with their own designs.

TransWorld Surf Business: Which market is most volatile?

Borrello: The Japan market is a finicky one. If you give them what they want, they’ll buy the hell out of it. But if you try to convince them it’s cool and somehow it’s just not meshing with them, they’ll go with somebody else.

For example, their shorts last summer had this buckle on them with an adjustable nylon band that runs through it. I’m pretty damn sure no one would buy that here, but if you didn’t sell that style they wouldn’t buy your shorts.

But that might just be the thing for a year, and if you try to go by that next spring you might be hell out of luck. They only have two seasons — spring/summer and fall/holiday — and if you miss the boat, if you offer the wrong goods to the market, you’re just not going to sell stuff.

But the good thing about Japan is that it’s a lucrative market. Even though the Yen isn’t what it used to be exchange-rate wise, they still have crazy differences in cost. A T-shirt over there goes for 49 bucks.

TransWorld Surf Business: Are they brand driven?

Borrello: Image is very important to them. If you give them something different and you’re perceived as the very coolest thing at the time, they’ll go with it. If the image is right, then that’s fine. But if you want to continue in the market you have to be consistent, preserve that image, and do your best to be as dialed as possible with the goods you’re providing for the marketplace. Because otherwise — especially as a wholesaler — if you give them stuff that they extend their open-to-buy-dollars with and you bomb, they’re going to be real hesitant.

TransWorld Surf Business: Is Japan your second most important market, next to Hawaii?

Borrello: Japan is a very big market. It’s not only big in Japan, but our image in Japan helps to drive our retail in Hawai’i because we have a high number of Japanese tourists. So it’s kind of a precarious one because we do whatever we can to maximize our effectiveness in that market but we also try to keep people hungry to be buying stuff when they show up over here.

TransWorld Surf Business: What’s the market like over here?

Borrello: The market in Hawai’i is not as strong as it was. Again, it’s a little different depending on who you talk to. If you’re a retailer and you have a good relationship with the leading vendors, then maybe it’s not so bad a time at all because you can get good deals and there’s a lot of different labels out on the market — so that helps us in that section of the industry.

But if you’re also trying to wholesale, which we, Local Motion, and HIC to a limited amount are doing, it’s difficult because you’re going to find it hard for a surf shop to carry a line that they believe is already well represented in shops — for any one of us.

TransWorld Surf Business: Is it hard to penetrate the mainland market?

Borrello: Yeah. I think it’s a challenge for everyone who’s trying it. We’ve had limited successes, so we’re pressing forward with the plan to try to make it work.

TransWorld Surf Business: With the Volcoms and the Hurleys and some of the new brands, is the fact that T&C has been around for thirty years a positive?

Borrello: It’s a double-edged sword. Kids nowsadays — they want new stuff. We try to focus on providing newness in our product and a solid team. If we can provide a unique and quality product then that provides a newness to that youth market who wants newness all the time. Volcom and those guys are new on the block, but if they don’t provide newness they’re in no different position than all of us.

The benefit that we have is that Volcom has a harder time — at least in the here and now — to be as attractive to as broad a market that we could be attractive to. Because the reality is we all surf, we all enjoy surfing, but perhaps we’re not totally wanting the most punked out stuff. So if you’ve got a mixture of both new, cutting-edge product that brings those people to the brand and also have product that is attractive to people who identify with the Buttons or the Dane Kealohas, then that’s a plus. We’re doing our best to try to balance that. And that’s where I think it’s a benefit to us that we’ve been around for awhile — people identify with us from different sectors of the market. Whereas some other companies that are new and are really trying to position themselves as really edgy are not seen as an option, or they’re not that attractive to some different market sectors.

But that being said, I must confess that Craig highly values the youth market.

TransWorld Surf Business: What’s the HIC/Local Motion/T&C rivalry like?

Borrello: Local Motion’s gone through changes, HIC’s gone through changes, and I’m not saying that we haven’t gone through changes, but if there’s a steady influence it’s Craig and Linda, and they’ve been around the whole time. Local Motion’s changed hands, and HIC’s gone through some pretty dramatic changes over the years. To Craig and Linda’s credit they’ve found a way to make it work. Because when you have a multi-faceted company like what Town and Country is now with the wholesale, resale, board operation, licensees, and all that going at once, there are times when the interest of each entity become competing ones, almost even conflicting. Yet they’ve found a way to keep it going and keep it growing.outh market who wants newness all the time. Volcom and those guys are new on the block, but if they don’t provide newness they’re in no different position than all of us.

The benefit that we have is that Volcom has a harder time — at least in the here and now — to be as attractive to as broad a market that we could be attractive to. Because the reality is we all surf, we all enjoy surfing, but perhaps we’re not totally wanting the most punked out stuff. So if you’ve got a mixture of both new, cutting-edge product that brings those people to the brand and also have product that is attractive to people who identify with the Buttons or the Dane Kealohas, then that’s a plus. We’re doing our best to try to balance that. And that’s where I think it’s a benefit to us that we’ve been around for awhile — people identify with us from different sectors of the market. Whereas some other companies that are new and are really trying to position themselves as really edgy are not seen as an option, or they’re not that attractive to some different market sectors.

But that being said, I must confess that Craig highly values the youth market.

TransWorld Surf Business: What’s the HIC/Local Motion/T&C rivalry like?

Borrello: Local Motion’s gone through changes, HIC’s gone through changes, and I’m not saying that we haven’t gone through changes, but if there’s a steady influence it’s Craig and Linda, and they’ve been around the whole time. Local Motion’s changed hands, and HIC’s gone through some pretty dramatic changes over the years. To Craig and Linda’s credit they’ve found a way to make it work. Because when you have a multi-faceted company like what Town and Country is now with the wholesale, resale, board operation, licensees, and all that going at once, there are times when the interest of each entity become competing ones, almost even conflicting. Yet they’ve found a way to keep it going and keep it growing.