This week ABC’s ‘Back Roads’ featured Robe in South Australia and interview with founder Steve Woolston and current store owner/manager son Sam (see video link above). We thought it was a good time to revisit our feature and cover from issue#15 (2007) with Steve’s Place. What inspires us about Steve’s place is Sam’s passion for the family business, having grown up on the shop floor, Sam can still be found at the store each day, just like his old man did. What we remember most about the story was the old pub til where 2 schooners equals one wetsuit. Sure things have changed, but somethings like passion, dedication and customer focus still reman the same. There’s plenty still relevant here, especially our advice for succession planning. So kick back, grab a quiet corner of the store and enjoy….
Plenty of things ebb and flow in Robe, but for the past 50 summers one business has outwitted, outplayed and outlasted the rest. Since December 1965, Steve’s Place (formerly known as Geoff’s Surf Shop) has been the sole survivor in this outpost town located on the edge of the Coorong National Park, a unique coastal water-way, steeped in Koori significance and surrounded by prime grazing land, renowned tessa rossa soil, rugged cliffs and abundant bird and marine-life. Robe is situated 340 kms south-east of Adelaide, 580 kms north-west of Melbourne and home to approximately 1500 permanent residents. The town’s population soars up to 15,000 in summer with the influx of tourists. Steve’s Place is a full tank of petrol to the next surf shop and for the last 50 years, if you wanted to buy wax or any kinda surf products, it is, figuratively speaking, a one-horse town.
After four decades in the saddle, Steve Woolston is handing over the reigns and heading off into the sunset. ASB caught up with Steve, still working the shop floor almost 50 years since surfing tightened its grip on this former rodeo rider.
Thanks. I’ve been meaning to read that article on Skipp (Skipp Surfboards by Derek Hynd ASB Issue 14), about him being in business for over forty years also. We used to sell his boards in the shop and he had a relo living down here that surfed really well. It’s my final year in the store and everyone has been great. Rip Curl sent me an empty line-up shot of Bells, Quiksilver sent me a 40-year specially made thing, plus I got nice letters from Ocean & Earth and Balin amongst others. The local paper gave us a bit of a write up. All this stuff.
So it’s time to hang up the reign’s, ey?
Yeah, I actually used to be a rodeo rider. I rode a few until I got brains; I got knocked out a few too many times, I think. I used to do a bit of bull dogging and steer wrestling and bare back stuff. But not saddle bronco’s, they’re too dangerous. I used to be a shearer, just shear a shed, go surfing, shear a shed and go surfing. The store would open from November until Easter, and then I’d go back to shearing.
So how does a rodeo rider end up being a successful surf retailer?
We’re a bit remote down here. We offer good service, lots of variety, good prices but I think it’s the fact that my son Sam and I surf, so (we) were on the money. We know everyone and we go out of our way to help people, nothing is too much trouble. It’s just a grass roots thing. We haven’t messed with the formula, the look. We haven’t gone all flashy with chrome and mirrors. I guess the message is don’t ever change it, we’ve got surfing memorabilia coming out of our ears.
Speaking of memorabilia, your cash register could use an update.
[Laughs] I bought that for $25 bucks! It’s an old pub till, it hasn’t even got the right money on it, it’s got pub money, schooner money. There’s millions of dollars gone through that till. But I’m still here so I guess I’m not a millionaire! It doesn’t tell any stories, print reports and that sort of stuff, but we run with the EFTPOS for (credit) cards and things. We thought when all the fuss came through with the GST (that) they’d make us go electronic. But they can’t, we keep our own good records.
Are you on email?
I think Sam’s got something dot com. But I don’t even know how to turn the thing on. I think it’s a Dell computer.
Did you ever hit on hard times financially?
A few years back the surf industry in SA was really on the downturn, we had a few bad summers, but the word was the only person who made any money that summer was old Steve down in Robe.
I heard you have customers from interstate buying at your store. Is diversity the key?
We have a mail order going for interstate – people buy from us from all over, as far away as Western Australia. The tourist thing is OK, but our main business is repeat, word-of-mouth plus regulars and locals. Some people drive from Adelaide for a weekend to do their Christmas shopping, they save enough to cover the trip. We’ve got the variety here and we even close the shop on request so they can shop in peace.
Being in town for over 40 years would have certain advantages in the real estate game.
I used to own half the main street, but I had a little hick-up with a marriage split a few years back. At one stage I had seven shops and two houses. My brother owned the other half!
Have you had any kinda competition in all this time?
Two or three of them had a go over the years. It didn’t work. We just went to our suppliers and said, “It’s us or them.” We pay our bills, that’s the whole point. One of the Ripy accountants rang me and said, “If all of our accounts were like you Steve, I’d be out of a job.” We’ve got a good credit rating throughout Australia. We’re very lucky to have all the Ripy’s, Quiky’s, Roxy’s and Billabong. It makes a hell of a difference. Plus, we’ve got good staff.
Sam and his partner seem pretty switched on.
Yeah, they are. They’re basically running the shop. I’m about to toss it in, I’ve bought a caravan, got a few 9ft McTavish’s and I’m heading north to warm waters!
Do you like to give new brands a go?
Sam does. He’s the one that got Volcom in and it’s going well for us. I’ve been relegated back to the RM Williams, Malibu’s and Okanuis. Sam’s kicking me out!
Is there any kinda succession plan in place?
Sam’s going to run the place, he already is. We’ve just extended into our old storeroom and opened up the shoe wall, it’s called Sam’s Surf and Skate, but it’s the same basic vibe. We don’t make a fortune, we came here for the lifestyle, but we’re not about to blow it. Unfortunately, the lifestyle is slipping away with all the bloody tourists around here. The surf has dropped a lot in the last few seasons, we don’t get it like we used too.
You shut the door when you get too many tourists in the store.
We do. I say to them, “Sorry we’re closed”, and they say, “Don’t you want our money?” And I just tell ‘em, “Do I look as if I need your money?”
And there’s no air conditioning or DVD’s playing in-store.
I tell Sam that kids will just hang around watching DVD’s and the tourists will just come in to cool off. Get ‘em in, get ‘em out, grab their money, that’s the whole idea. Offer a bit of service. The regulars and the locals are OK, but the rest I just tell ‘em, “When 10 people leave, you can come in.” We’ve got a heavy and hard rule – no big school groups. They just trash the joint.
How important has it been to look after the local surfing community?
It’s vital. They’re your lifeline. People always drop by for updates on local conditions. The store ends up being a meeting place for surfers. We started the South East’s first surf school as well as hosting a (16mm) surf cinema. But it’s the Robe Easter Classic, one of the longest running surfing contests in Australia, that I’m most proud of. It’s a straight up surf comp with no gimmicks. We used to have a presentation night with surf movies in the local hall, and we bought heavy rock acts like Left Hand Drive over to play, but that’s gone bye-bye now ‘cause of all the fights. So we have the preso’s down on the beach instead. It got a bit wild there for a while. But we bought surf, music and movies to Robe.
Myself and another bloke were the first to surf Stoney’s and we had it to ourselves for nearly 10 years. We kept it real quiet until a ranger opened the road up for everyman and his dog. There’re just so many bloody tourists now.
“When I was 15 years old and a surf-crazed kid, I went on a surf trip around the VIC/SA coast and remember walking into Steve’s Place. It’s one of those things I can still picture … the old building made from sandstone or something and inside were the bare basics, some second-hand board’s, wetties etc. It had a good feel to it and I was stoked to walk into a surf shop that seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. At O&E over the years, when I’ve seen boxes in despatch for Steve’s Place, I always think about that trip. I’ve got to visit there again and if Steve has been there for 40 years, he must have been the guy that was behind the counter and told me the surf was blown out. What a legend.” Brian Cregan, CEO, O&E.
Who have been some of the better reps over the years?
Oh, Pin Head (former Quiksilver CEO, Craig Stevenson) is one. I could tell you a few stories about Pin, but I won’t. He’s a big deal now. He used to come over, stay with us overnight and go surfing. Claw (Rip Curl Founder, Doug Warbrick) used to come over to Robe and show surf movies and sell to us, this was before he was a big deal too. The Mexican (David ‘The Mex’ Sumpter) used to come over with his surf movies. In recent times, Phil Bishop from Ripy. This is when reps used to travel. The reps from South Australia we’ve never had much luck with them, they just don’t like going past the Mt Lofty ranges, we have to go to them. Not knocking the South Aussies. The Victorian guys are the ones that generally have given us the best service. Russ Graham at Moonlight in Torquay, ‘Rotter’ (Kim Thompson) when he was with Watercooled.
I guess I’ve got a soft spot for Rip Curl, I don’t know why. They’re a big deal now but they’re still the same guys. They’ve supported our Robe Easter Classic big time. You can go over there and they welcome you with open arms, its not a big closed door deal cause you’re not doing big numbers.
You know our comp is the same weekend as Bells, but for 50 years, on average, we’ve had the best waves. It brings a smile to us every year. It’s been running longer than Bells, I think there’s one comp that’s been running maybe a year longer around Newcastle.
What’s the biggest challenge facing the industry today?
I think it’s the loss of the art of custom shaping. The threat of boards from overseas. I mean, what incentive is there for a kid to get into shaping these days? The ritual of going into the shaping bay and talking to your shaper, it’s gone. These days if you get a board (and) it works you keep it, if it doesn’t, buy another one. As it goes on and boards get cheaper, they’ll end up in K-mart which is going to completely stuff the whole industry. But I tell you the best thing to come along is resin in a tube.
[Thinking About Succession Planning ? Here are some thoughts…]
So you’re thinking about moving on, heading to warmer waters and want to hand over the reigns like Steve? There’re many important issues to cover when considering succession planning. The Internet is awash with advice, but your first port of call should be with a qualified financial planner or chartered accountant. Broadly speaking, the main issues to be addressed in succession planning before you saddle up and go include:
- Capital Gains Tax on disposal or transfer of the business equity to the successor (whether sold at arms length or gifted).
- What business structure would be appropriate to run the business on behalf of the successor? Sometimes a testamentary trust is best for asset protection and tax purposes when dealing with succession (eg. a trust born out of a ‘will’).
- Control – Do you intend to retain control?
- Asset Protection – By passing equity directly to the successor, will that increase the risk over the assets? That is, does the successor have a spouse? Risk Insurance – income protection/term life/keyman.
- Other Children – Do you have any other children? If yes, will they get a share of the business and what is their marital status?
- Finance (internal or external) – If you, the owner, intend to sell the business (rather than gift it) what terms will you offer? Vendor terms? If the successor is a family member and has to borrow from a bank, will you be a guarantor to help them out? If so, that can potentially put your assets at risk.
- Income in retirement – What income expectation do you have in retirement? Do you expect an income stream from the business or allocated pension (superannuation) out of the sale proceeds from the successor? Access to Centrelink benefits are also affected by the business structure.