When Stephen Bell, aka “Belly” arrived in Hossegor at 20 years old, he had no way of knowing what an incredible adventure the surfing industry had in store for him. Originally from Torquay in south-western Australia, he came to France because Harry Hodge asked him to come shape surfboards for Quiksilver. It was the beginning of an amazing experience alongside Kelly Slater that would take him to the most incredible surf spots around the world, a life which he is still pursuing today, coaching Leonardo Fioravanti.
What did you do when you first came to Hossegor?
I arrived in France on April 15, 1986. It was pretty cloudy out and the first edition of Surf Session was in the newsstands. I bought it and saw Wais Lane on the cover. The surfing industry didn’t really exist at that time. Back in those days in Hossegor, there were only a few freelance shapers like Gérard Dabbadie and Yvan Amélineau and they mostly made epoxy boards for windsurfing. At first, I worked for Maurice Cole, glassing, sanding and adding finishing touches and Harry Hodge gave me some T-shirts. I was an average surfer but at that time and place I was considered quite good.
How was Euroglass born?
In 1990, I created my own company and got a licence contract to make boards for Quiksilver. My business partners were Jean Debaralle and Maurice Cole. We made a lot of boards and after 3 years, I bought Maurice and Jean’s shares in the business since they wanted to pursue other endeavours. Then, thanks to Pierre Agnès, I became a team manager at Quiksilver, which was a job that didn’t exist yet at the time. I met Kelly Slater and followed him on the tour for nearly 20 years.
What is the custom surfboard market like nowadays?
Today, the surfing industry has come a long way but the surfboard market is practically saturated. There’s no money to be made making boards in France. I have a second job working at Quik not because I want to have two jobs but because it’s a passion of mine. These days, a surfboard sells for around 600 to 700 euros with a margin around 22% but it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain a position as a French manufacturer due to the harsh and often unfair competition.
“I wanted a top of the line workshop, like for Formula 1 racing stable.”
Tell us about why you invested in new premises in 2011?
In 2011, we moved to a new building to work in the best possible conditions. I wanted a workshop that was top of the line, like for Formula 1 racing stable. Unlike us though, there are many small workshops that aren’t required to comply with health regulations for workers. Most of them are independent or freelance. They sell boards for a slightly lower price but after 5 years or so, they realise that they aren’t making any money so they close shop. But then a new shaper shows up and it starts all over again. I am the only one to have employees with permanent year-round contracts. I’ve got two glassers and two sanders. 13 of my employees have been able to become homeowners working for me. If I were to listen to my accountant, I’d stop production to simply import but that’s not the point of what we do. With new regulations relative to styrene coming in 2019, I’m going to have to invest around 100 000 euros in refurbishment. It’s a permanent challenge but I want to keep taking it on.
“The pro boards ensure our reputation for high quality and thanks to that our middle range boards also include the same technology as the elite boards.”
Are imports from Asia the future of the board industry?
Kelly wanted me to make his boards, the Slater Design. I declined because I didn’t want to import, I’m not interested in that. I work with Cobra in Thailand to make epoxy boards. Christiaan Bradley is the one who goes there with our designs. My objective is to build boards here in France. We are in the surfing center of Europe, the core of the industry is here and someone has to ensure industrial manufacturing right here. I love this place and I’ve got everything I need to continue working here. The pro boards ensure our reputation for high quality and thanks to that our middle range boards also include the same technology as the elite boards.
Was it difficult at first to find good glassers?
It’s still tough to find a good glasser. It’s hard to find people willing to work year-round. Most of the guys that work with us started out as interns. They already had some knowledge and finished up their training with us. Glassing is a key element in making a board, though I’d have to say that every step is key.
Which boards do you sell most?
Our best-seller board here is not a pro board, it’s the DemiBu, a mini longboard by Phil Grace. Our business model is not to make custom boards but rather to allow our customers to find what they need in our stock. We make various models of boards in all kinds of styles and sizes, which allows us to meet demand. Today, 65% of our boards are manufactured in France and the rest is imported.
Do you also make epoxy boards?
Not in France. They require too much manpower. It wouldn’t be cost-effective to produce those boards locally because of the cost of employees. We have them built in Asia.
Are foamies a real trend?
Today, the surfboard market is practically saturated and foamies are among the new products. I for one, often ride a foamie in the summer. I have a foamie range that is due to come out in 2019. We have a range planned for surf schools and a technical range for more experienced surfers.
In terms of shape, what are the main characteristics of performance boards today?
Shorter, thinner, wider and with more volume. A typical board today is 5’11 18 7/8 2 3/8, which is what Leonardo surfs. Christiaan has a real talent with the software to work on where the volume of foam goes. That’s where the evolution is. The rockers haven’t really changed much and it’s still mostly double concaves for the bottoms.
“Boards are like formula 1 race car tires, you need to change them often.”
Leonardo Fioravanti requires 100 boards a year. Is that not a lot?
We make the boards for the Euroglass team and most of those riders are with Quik. Leo is our best rider and I’m especially proud of him given I’m his godfather. Leo surfs around 35 hours per week and if we make 100 boards for him per year, it’s because that’s what he requires. He really uses them up and wears them down. Boards are like formula 1 race car tires, you need to change them often.
Has computer assisted shaping revolutionised production?
Today, it’s the most important element. It’s vital for a shaper to master the ability to use a computer for shaping. You use the database with all your models. Otherwise you wind up working in the dark. The machine allows you to retouch and correct things, come back to the base. You can make fifteen or so sketches with changes and then come back to the original model if necessary.
What’s it like to be in charge of the best surfer in the world?
It was an incredible experience. I just got back from spending two weeks with Kelly (Slater) in South Africa. He’s still one of my best friends. It was a great experience and I was really lucky. I sometimes feel like I have to pinch myself to be sure I’m not dreaming the fact that we won 8 world titles together, not to mention all the amazing people I got to meet thanks to him. After experiencing all that, now I’m just trying to remain a normal guy. I’m just Stephen Bell a Torquay Boardriders Club surfer who owns a small business in France.
More than anyone else, you must know why Kelly keeps on competing after all these years?
Competition is his life. He loves everything about it: the adrenaline during the heats, not knowing whether he’ll win or if a wave will come at the end of the set… we were actually talking about it last week. He’s going to do his last season next year, but that’s not where he’ll stop. He wants to be able to keep doing certain events and some of the Big Wave Tour events. 3 years ago, during a golf tournament in Scotland, we were discussing that and he said, “golfers play till they’re 49. Why should I stop?”. Others stop competing because they want a normal life and a home, but Kelly feels at home everywhere, his life is on the tour.
Besides Kelly, do you still manage the riders on the Quiksilver team today?
Today, I no longer do contract signings. I manage logistics on the WSL tour. I try to guide Leonardo Fioravanti and help him based on my experience with Kelly.
What do you think about artificial waves?
They are a part of the future. I think it’s fantastic and it’s a great way to reach kids and develop a safe environment. There aren’t any set up in Australia yet, but I think there are three currently being built. I’m looking forward to one popping up in Bali. For me, it’s the ideal location with sunshine for solar power, cheap labour and tourists year-round. There are so many good surfers in the water and so much traffic to go surfing. It’d be great for someone like me so I can go surfing with the family.
And how do you feel about surfing becoming an Olympic sport?
There’s been a lot of talk about that, but personally, I’m not sure it’ll come too much. People will watch Jeremy Flores march into the stadium holding the French flag more than the sport itself. We’ll get to see one minute of surfing on TV, if we’re lucky. The Olympics are really all about track and field. If it were at Teahupoo with an 11-foot swell and barrels, OK maybe. But Chiba in Japan or even Kelly on artificial waves, I’m not so sure.
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Interview and photos: Stéphane Robin