Words Jock Serong. 📷 Joshua McDonald – Four Hills Photography
The privately-owned independent chain Red Herring Surf are proud to style themselves as Tasmania’s ‘original surf company’. It’s a claim that carries substantial backing when you consider that they’ve been at it for over forty years, and employ around eighty Tasmanians. These are no small feats to have accomplished in regional surf retail.
For the last fifteen years, the group has been under the guiding hand of Victor Tilley, a man with a distinctive vision for surf retail nationally, and in particular for his island home. When ASB spoke to Victor recently he was in his car, taking the long road between his Hobart and Burnie stores, over the “roof of Tasmania”. In the back of the car was over a hundred kilograms of stock, shifting and tumbling about. The road’s windy and less direct, but there’s “lots of gear changes and twists and turns.” If you ask Victor, sometimes the long way’s the one that carries the rewards.
The miles between Victor’s stores are considerable. Red Herring Surf currently have four outlets across Tasmania, along with a warehouse and head office site. The Hobart store’s also known as “The Tardis”, a deceptively narrow street frontage that conceals a cavernous showroom of 500m2. The Launceston store is also roomy, housed in old supermarket site, whilst Red Herring Burnie, on Tassie’s industrialised northwest coast, sits right behind the surf club at West Beach. The Northgate store is up the Derwent Valley amongst the suburbs of Hobart, just a couple of kilometres from MONA.
From early on, Red Herring’s approach has relied heavily on local team riders. Their current stable includes Shaun Wallbank, Benn Richardson, eighteen year old Tom Gray (who’s also with Rip Curl, Globe and DHD), Brooke Mason and sixteen year old Kelly Nordstrom (interestingly, almost all of them cite celebrated Tasmanian charger Dustin Hollick as an influence). Skateboarding is a significant focus on the team, and Red Herring have put decks under Brendon Hill, Blair Howard and Saami Pariyar. Each rider has been encouraged, under Victor’s eagle eye, to develop other dimensions to their act: Shaun also works in advertising, Benn’s an ab diver, Brooke’s a medical student and Blair’s a tattoo artist.
The first guy Victor Tilley can remember working for was a pastry cook. “I still have a friendship with him,” he says. “Carl’s Continental Cakes. I’d turn up at 3am and peel mounds of apples. After a week of it, Carl said ‘you’re the best apple peeler I’ve had, but you should not be in this industry. Go and find something you love.’ I was gutted, but it was good for me. It’s increasingly hard to latch onto what you love to do.”
Returning home from a stint in Europe, Victor found himself jobless. The previous owners of Red Herring offered him a job in the store, but with a catch: he’d have to go to Launceston. “There’s an intense Launceston/Hobart rivalry in Tasmania,” Victor explains. “I said yes, and they said ‘the other thing is, you have to run it as a ski shop.’ I said okay anyway. I moved up there, worked a winter and didn’t know what would happen next, but I got to come back down and work in the Hobart store over summer. So that was my foot in the door in the industry.” Victor sees a parable in this experience: you take your opportunities when they come. “Even with my own children (he has three – Laura, 18, Owen, 16, and Giles, 13) I say, try and make everything you do a step along the way. They’ve taught me so much. They face their fears, even as little kids in one foot surf, and overcome them, and you can see the look on their faces.”
Victor’s never traded on the mainland, but he knows the local market intimately. “Tasmanians are fiercely loyal,” he says. “There’s only half a million people on the whole island – everybody knows each other. On the mainland you’re treated like you’ll never be seen again, but down here you see these people day-in, day-out, in the surf and other places. They’ll know people you know. There’s no hiding – you’ve got to be right onto it, and not dismissive of them.”
“Down here you see these people day-in, day-out, in the surf and other places. They’ll know people you know. There’s no hiding…” – Victor Tilley
It follows that rivalries between businesses are not so cut and dried as they are on the North Island. “But amongst the independents, there’s a camaraderie. A couple of stores got broken into recently and the call goes out across the stores to keep an eye out. But then, I imagine that would be the same on the mainland between a lot of the independents, especially in isolated places.
Local connections are also enshrined in the “Core Crew” loyalty concept run by Red Herring. “It’s really simple,” according to Victor. “I’m a simple guy and I like simple things. You get a point for every dollar spent. No card, no nothing. You’ve just got to remember your name. For most people, that’s alright, unless they’re shopping on a hangover. But we get so many repeat customers who appreciate it, and it’s just good customer service.”
Such is Victor Tilley’s passion for the retail experience that he found himself caught up, about five years ago, in the Federal Retail Commission. Having been vocal about issues affecting retailers in several forums, he was invited to participate. “I felt it was important to have a say in the future of retail in Australia, in wages and conditions. I got my staff to help me out – I feel things like that are important to do.” His radar is constantly tweaked by national issues relating to retail: most recently his attention was drawn to Fair Work Australia’s comments on the Sunday pay rate for hospitality workers: “little things that are a step in the right direction.”
Victor recently retired as a founding board member of the Surf Board Industry Association. He says there was no acrimony in his departure. “It was because they changed the board around, and didn’t have room for everybody. I said ‘no problem guys, I can step aside and make room.’ It’s what was needed. They moved on: they needed some retailers, but also wanted to get some brand representation in there too. It’s got a good mix on it now, both sides of the fence, so to speak. It was a very small part I played, but I’m very proud of it.”
He takes such roles as a natural extension of his work. “It’d be crazy not to get involved. It’s the same for the Independent Surf Retailers’ Association: like-minded guys getting together, talking about their shops and the industry. That forum has been fantastic for so many people. I take my hat off to Macca (Anthony Wilson – Saltwater Wine and Stormriders) and Michael (Di Sciascio from Strapper) and Wooly (Ian Macpherson of Star Surf in WA) and Kurt (Nyholm of Aquasurf).”
Tasmania has an overall unemployment rate of 7% and a rate approaching 20% in some regional areas. As someone contending with that, as well as with the storms ripping through surf retail generally, Victor’s assessment of the future for bricks and mortar is very acute. “I still see it as a great industry,” he maintains. “It’s not all over. What we do is fantastic, and we’re incredibly lucky to be involved. Yes, it’s harder work than it’s ever been, but not everybody’s going to go online. People like to come into a shop and put a board under their arm, try a wetsuit on, get a new outfit to wear out that night to impress the girls. It’ll be interesting to see when the wheel turns and that social aspect of shopping comes back: I’m a firm believer everything goes in cycles. The whole thing of sitting at home and just clicking and getting something delivered…I want people to come in and touch, feel. Small, effective stores can carry the brands people want and provide a high level of customer service; you just have to change your model to fit the times. People are talking multi-channel and such things, but I know you can sink a lot of money into that without seeing a return.”
The mere mention of the words “multi-channel” swings this bricks-and-mortar warrior onto his favourite topic. “I’m passionate about the whole online thing. I’m a social person, and the social aspect of a lot of our lives is lost though online interactions. As a story to illustrate that, there was a great little video shop down the road from us in Hobart. Great social hub, great guys. Increasingly, people started downloading videos, and one day those guys said ‘We’ve had enough. We could’ve taken a drop in profits, but the consumers have stopped supporting us.’ Now people say, ‘hey, I really miss that video shop.’”
“They’re currently talking about raising the GST. It’s a real bugbear of mine. GST is what’s paying for everything in Australia, but so many people shop outside Australia and therefore aren’t contributing to Australia by doing so. And now we’re in a real mess. If they can afford $400 for the wetsuit online, they can afford to pay $440, and put $40 into Australia. A lot of the people buying online are coming from affluent suburbs, too. What was the thought process that said, ‘it’s all just about me and the price’?
“GST is what’s paying for everything in Australia, but so many people shop outside Australia and therefore aren’t contributing to Australia by doing so. And now we’re in a real mess.”
Wetsuits are notoriously an area in which personal importing has impacted severely on local industry. And in Tassie, wetsuits are everyone’s lifeblood. “I went for a surf one day and saw all these crew in great new suits,” says Victor, “in a whole lot of colourways I didn’t stock. I asked em, and they said, ‘yeah we can get them for $380 online.’” Victor initially took it as a “slap in the face”, but then saw it as the consumer “saying my offering was not what they were looking for.” That in turn brought about a crucial change in thinking: “I had to either stop selling wetsuits, or match those prices. So now I globally price-match all my wetsuits. I’ve been doing this for three years or so, and I’m turning over more wetsuits than I ever had in the past, and my dollar margin is up. And if they buy it from me they’ll be paying GST into Australia’s coffers.”
He lays the blame for the crisis afflicting retailers squarely at the feet of the government. “I don’t believe the politicians looked at the whole thing correctly: they said, ‘it’s just shopkeepers, just retail, who cares?’ It annoys me when we’re seen as second class. Yes, it’s a service industry, and I have no problems getting down and helping people out to make a sale, but I think from a government point of view we’re looked down upon and not supported. If we were, they would’ve looked at our offshore competitors and developed better tools to look after us. But they don’t respect what we do.”
One of the roles for which Victor is best known in Tassie is his involvement in youth suicide prevention. It’s where working among young people crosses over into working for them. “I think we’ve all got a role to play in society,” he says. “And we should do what we can where we can. I was so concerned about young people I knew who’d suicided. So we put on shows, films whatever. We had a skate deck art competition, and toured it around schools. This young kid from Golden Valley was one of the winners of our skate deck competition – there’s about six cows there, and this kid!
Having raised some money, Victor wasn’t sure what to do next. “So I linked up with Lifeline, and gave them all the funds. From that I’ve been involved in quite a lot of the things that Lifeline do. There’s Walk into the Light – a dawn event for people who’ve been affected by suicide – the message being that the sun does come up the next day. And we sponsor the Life Awards. The rewards I get from doing things like that are greater than from anything else I do. Not in a monetary sense obviously. If we save one kid, it’s worth it. I’d recommend this kind of involvement to industry people.”
This commitment is driven by Victor’s belief that Tasmania is affected more by suicide than other states. “We’re at the worst end of the scale for so many things, like teen pregnancies, suicide and unemployment. The stats that stack up against Tasmania are particularly horrific.” One statistic he can reel off is that 15% of Tassie households have never experienced both parents working. “Yet I still keep clinging to the hope.”
In a wider sense, Victor’s promotion of Red Herring often places him as an informal ambassador for Tassie itself. “It’s a great place,” he says. “Kids sometimes say, ‘oh there’s nothing on.’ And I say, ‘man, there’s so much going on – open your eyes.’ Right now I’m looking at an epic sunset over Bass Strait. Indo’s great, sure, but sometimes the best thing you can do is go for a wander through your own backyard and take in our coasts.”
“Right now I’m looking at an epic sunset over Bass Strait. Indo’s great, sure, but sometimes the best thing you can do is go for a wander through your own backyard and take in our coasts.”
The lines between staff member and team rider seem to be quite fluid for Red Herring. Employees are encouraged to step up as role models wherever possible. “We really work on our staff,” says Victor. “We’ve got a good team at head office. These things go through cycles, but it’s really good at the moment. When it clicks, it’s so satisfying.” During a recent round of talks in schools for Youth Week, Victor elected to take team rider Brooke Mason with him. “I dropped her in it a bit,” he admits. “She’s really outgoing and fantastic, but to talk in front of 250-odd students is pretty daunting.”
Youth events were what got Brendon (“Hillbilly”) Hill on the Red Herring books. He’s from a little town on the north coast called Penguin. “We’d heard there was a kid there who’s a really good skater,” Victor remembers. “We lobbed to Penguin skate park and said ‘show us your tricks,’ and he’s falling over, landing tricks, going ‘look at this!’ And we signed him up on the spot – it’s led to a fifteen-year association with Hillbilly. He’s actually a teacher now, but he still comes in and does shifts – he loves it.”
Having become so deeply enmeshed in the communities and industries around his stores, it’s tempting to ask Victor if he’d do things the same way all over again. His answer is more than a little surprising: “I don’t know. I was an immature little wanker as a kid. There’s a saying from Ogden Nash that you can’t stop growing old, but you can stay immature for ever. I didn’t listen to my teachers or parents. But whilst I didn’t listen then, I think it did get through my thick head and at that age you don’t respect the advice, but it makes sense later on.
“I would go into surf retail again now, even knowing what I know. I left school at the end of grade ten, very unsure of what to do. I found that I enjoyed serving people, enjoyed that side of retail. Getting them out there enjoying themselves with something I provided for them. It doesn’t matter if that’s a surfboard or just a good pair of jeans.”
For all of his enthusiasm and industry involvement, Victor doesn’t have a specific succession plan in place. “It’ll be interesting to see,” he says. “Not necessarily my children, but from within the staff, the people who would want to continue the legacy that’s been built. I’m fifty. (No I’m not, I’m eighteen!) I’ve got a lot of life left in me, but who knows whether I’ll want to spend that on a shop floor. We’ll see what happens…”
For now, he keeps things fresh with some mountain-biking. “That, and music, and golden oldies rugby. It’s grounding, they take the piss outa you. Another avenue to let off steam as opposed to it all being surf. I think it’s really important to not get too caught up in one industry or way of thinking. You can get overcome with the surf side of things.”
Victor’s just reached the end of his long drive as we wrap up our conversation. He’s in the process of saying he enjoys seeing people reach their potential, giving them responsibility and seeing them go ahead. “There’s Tom outside the store,” he tells us, “scratching some dog that’s fast asleep in the front doorway. That’s a classic surf shop photo right there.”
Can’t do that online!