Shane Stedman Reflects on Fifty Years in the Shaping Game
Hanging up the phone after an hour with Shane Stedman is a little like slamming a cork in a bottle to capture some kind of rare essence. At 71, Stedman is celebrating fifty years in the surf business, a career that has taken him to every conceivable corner of the industry, and continues to entertain and energise him even now. In what started as an interview but turned into The World According to Shane, Jock Serong tried to pin down a few of the highlights.
Shane Stedman lives high on the headland at Mona Vale, in a rambling 1890s timber place that looks out over Bungan. He bought it for $32,000, he proudly recalls, “the end of the headland, down the dirt road. The bank wouldn’t even give me a value for it.” As expected, boards and imagery from Shane’s long, long history in surfing are everywhere. It’s the ultimate cubbyhouse for a kid who never grew up. A couple of photographers came out a while ago to shoot the place for a fashion website. “Nice girls,” Stedman recalls. “They couldn’t believe it.”
The house serves as a metaphor for the things Stedman has achieved in surfing: the ability to see potential in ideas that others are blind to, and the whimsical reflection after all the hard work has paid off, that things are pretty darn good. Stedman studied production engineering at uni for five years – “I didn’t even start living until I was about 22” – then started making surfboards under his own name in his mum’s garage in the early 60s.
The first Shane longboards were 9’2” and 9’4”, and by 1965, Stedman was taking ads in Surfing World, the imagery heavily influenced by his friend John Witzig. A stream of northern beaches legends passed through his doors: Dick van Straalen, Simon Anderson, Ted Spencer, Butch Cooney, Frank Latta, Terry Fitzgerald and Baddy Treloar all shaped or rode his boards over the years.
“Terry Fitz kept knocking six inches off all me boards until they were about four foot six and they didn’t work anymore,” he laughs. “Anyway, he introduced me to this kid from Narrabeen, Simon Anderson. He’s still one of my favourite friends. He never forgets anyone.”
By 1970, Stedman was doing a pop-out called “The Standard” at a rate of about 200 per week. He’s recently re-released the design. For many board makers, achieving mass production would’ve been enough. But Stedman’s mind was by then off on a woolly tangent: specifically the sheep’s hide boots he’d seen worn by shearers. Controversy still swirls around the origins of the Ugg Boot, but one thing’s for sure: Stedman was the first to successfully commercialise the concept. “Of course I didn’t invent Ugg Boots,” he says. “People develop these things. Nothing’s ever really invented by one person.” After making and selling the great Aussie couch slipper for ten years, he sold the rights to American company Deckers, in a deal worth US$10,000 and three free pairs per annum (one each for himself and his two children) for ten years. That was 1983, but the company is still sending him Uggs. They’re the height of fashion now, favoured by supermodels and actresses. It’s an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars, but Stedman remains thrilled with his deal: “I didn’t want to move to the US and work my arse off (developing new markets). I was happy in Sydney, surfing. It put my kids through private school.”
Controversy still swirls around the origins of the Ugg Boot, but one thing’s for sure: Stedman was the first to successfully commercialise the concept.
In the late 1980s, he started producing epoxy sailboards and boogie boards and the now-notorious Shane wave ski. “Epoxy resins were different back then – you couldn’t sand them. I’ve never liked the stuff, and never rode those boards but we sold heaps.”
These days, Stedman’s doing a full range of computer-aided shortboards, longboards and SUPs, working in the Vampirate factory in Mona Vale, five minutes from home. “It’s a great scene in there,” he says. “They get the beers going, the rock n’ roll… it’s like the sixties!”
Stedman’s progressive approach to business is coupled with production methods that are a blend of the old and the new. About 500 Shane surfboards are sold each year in NSW, Queensland and WA. As well as a team of human shapers which includes Mark Gnech, he employs DAT and CET programs to design and shape boards. “They’re already 95 percent finished by then,” he explains. “We’ve eliminated the inaccuracies of excessive hand-shaping and allowed shapers to spend all their time on the finest of fine-tuning. I still do heaps of it myself because I love it. I like to get the hands dirty, come home smelling of resin.”
“I still do heaps of it (shaping) myself because I love it. I like to get the hands dirty, come home smelling of resin.”
Stedman believes that the northern beaches shaping scene still has the energy that made it the epicentre of board manufacture in Australia. “It’s moved a little,” he concedes, “but Brookvale is very busy. There’s quite a few manufacturers in Mona Vale too. You learn a lot by talking to people, especially young people – I learn a lot from their energy, more so than talking to people my age.”
The most recent embodiment of all that energy is the Australian-made Vertra Sunscreen range. Stedman’s association with the brand began when Luke’s former father-in-law was looking for an Australian launch of the product he’d invested in – and after extensive product development, Stedman has had Vertra in the Australian market for three years now. Talking about this success, the salesman mode kicks in very swiftly; “Mick Fanning endorses the product because he loves it. We’ve got Ritchie Lovett as our main tester, and we sponsor Surfing NSW.”
Stedman’s idea of ‘slowing down’ is chatting on facetime with his five-year-old grandson Spike in Hawaii, but he never thinks of retirement. “Why would I give up what I love so much?” he asks. “I like the cut and thrust of business. When we started Vertra, people asked me – what do you know about sunscreen? Well, when I started making surfboards you could’ve said the same thing. And no, I haven’t worried too much about a succession plan. I’ve got at least twenty years to develop that.”
How does he see himself in the history of Australia’s surf industry? “I’m just one of many,” he says. “I don’t have a sense of my place in it all.” Throughout our conversation, Stedman has spruiked his business but never himself. He likes to paddle across to Warriewood and enjoy the feeling of being out on open ocean: “You think to yourself, Christ, if I have a heart attack out here I’m stuffed. But it’s a beautiful place to be.”