A pioneer of the European surfing industry, Derek O’Neill launched and developed Billabong in Europe for 12 years before taking on the position of International CEO. At 54, he could have closed the door on the industry and spent the rest of his life surfing, but retirement just wasn’t his thing. He returned to Hossegor 3 years ago to develop Vissla, an all new surf brand to “make surfing great again” and so far, things aren’t looking too shabby.
Derek, where did you grow up?
In Victoria, in Australia.
What does a kid do growing up in Australia?
I started surfing at eleven. In Australia, we have surf clubs, where you do a contest every other weekend, surfing against your friends. That was my life from about the age of 14. I went into small professional events, but I never really won anything. I always say that my entry fees just gave more prize money to the winner.
Where did you get your passion for surfing?
We just lived at the beach and that’s what you did.
Did you know what you wanted to be growing up?
Surfing really directed my life since I was a teenager. My friend had a surf shop, so I would spend my time either there or at the beach.
Tell us about your career.
I started working as a sale rep for Piping Hot wetsuits in Torquay, the number two brand in OZ. I was a sale rep and became the company sales manager. When the company got sold, I came to Europe for 6 months initially and wound up staying for 12 years.
What did you do in Europe?
There was a local company printing some t-shirts for Billabong in the UK, and selling them to other stores, but it wasn’t really well organised across Europe. I began ordering products for the shops from Billabong in Australia, and eventually a year and a half later, Billabong asked if I would be interested in moving to France to open the first Billabong office in Europe. I had total freedom of choice of the location, so I went to Lacanau, Hossegor, San Sebastian, Mundaka. But in the end, Hossegor seemed like the most logical place and in late 1991, we opened with 3 employees.
You wound up becoming the International CEO of Billabong within just a little over a decade, what was that like?
It’s strange because it wasn’t a job I ever really wanted. I would have preferred to stay in Europe. I knew it was the next level challenge, and I have never really stepped away from a challenge. But I was sad to leave Europe and I always felt I would come back.
In 2012, the Billabong board decided to let you go. How did that change your life?
After having spent over 20 years in the surfing industry, I thought that retirement and slowing down a bit would be the best thing. At least, I was really looking forward to it.
So, how is retirement treating you?
Within 6 months I became really bored. It was nothing like I thought. Retirement? It’s not fun. You’ve got nothing to do and all day to do it, it gets pretty old, pretty quick. The problem is, you can go surf Tavarua every day, but all your friends are working.
How did you bounce back?
I started to think about what I really wanted to do, who I wanted to work with. I had never given too much thought to having my own brand, as I don’t consider myself a designer, but when Paul Naude told me about Vissla in late 2013, it was a 30 second discussion and a really easy decision: I said “let’s go.”
“I wanted to bring back a company that was small, fun, true to its first ideals, something that could feel like a true company in surfing.”
What do you do at Vissla?
We wanted to launch in the international markets at the same time, so I said I’m going to do Europe. With Vissla, I wanted to bring back a company that was small, fun, true to its first ideals, something that could feel like a true company in surfing. A company not too complicated, easy to run and that ultimately allows you to have some fun.
What was it like starting from scratch again?
With Billabong, everything was already there. The designs were there, the products were there, we just needed to work out how to get it to Europe and to the stores. With Vissla, we really had to start at the beginning. But because of the changes in the industry, there were suddenly fantastic people with very strong expertise available everywhere. Design people, marketing people, sales people… A lot of them contacted us, so we had an amazing amount of talent to work with. You need people and you need great people. You don’t have a brand without people. Unfortunately, we just didn’t have space for everybody. When you start, you got to take small first steps.
What sets Vissla apart from other surf brands?
With Vissla we just wanted to do a brand that would occupy a small space of the market, and that retailers would support. We try to work very closely with our customers. We try not to have products heavily discounted online. We want our retailers to feel they can make a full margin throughout the season and have their end-customers come to their store to find the products. To keep your distribution is very important.
What are the key factors that allowed Vissla to get a good start?
We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but we feel that we are in a reasonable position. The market is tough all over Europe. Although we’ve managed to build a strong core business, you have to recognise that it’s not easy for anyone. I love it when I paddle out, there could be fifty guys in the water, and I see one or two people wearing Vissla wetsuits or boardshorts. To me it’s amazing when I think that we have been able to inspire some of those people. I drive people crazy by asking them how they like the products, but that excitement, when you see somebody believing in what you started not so long ago, it’s what makes me come to work every day.
What is the meaning behind your slogan “surf everything and ride anything”?
As a company, we have never been locked into any one particular type of surfing. We love competitive surfing, but we are a small company, and because we are small we have to focus on other things. Board shapers in particular, have been a key part of surfing since the beginning, so we like to support different shapers and different types of surfboards. And not everyone wants the latest 5’10 thruster.
What do you like most about being an entrepreneur?
We Australians are natural entrepreneurs. We start companies and close them a month later, we are not scared to fail. I have always felt, even in my first days as a sales rep, that I was working for myself. So, figure it out yourself and try. I prefer to be the tennis player than the ball boy, that really sums up entrepreneurship to me.
“I feel like everything I know today, I learned from somebody I was working with. It took me some years to understand that, but it changed everything for me.”
What have you learned from experience?
I feel like everything I know today, I learned from somebody I was working with. I have a view that, everybody in the company can teach me something every day. I’d much rather find things out from the people, than just sit with spread sheets. I have always tried to recruit strong people that know a lot more than me, in every part of the business, because they can teach me something every day. It took me some years to understand that, but it changed everything for me.
How do you think that the boardsports industry has evolved over time since you first started?
In the 90’s, the industry in Europe was competitive, but it was a different type of competitive. In the early days, we might have needed a distributor in Austria or something, but Harry Hodge at Quiksilver or Francois Payot at Rip Curl would be quite open to make suggestions. It was like the other companies in the industry were interested in helping other brands to become stronger. They preferred to be found in a shop alongside Billabong than next to other brands like Puma. EuroSIMA really started from that, to get together and talk about how the industry would develop and create a territory with strong employment. When I arrived in France, there were maybe 400 employees in the surfing industry. By the early 2000s, they were more than 5000 people.
Are you happy to be back in France?
Yes. France has a fantastic culture. Australia is far away from everything, everywhere. France has a lot of depth, a lot of history, and you can drive for an hour, get in a plane for an hour and experience something completely different. Australia is a big country, there are a lot of things to see, but you can drive for 3 days and you are still in the same country and it’s very similar all around the country. Winter in France is the hardest part, but the surfing is amazing and wetsuits have gotten better.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I enjoy coming to work every day, working with our team, and trying to show them where we want to get to and having them go out and develop our company to hopefully reach that point. I enjoy leading a team of good, young and inspiring people, and if I’m still doing that in 5 years time that would be great.
Interview: Stéphane Robin
Images: Lou Salasca and Stéphane Robin