According to the author Jock Serong, in an interview with Bainy it’s impossible not to be struck by his humility, his matter-of-factness about the extraordinary life he’s lived. He seems as surprised as you are that things worked out so well.
From a factory job chopping timber, to shop grom and skateboard whiz to surfing world title contender, and on to global roles with a pioneering surf brand…Rob Bain has seen and done things most of us can only dream of.
It’s tempting to say he’s been lucky. Or outrageously talented. But that would be to overlook his most striking characteristic – a straightforward determination to get the best out of everything life throws at him. Because life has thrown Bainy some life-threatening, soul-destroying shockers. He gets up, he dusts himself off, and he starts again – as likeable as the Road Runner, yet as indestructible as the Coyote.
As life stories go, this one is more instructive for us in the surf industry than a thousand positive thinking podcasts. So it’s worth asking – just what makes Rob Bain tick?
The part of life you might call an ordinary Australian childhood, growing up just across from Manly Beach, was tragically brief for Rob Bain. His father died when he was thirteen, and in his own words he “went off the rails a bit” after that. “I was in the Coca Cola skateboard team with Cheyne Horan and travelling the country doing demos. It was the same time as Dogtown and the Z Boys. My dad was in hospital with cancer and there was nothing they could do for him. I also realised that the chaperone of our skate team (and teacher at our school) had a fancy for young boys. I figured something was not right with the guy, immediately quit the skate team, lost my dad to cancer and hit the streets. I think the thing that influenced my life from that point was maybe an inner anger that could’ve been both a help and hindrance in my case. It made me very competitive, but it also brought out a dangerous wild side and lack of trust.”
“I quit the skate team, lost my dad to cancer and hit the streets…it made me very competitive, but it also brought out a dangerous wild side and lack of trust.”
After leaving school early and a succession of unremarkable jobs, including one in a factory and some others in surf shops, Bain managed to turn the surfing obsession that had begun at age five into a slot on the Australian team for the 1884 world amateurs. In a fairly typical evolution for surfers in the early ’80s, he slept on couches through his evolution into pro ranks in 1985, clinging to financial survival through a solitary surf shop sponsor.
Things turned his way over successive years. He says he “survived the ’80s madness” (without being too specific about the nature of that madness), though his most celebrated feat of survival in that decade was the monster forty-foot closeout set at Waimea in 1986 that almost drowned him – legend has it that he passed out on the sand, then smoked his way through the shock.
By 1990 Bainy had risen to become a genuine world title contender. He blew it, he says – the first of several hard realities that were to descend on him in coming years. In 1994 he survived being trapped in a collapsed hut in the jungle during a tsunami in G-Land: underwater, in the dark, pinned by debris and tangled in a mosquito net. At thirty-two, he’d cheated death twice. He retired the following year at G-Land, ranked a creditable ninth in world. Taking stock at that point, he had a wife and two kids, a mortgage and an urgent need to find a living to support his family.
So it was that in rapid succession, Rob Bain opened the Manly Surf School, took a share in “the original airport store” Beach Culture, and even had a plan to open a backpackers in Fiji. For various reasons, none of those ventures came to fruition for him.
His first full-time role off-tour was as a “Hot Tuna sales guy” for NSW. The company didn’t want to pay him to surf anymore, but they had a sales position going in Sydney. “I vividly remember sitting in my car in peak hour traffic,” he recalls, “making my way to an inner-city office, watching Qantas flights going overhead and thinking ‘what the hell have I done?’ Around that time I was selling to a small store retailer and he stopped me mid-sales pitch and said ‘Mate, how does it feel? A month ago you were one of the top surfers in the world, and now you’re here making me coffees and trying to sell me this shit.’
“I didn’t know what to do, but I knew this was the beginning of my new journey. Hot Tuna was a very fashion-forward brand in a conservative surf market. The owner, Richard (Meldrum), wasn’t afraid to tell the biggest buyer in Australia to get stuffed if he thought he was getting the rough end of a deal. He’d send me in to see the biggest account in Australia, with an accessory range with no prices, no colours, no delivery dates, to simply see what they thought.” None of this was easy for a recently-retired athlete, but Bain concedes it did teach him to sell. It turns out competitive instinct has a place in sales, too.
“I don’t think I’ve necessarily been the best at certain things,” he reflects, “but I’ve always had an inner burning to win. I did a few sports well when I was young, but surfing took me out of a bad situation and put me in what was the best job in the world for eleven years or so. I walked out of that factory job with a view to do whatever it took to not return. If that meant beating people in a surfing competition, then so be it. I think the one thing it taught me was that if you get knocked down, you get back up, dust off and have another crack. I’m not sure that pro surfing really opened any doors, but it may at least have let me be heard once or twice.”
“I walked out of that factory job with a view to do whatever it took to not return. If that meant beating people in a surfing competition, then so be it.”
From Hot Tuna, Rob moved on to a NSW sales manager role for Morrison Media, then a GM role at Peak Wetsuits. “We had a very small team,” he recalls, “and we were under the tutelage of Rip Curl. I was the GM – green as anything and trying to learn what I could. One thing I did learn was that you need to make people want to work for you, or with you. No matter the situation, if you can make someone feel better about themselves and empower them in some way, it helps in any situation. When it all boils down, we all just want to feel a little better. We all spend a lot of time at work, so it’s crucial to have a good culture and show that you always have people’s back and that you can get your hands dirty.”
Rob had always been intrigued by the culture at Californian wetsuit pioneers O’Neill. “What I admire most about O’Neill is Jack and the wetsuit. The fact that he pioneered this industry, opened the first surf shop, invented the first wetsuit and did it all in his own maverick way – it’s just epic, really.” He tried to join the company in the late ’80s, but they knocked him back because he was “too unprofessional and a bit of a party guy.” It wasn’t until many years later that they reconsidered their assessment of him and offered him employment in 2000. “I took on the role of national sales manager,” he says. “Didn’t do any due diligence and walked right into a horror show. Closed accounts across the country, excess stock in the millions and a product line all over the place.”
O’Neill had remained “solid across performance products like wetsuits,” he figured, “but for a time it had lost its way a little when it came to surf fashion apparel. When you consider the challenges of competing against the biggest three surf brands, having a similar product portfolio can force you to do many things, but it can also lead you to develop product that is not in keeping with the brand. We had to get back to basics and reform what was essentially a core brand, back to having the retailers trust us. I hit the road for years and we worked our arses off to improve things.”
It’s the stint that’s often seen as defining Bain’s post-pro career, but fourteen years in, a global GM (whom Bainy archly points out was a non-surfer) made him redundant. In corporate terms such sackings might look ballsy, “disruptive” even. But in human terms, a widely-loved surf industry icon had been thrown on the streets.
“We’ve seen it all too often,” he says of that time. “A new CEO comes in and cuts a swathe of destruction through an organisation to disrupt and bring change. I was part of a culling, and it was a pretty traumatic experience. It was hard not to take it personally. I was always considered a lifer at O’Neill, and I thought I was doing a good job in my region and globally, so it came as a shock to me to be let go so matter-of-factly. Many blokes define themselves with their roles and their work and I was no different. Part of my role was to keep the brand aligned to surf at all times, and this ended being the very thing that put me offside with the CEO at the time. Rather than embrace an expert in the field, because he didn’t understand it, he chose to push it away.” Bain continues to make a clear distinction between that incident and the deeper history of the company. “O’Neill is, and will always be, a very solid surf company,” he insists. “The original surf brand. It has to ensure that it has saltwater in its veins at all times.”
After the redundancy, Bainy started again, casting back to friendships from a brief earlier stint at Morrison Media. But before we delve into that phase, there’s another classic piece of Bain survivalism that needs covering: the head injury. Here’s how Bain described the incident to Surfing World magazine a couple of years ago:
“It was October 2009 at North Avalon, my local. I was surfing with my son Billy, who was about seventeen at the time. It was four foot, really good conditions. I caught one from way inside and did a really long floater and landed in the flats. The wave sectioned so I dived in, head-first with no hands up – straight into a boulder. I felt everything explode down my spine like a bomb went off. I reached up to my head, as you do when you think you’ve cut yourself, and my hand went inside my head. I’d scalped myself from the back of my right ear all the way over the top of my head. I’d peeled it like an apple. Hours later, the scans showed I’d fractured the C7 vertebra in my neck, and the T2, 4, 5 and 7 vertebrae in my thoracic spine, as well as snapping my first rib.
“I spent three months in a body brace. At one stage my wife came into the hospital and I was on a walking frame in the corridor with this gigantic swollen head and I smiled and she kinda smiled back politely, and I realised that she hadn’t recognised me. We laughed our heads off over that later.”
Bain was out of the water for nearly six months, graduating from “just a dip” to a stand-up paddleboard, then a mal, and finally a shortboard.
“I was shit-scared lying on that beach,” he says. “I was scared of having a brain bleed – I knew how hard I’d hit that rock. But there was only a small amount of time that I was really low. I’ve never been helpless, and I’ve always fought my way out of situations. I don’t know if this is this an aspect of my competitiveness, but when I was trapped under that hut (in ’94), I felt that competitiveness to fight my way out: whatever it takes. With this accident and injury, it wasn’t like that. It was about going with it. There was nothing I could do.
“I’ve never been helpless, and I’ve always fought my way out of situations. I don’t know if this is this an aspect of my competitiveness, but when I was trapped under that hut (in ’94), I felt that competitiveness to fight my way out.”
“The one thing I learnt from the accident is that it’s the small things that matter. Love, family, surfing, walking the dog, enjoying work even. I don’t think it was until (the accident) that I came to realise how precious just being around is. When you think you’re gonna cark it, it has an effect on you. And being laid out in a body brace for a while gave me some time to take stock of my hectic life and the need to re-group. I know also that I’m on borrowed time and every surf is a good surf: it’s my happy place, where I’m totally in that moment. I love it more now than ever and want to keep doing it.”
Fast-forward to 2014 and that O’Neill retrenchment. Turning a dark charter into an opportunity, Bain formed a partnership to buy Morrison Media’s surfing stable with Craig Sims and Gra Murdoch. Before this, “I’d been unemployed for some months,” he recalls. “I started to stress about money. I got a call from Craig Sims (Morrison Media’s publisher) offering me a job back selling ads, after twenty years! I’d recently been interviewed by a recruiting firm: ‘So Rob, tell me about yourself…’ I was dressed in a suit, thinking ‘What the fuck is going on here?’
“I didn’t want to be working in some office out west, but the surf industry’s well-known to think you’re dead if you’re over fifty. I knew Simsy from competing against him in Africa in the 80’s and knew he was a straight-up guy. So I started selling ads for him, started hitting budgets and working closely with Surfing Life and in particular White Horses. Call us old school if you like, but there is a beauty in print – you can escape into the pages and there’s a real sense of occasion. Digital has its place but it’s a noisy environment and polluted with anyone remotely considering themselves credible or wanting to be heard. We wanted to develop two titles that stood for something real and were based on the real values of surfing and a deep love of the ocean.
“But Morrison Media was bought by another business, who really only wanted the Frankie brand and we could see that our time was numbered under their ownership. We valued the titles, had grown them and were experiencing support. So we decided to buy them and start our own small publishing/media business. And so, three goofyfooters went at it on our own. I’m part-owner of both titles, but my involvement is negligible (for reasons which will become clear below). We know there’s a place for print, but only if it can do something that is not easily replicated by digital. We’re building something that’s timeless, reputable and of high quality.”
“We know there’s a place for print, but only if it can do something that is not easily replicated by digital. We’re building something that’s timeless, reputable and of high quality.”
If this looks like an outbreak of middle-aged calm and order in the helter-skelter life of Rob Bain, don’t be deluded. Because just when things had settled down, he took a call from O’Neill’s Australian GM Justin Daniels – would he come back?
“We spoke about his goals with O’Neill,” Bainy recalls, “what he envisioned needed to happen, and I knew that he was on the right path. He spoke a language I could relate to, was realistic in his aspirations. He’s a family man, a full surf frother and a solid bloke.” Bain agreed to let bygones be bygones, and returned to O’Neill.
“It feels good,” he says now. “I know young crew who work there, I know and love the brand and I was honoured in a way that they asked me to return. The role is a few notches down in career status from where I was sailing before, but it’s fun and a challenging environment with good people, so I welcome the opportunity.” As with everything these days, Bainy is philosophical about his prospects. “If it lasts for a long time, great. If it doesn’t, I go surfing more.”
“The culture is real good internally, which is super-important. Plenty of surfers and we’re now very clear on who we are and why we exist. We’ve developed a brand USP we believe in, across all our pillars and products. We’re comfortable in who we are and where we’re going. It’s better to grow slowly and strongly than to rise fast and fall faster.
“My role is vastly different in the sense that I’m not working globally at present and my role focuses on the ONSP brand marketing. Previously I was travelling a lot and working with many different distributors, licensees, cultures and businesses. It feels like a return to the past in a way, as I’m now thinking closely about local accounts, the local market and what it takes to transition aspects of the brand in the right areas. There’s no place like home, and it gives me the opportunity to surf more.”
One comparison Bain can now make is between the culture at O’Neill in America and the one here in Australia.
“There’s market differences from the US to Australia, but in general terms we’re a lot closer in surf than, say, Europe. We work closely with the US in many forms and have a very solid relationship built over a long time. If we take trends out of the picture and talk about the attention to detail in the way the wetsuit guys work on their product, then there are lessons for us all, for sure. We have often pushed the US to move on certain things, but they will never do anything if it is to be at the sacrifice of the performance of the product. That I respect. I also love the way that their business is driven by the tides, winds and swell of Santa Cruz.”
“We (O’Neill) have often pushed the US to move on certain things, but they will never do anything if it is to be at the sacrifice of the performance of the product. That I respect.”
Rob recently launched an Insta account with the arresting handle ‘@bigbadbobbain’. He laughs at the mention of it: “My kids gave me the name when they said I should join up. I actually really enjoy it, as it gives me the chance to take the piss out of myself and also tell stories and reconnect with a bunch of people I’d normally not see or hear from.” Perhaps it’s a sign of a more relaxed approach from one of the firebrands of our culture.
When asked what deeper insights he’s drawn from the remarkable highs and lows of his surfing life, he offers “Just enjoy it for what it is. We all have certain strengths, so play hard towards those. Learn what you can and listen.
“Surround yourself with people who make you feel good and return the same as much as possible.”
And lastly, on the old work/life balance, “It’s easy to go the wrong way, so keep it in check. Work to live, don’t live to work. And remember, the best surfer in the line-up is the one having the most fun!”
PHOTOS: ALEX BRUNTON AND ROB BAIN ARCHIVE