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Episode 31: Meet Jeff Hakman, Surfing Legend, Founder of Quiksilver USA and Quiksilver Europe

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Listen to the episode here

Show Notes

This is the first episode of the season. I’m so happy to be back behind the mic after a break and very excited to introduce you to my guest, Jeff Hakman aka Mr Sunset.

For a podcaster making podcasts about careers in and around surfing, my encounter with Jeff Hakman is practically like finding the holy grail. I must admit I was pretty intimidated by meeting the man behind the biggest surfing brand in the world and I felt very honored and privileged to have a chat with him.

From his home in Hawaii, Jeff accepted to get up at the crack of dawn for our conversation and the result is a wonderful immersion into his action-packed life story. Now in his early seventies, Jeff greeted me over Skype with his twinkling blue eyes, generous smile, clean shave and elegant black t-shirt. In fact, he was just about to set off for some surfing and managed to fit in a bit of time for me.

Jeff and I have delve into a few of his life stories that are filled with incredible surfing feats, friends and business achievements.

Surprisingly enough, if it weren’t for his dad Jeff could have given up surfing entirely at a very young age when he was growing up in California.

“ My Dad tried to share surfing with me and he miscalculated a couple of times when he was trying to get me going, and I almost drowned a few times. I hated surfing. One time, I came in and I was just crying. He (my Dad) thought it was about three foot four foot and it ended up having 8 and 10 foot sets and I paddled over backwards on a cold winter day with no wetsuit. I was very cold and I just about drowned and he couldn’t get to me… And when I came in, I just threw my surfboard down and said “I just hate this sport. I hate this. I don’t like surfing”. So I stopped surfing for a year. I didn’t want to know about it”

but his dad kept on insisting. He made him a smaller, lighter board and finally talked him into going again on a sunny fall morning, and, that day the conditions were just perfect.

“And he got me lined up and I just took one wave… He said I came paddling back out and my eyes were like alarm clocks!”

He shares what it felt to become the youngest person to win the Duke Kahanamoku contest in 1965, how this lead to tootling around the world winning even more contests and becoming world champion several times.
Regarding the Duke Kahanamoku event that he won,

“As far as all the professional part of the events and the ABC World Sports and the interviews and the conduct and everything, I had no idea what was going on! I was just so naive and, all I knew is I loved surfing and I could surf pretty good. So out of the water I really didn’t have any idea what was going on. In the water, I knew what was going on.”

In those days, there was no industry, and a mere 8 pro events going on around the world didn’t suffice to pay the bills

“ If you won two and got second in three of four (events) and that was really good result, it was still hard to pay your mortgage and take a couple of trips and just pay everything. Because there was just no industry. So this is what sort of directed me into the route of trying to start my own business.”

Prior to looking up Quiksilver, Jeff had worked as a rep at Hangten and Golden Breed. His boss, Duke Boyd had created a really cool lifestyle surfing and built up these two companies.

""Ah! What a dream. I want to do that. How can I do that?” So because I was a rep for Hangten I certainly knew the rag business, the clothing business. So this is sort of where I went into Quiksilver. At the time, Quiksilver is a little tiny Australian company: just a mom and pop business down in Australia. I thought to myself, “Maybe I could get the license and bring it to California or America and do what my friend Duke Boyd did with Hangten ?” So that was my dream.”

I guess you could say that what changed the course of Jeff’s life was to negotiate the Quiksilver license for the USA and Europe and become on of the first surf millionnaires in history. Jeff shares the extraordinary story of how he got the license : and it doesn’t involve signing contracts:

“In ‘76 I went down to Torquay with this (getting the license) in mind and talked to the founder (Alan Green was his name and John Law was his partner) and I asked him if I could have a license for Quiksilver in America? and he was like “???” ‘Cause it was really small: he was barely selling shorts in Australia. One thing lead to another and and he just goes “How do I know you have the conviction to do this Jeff? and I go, “I dunno, I believe I know the business a bit…” We were in this restaurant and we’re drinking wine and everything and, on the tables they had these big paper tablecloths with holes in them. And he goes: « Listen, eat the tablecloth and I’ll think about giving you the license » so I just tore these pieces of tablecloth, and all this paper in my mouth and I washed it down with wine and everything, and after I did that and he was looking at me, with his cigarette, and looking at me, and goes « OK Hakman you can have the license » I was really happy and that’s sort of how things were done back then. We didn’t even have a contract. He goes « You can have the license for America, I want 5% of the company and 7% of the royalties”. I went “ok that’s great, that’s fantastic” And as I was leaving Australia in 76 I go « OK, can I have a license? What do I get?” and he handed me a string of papers with patterns on them and he goes « Here you go, these are the patterns, good luck!””

Of course, in an hour, we didn’t get a chance to go over all of Jeff’s life, but we definitely did dig into how it all began, what Quiksilver was like in the mid seventies and eighties, overcoming the challenges of growing Quiksilver Europe (which, by the way, was probably the biggest challenge for Jeff and his partners), and we even get a sneak peek into how Quiksilver signed up Kelly Slater.

Obviously Jeff’s life isn’t all a bed of roses. He’s had some demons too, but the sheer thrill of riding a wave, support from his family and friends, eventually encouraged him to adopt a healthier lifestyle and his smile, acuteness and mindset are here to prove it.

“Ok,here’s the deal. I’ll cut to the chase here. The best thing I’ve ever done in my life is surf 10 foot 12 foot waves at Hanalei Bay or Sunset or whatever. But the thrill of surfing a really good strong wave and pulling off the bottom and pulling up into all that sucking water is, for me, the best thing you can do. And I want to continue to do that.”

We talk about Jeff’s latest project : Surf Till 100, an initiative that he’s started with his best mates Felipe Pomar and Tom Woods (listen to my episode with Felipe Pomar here) to keep surfing until 100 years of age. Jeff looks perfectly prepared to tackle another 30 years of surfing and he shares his longevity secrets on the show.

With Quiksilver’s 50th anniversary in the news right now, this conversation is a little bonus about a celebration of life, the ocean and very savvy business moves. I think anybody listening will find something to take from this episode.

To connect with Jeff, you can follow him on Instagram @jeff_hakman which is a fascinating walk down memory lane with snapshots of Jeff’s amazing life.

You can find out more about Jeff’s latest endeavour : Surf Till 100 on http://surftill100.com and sign up for the next retreat in May 2020.

I would like to thank Jeff for sharing his story with such candor. It has been a true honor.

I would also like to thank YOU for listening. It’s such a privilege.

Until next week, take care, have fun and enjoy the waves!

Ciao

Imi

People Mentioned in this Episode

  • Peter Townend
  • Mark Warren
  • Harry Hodge
  • John Winship
  • Brigitte Darrigand
  • Pierre Agnes
  • Felipe Pomar

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