Jason Stevenson talks history, vision, and his take on the state of the surf industry
Growing up on North Stradbroke island off Australia, surfing was the only thing that mattered in Jason Stevenson’s life and over the last two-plus decades he has parlayed that into one of the most successful surf board brands down under, JS Industries, boasting some of the world’s best shapes and athletes including the Irons brother, Joel Parkenson, and Jack Freestone.
These days Stevenson is broadening his scope to focus on bringing JS and his fin company, Kinetic Racing Co., to the States, where his innovative designs, clean lines, and creative marketing are helping set up a solid beach head.
We caught up with Stevenson after a recent visit to his Gold Coast factory to learn more about his history, vision, and take on the current state of the surf industry.
You started surfing when you were just five and have been able to parlay the ensuing passion into a rider-owned business on a global scale. Tell us a little about the milestones along the way that have made JS what it is?
When I reached that time in life, 23-years old to be exact, when you need to decide whether you will or won't do anything with your life, I decided I would move south to the Gold Coast. Surfing was all I wanted to do so I set about finding a way to keep the dream alive. Working in a surfboard factory wasn't quite what I had in mind but it ended up being that defining moment in my life that has lead me to where I am today.
I started shaping boards after 12-to-18 months of working for Murray Bourton of Pipedream Surfboards. Darren Handley also worked for that label and was already on his way to being DHD. Ken Reimers was another shaper taught me a lot of what I needed to know back then.
DH left to go out on his own and I followed him as he was the young brand on the rise and needed someone to cut boards on the old profiling machine and finish shape. I worked for DH for around four years and then left to start JS Industries .
After leaving DH, Luke Egan would be that next big step in taking the brand to new heights, he had just finished second in the world and found himself without a board sponsor and asked me to make him some boards and off we went.
Luke brought a lot of credibility to me as a shaper and as I developed my shaping skills along comes Andy and Bruce Irons and then it just really started gaining momentum.
Both Andy and Bruce (Irons) were the biggest names in the sport back then and I am absolutely blessed to have been a part of their lives and to be able to make those guys’ boards in such a critical stage in each of their careers. Andy going for world titles battling against Kelly and LE and Parko, and then Bruce trying to qualify and just being Bruce— when he did qualify it was amazing and still gives me shivers thinking about it now.
I could keep going on about things that have made me and this company what it is today, but really, after Joel winning his first world title and the years that we have spent building boards together and the relationship that has come with that—that is what has made this company one of the board brands of today.
Add Jack Freestone into the mix, who not only has won two world junior titles, but is probably one the best air kids of today and I think we are just about to hit another chapter in this businesses story…
Where did the Traktor logo come from?
At the time everyone was running there name or initials to identify themselves as a brand and I liked what Maurice Cole was doing with the teddy bear. I wanted to do something a little different, and having grown up with my dad driving and owning machinery that was where I headed. I took a photo of a tractor I bought in Toys ‘R’ Us and from there it has evolved into the icon it is today .
Define JS as a brand. What's your overarching philosophy for growing the business and keeping things fresh?
Best surfers, best boards, best board builder . We pride ourselves on being one of the few companies where everyone involved surfs. It makes this company what it is all about from our elite athletes to myself as the shaper/surfer to the guys sanding, laminating, dispatching—we all live it, breathe it, and love it.
Your factory is a really impressive operation. (Check the gallery above)
Thanks—it has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get it looking like this. I think when you first walk in and see all the new boards and then all the team's boards, it makes you get you excited, kind of like being a kid in a candy store.
You guys have some really impressive tools and machines there. What are some of the most exciting new technologies for board shaping that you've seen lately and how much of your shaping is done by computer and how much by hand at this point?
I came from the era of hand shaping, then profiling machines, and to this present day of computer-generated designs, and these machines are what is taking surfboard designs to the next level of performance surfing and also giving surfboards the consistency that is required not only at the elite leve,l but also to produce the boards for the everyday surfer to get the most out of his/her surfing.
People may think that making boards these days is easy with the machines, and it has certainly taken the back-breaking planing side out of it, but if you saw how much work goes into tuning these machines everyday you would soon realize you need so many different skills now it’s a joke. You don't just turn them on and off—to make sure the cuts are perfect you need an engineering degree, they need daily tuning in, and this is only the start of the process…
What kind of volume are you turning out and how difficult is it competing with boards coming out of China and Thailand? What differentiates your boards' quality from your competitors?
I think the China/Thailand-made boards in the same construction as ours are very different. They are different in that most of the volume sales form China/Thailand are targeting the entry level surfer and the price point that goes with it. The board designs aren't performance based, the quality of materials aren't the high-end, high-priced materials that we use either so the target market is really a price point board for entry level surfers. We target that next stage and offer that next level experience. So in one aspect China/Thailand surfboards are getting more people into surfing who probably wouldn't or couldn't afford to, and then from that we hope to pick up our sale from the beginner who has advanced enough to want to ride a model that we then make for that next level.
Hey, it would be great if we could also offer that same board made locally with all our quality craftsmen and quality materials, but we can't compete and we can't worry about what we can't do,only what we can. And that's make the best boards we know how to make.
Give us a quick breakdown on your product line – what percentage of revenue comes from boards, fins, traction, and other accessories?
Eighty percent from boards 20 percent from the Kinetik Racing Co., although KR is really hitting some growth as the hard work is starting to pay off. Designing and making fins is exciting and it's something that I have always done from the earlier days. As a surfer/shaper and also all the work that I do with team, I think I have a pretty good understanding of fins and fin performance and that is starting show with fin sales.
The packaging for Kinetik fins is really distinct – how did you land on that and how important is it for standing out at retail?
We looked at a lot of brands’ packaging and designed something unique to our brand that is our own style. If yo want to sell product in store it has to look appealing .
Andy was a big part of this company and a close friend for a long time, so anything I can do to help Axel and Lyndie I will as will this company.
You guys are making a big push into the US. What are your goals here in the States?
I just want to make sure we are able to have everyone who wants to ride a Traktor or try our fins can get to try them. I get so many emails from people who would love to get a board and can't because they don't have a store nearby or that store doesn't have the size or models they are looking for. Same goes for Kinetik Racing Co.—they want to get some fins and can't so that tells me we have plenty of work to do there.
How do you handle distribution in the States?
I have a great network all over the States—a core group of guys we hand picked that best represent our brands. They are the ones showing everyone who we are and what we stand for .
What's been the most difficult part of the logistics in bringing your product to market here?
I think just being an OZ brand trying to get itself positioned into U.S. retail when there are already strong U.S. board brands like CI and LOST. Trying to let people know that we make good boards not just for OZ, but they also go unreal in the US as well.
What shapes have been doing best for you?
Our whole range has been working really well but if I was to break it down by the categories then of high performance models it is FORGET ME NOT , MONSTA , MONSTA X. Then its the REVOLUTION, which is by far the most sold X SERIES board. In summer series it’s the MATRIX
Talk a little about your Small Wave Research boards.
I think spending a bit of time in California in recent years surfing and shaping has given me so much more knowledge on small wave surfing and also having some good local guys there who ride boards and give feedback has made a huge difference and right now we have some really good small wave designs and are about to launch few new ones as well .
You guys have a really impressive team roster. How active are your athletes in shaping your overall line?
The team is so important in the building of your model plan and I think the reason we have such a great selection of models which will pretty much cover everyone is from our teams diversity in body mass and styles of surfing and also the regions of the world that they live .. For instance I'm getting feedback on boards from your light weight grommet to your freak aerialist to your stronger heavy power surfing guy and all that information translates out into the models sitting in the racks of stores. You know if you buy a board from us at any size it has had the more testing then you can imagine and is not just some scaled up version.