Started surfing in 1969, first board shaped in 1973, roughly 10,000 boards shaped since then. Serial winner of the French Surf Championships, European Surf Champion in 1975. I’ve been shaping for a long time under my pseudonym SUPERFROG, and when BIC got interested in surfing (they had already been manufacturing windsurf boards since 1979), I worked with them on the design of their first production surf board, the 7’9 Natural Surf, which became a runway success, and made us all keen to continue the adventure. Nowadays our boards are sold all over the world. And for the last few years I have also been the sales manager for BIC Sport’s surf division.
How does a custom shaper as you are come to find himself involved in a project like the Bic board production ?
Simple, they got in touch with me and asked.
How easily have you been able to put your custom skills to use in the manufacture of production boards ?
Bic already had the machines and technology in place for the manufacture of their windsurf boards, but that’s a long way removed from working on hand-made custom boards. My contribution has been more oriented on defining the requirements, and designing/shaping the prototypes that are then put into mass production.
What was the reaction among your fellow custom shapers ?
Nothing too negative, Surf Session magazine published a short article where they spoke about a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, but you need to remember that the market was completely different in 1993 compared to today. Shapers still had lots of work, manufacture in the far east hadn’t really taken off yet, and we were the first company to make beginner surf boards, a market sector that most shapers tended to ignore.
And what do they think about the Bic brand these days ?
I’ve always had an excellent relationship with the majority of French shapers, who respect the Bic board range, and who’ve by and large understood that these type of boards can only help encourage more beginners into the sport, making more potential future clients for them. I think in the main, shapers are more resentful of boards manufactured in the far east than Bic’s production boards. And I think it’s worth pointing out that highly respected shapers such as Jean Piere Stark, Michel Borel and Renaud Cardinal all have a selection of Bic boards on sale in their surf shops.
The French surf community often expresses its concerns for the future of its shapers. Do you feel that industrial scale production boards could sound the death knell for our home-based custom shapers ?
Independent custom shapers will always have a place in the market. It’s a labour of love that very few people do hoping to make wads of money. There will always be surfers who want a personalized board, true custom jobs, that could be as much for the shape as for the construction materials and even the decos. But obviously this is a much smaller market segment than the number of entry level surfers who aren’t necessarily looking for high performance equipment.
That’s partly because surf is a sport that takes a long time to master, much slower compared to snowboarding, for example, a surfer spends a long time learning before getting anywhere near needing custom equipment. 20 years ago surf shops could accept the idea of selling boards at low profit margins per unit. Nowadays, every element of the equation has to show a profit and it’s more difficult for shapers to develop their market, to create a network of shops willing to stock their boards. Shapers could always try selling “on the beach”, direct to the public to help protect their margins, but that would actually reduce the number of potential customers for their boards.
Some surfers seem to equate Bic boards with Asian-manufactured boards, not really very complementary. What would you say to those people ?
BIC surf boards are made in France, in the factory at Vannes, Brittany, and exported all over the world from there. More and more people understand this, we mention it the fact in all our promo materials and catalogues, and more and more consumers are recognizing it as a plus point as regards product quality.
Often perceived as pure beginner boards, do you think the Bic range is too pigeon-holed in that category ?
It’s fair to say that the ACS boards, made from blown extrusion polyethylene, are aimed squarely at the beginner market.
Conversely, our E-Comp boards made from thermoformed Epoxy resin are much higher performance boards that have the responsiveness required by higher skill-level riders. Our longboards are surfed by top level surfers everywhere.
Bic has managed to dominate the market for rental boards and is seen is the benchmark brand for boards for surf schools. Isn’t it possible that this big presence in the beginner market could have an adverse effect on the image of your high performance boards ?
It’s true that Bic boards don’t have the same kind of High Tech image as other brands want to create with their serious marketing campaigns. But our reputation for boards anyone can enjoy, easy to ride and at an affordable price, suits us very well.
Following on from that, we all know that a certain amount of competition is necessary to help drive product development. Is the competition starting to affect Bic’s position ?
If you go surfing at a place like Lacanau for example, you won’t believe the number of Bic boards out on the water. I’d remind you that our boards are tough, built to last, and we’ve been selling them for fifteen years now ! There’s more and more aggressive competition in the market, but our boards continue to sell well and give their riders a great deal of pleasure.
Did you expect the project to become such a big success ?
Bic boards reputation and success didn’t arrive overnight, it’s a story that’s been writing itself for the last fifteen years.
Does the mass production process impose limits on the possibilities as regards shape ?
The manufacturing techniques we use enable us to re-produce identical copies of whatever shape we want, however sophisticated. We lose a bit of flexibility in terms of being able to vary the models in the range, the investment in setting up manufacture of a model is massive and that requires us to manufacture boards that will have the widest possible appeal.
Recently we’ve witnessed a growing interest in older-styled boards. There lots of “Old-school” boards in the mags and catalogues and there are increasing numbers of custom boards appearing in that style. What do you think of that trend ?
I was surfing Old-school boards when they were totally “New-school”. So I’m not too interested in that type of design for now, I prefer more modern shapes. But I totally understand why these boards provoke such a lot of interest, especially for younger people born after that time, I think it’s great that they’re trying out lots of different surf sensations.
The decos have also become an enormous factor in how people choose their board : coloured resins, varnish, polish… What’s Bic’s view of that kind of demand ? Can you fulfill that kind of thing ?
Our board decos are usually clear but simple. It’s not the decos that will make you choose a Bic board, if we’re being honest ! That’s a commercial decision we took to be able to get the shop price down as far as possible, we kept it simple so the boards would have broad appeal, more for the quality of the board and the price than simply for looks.
It can’t be easy designing a successful Bic board. It has to take, if I’m not mistaken, a design relationship between one shaper and one surfer (a board specifically designed to suit one specific rider) to a mass-production board with broad appeal. How is a new Bic shape defined and decided ?
Ah ! The legendary “single board” factor ! What’s more, it’s a unique factor in the big wide world of sport. How many times have you heard of a custom snowboard ? But in fact, a new Bic board is conceived from a list of requirements corresponding accurately to the target market : the size and weight of the riders, their skill level, and the type of waves the board is designed to ride being the main considerations.
Sometimes these parameters might change from one continent to another, so it’s not always easy to create a model that will sell equally well in every part of the world.
Bic is without question one of the biggest movers behind the “democratization” of surfing. It’s a word you use a lot, can you explain how that actually applies to surfing ?
French concise dictionary definition : democratize : put something within the grasp of everyone, make available.
For a long time, a beginner surfer always started by trying their friends’ or brothers’ board, which meant that generations of potential surfers gave up because they were trying out on equipment that was too technical for them.
Why weren’t there any women on the water 25 years ago ? Because they had a go one day on their boyfriends’ board and gave up again straight afterwards. We were the first manufacturer to produce the simplest Malibus possible, specially designed for beginners, which is the essence of the word “democratize” in the most literal sense.
For quite a lot of us, surfing is our passion. Won’t this “democratization” change the way we perceive surfing ?
The intensity of this kind of passion isn’t necessarily linked to the number of people who feel it. On the contrary, the more people there are driven by this passion, the more the culture around the passion is built up, the more it can develop and build the passion even more. Surfing isn’t a fashion statement, I’m talking about the sport itself and not about the “surf look” sold to everyone by the big surfwear brands. Surfing may become more or less trendy in cycles, but the sport itself will always be progressing.
During the summer season, many beginners with no real understanding of how dangerous the ocean can be get themselves into difficulties. Is Bic taking any measures to try and educate people about these very real risks ?
For over ten years now we’ve been publishing a guide called GO SURFING that we distribute through as many shops and schools as we can. In the guide there is some very detailed advice about not just safety, but the rules/etiquette to follow out on the water, how to choose a board, and how to learn the basics. And the same guide is also available to download from our website www.bicsport.com. We also work very closely with the French Surf Federation via something called the Ecole de Surf Francais.
I happen to know that despite you having a very busy diary you still manage to get out for the odd session yourself. Can you tell us what’s in your board quiver ?
I’ve got loads of boards, but I use them less and less. I’m getting soft as I get older, I don’t like the cold. Last summer I spent most of my time riding my 8’ Epoxy Malibu Fish, and of course I love doing Stand Up when there some small waves, and for the pleasure and workout from paddling.
Do you still do any custom shaping ?
I don’t really have any time for shaping, although I’m coming under more and more pressure from my friends and old customers who’s boards are starting to wear out. I really should start again, this part of the story is obviously not finished yet…
Is it still reasonably easy to move from custom shaping to mass production, and vice-versa ?
I’ve never had any problem, the two are closely linked..
The final word…
I’d just like to speak about something that seems important to me : there are ever-increasing numbers of people on the water, an old lag like my can’t believe his eyes sometimes when I go to check out the surf spots for a session. That means there is sometimes a bit too much tension between surfers. I’ve always found that a good smile, a little shout of “Cool !” when you see someone nail their wave, or simply being patient and letting waves go past so that your neighbour in the line up can get on them, that these efforts to be cool with each other can achieve the most amazing results in terms of keeping the atmosphere happy.
I detest the kind of “big man” longboarder who takes all the decent waves, and the local “mega-star” who only leaves rubbish waves not worth the effort for the newcomers trying to find their way into the sport.
We’re all on the water for the same reasons, to relax and commune with the magnificence of the ocean. We must never let the sport descend into the nonsense of too much attitude and too much aggression.
KEEP SURFING !
Interview : surfrepotes.fr