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The Man Behind the Scenes: The Story of Naish Kiteboarding

The Man Behind the Scenes: The Story of Naish Kiteboarding
By Paul Lang

Originally Published in the April 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine

Mention Naish Kiteboarding and most people immediately think of Robby Naish, the man who basically put windsurfing on the map and has been killing it as a kiteboarder since the beginning of the sport. Most have never heard of Andy Church, the brawn on the business side of the company, who has been working behind the scenes at Naish for years. As the General Manager, Andy oversees every aspect of the company and has been involved in Naish since its creation. Andy was around for the birth of kiteboarding and has watched the sport grow from those brutal first days of 2-line kites and giant directional boards to the Sigma-shaped Naish kites and technical boards that we see today.

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Andy has had an integral role at Naish for a long time and is a large part of the company’s success. We decided to interview him for our ongoing series about the roots of the different kiteboarding companies to give you a different perspective on one of the founding companies in our sport.

How did you become involved with Naish?
I first started working with Robby in more of a sports marketing role about 18 years ago when I was with Mistral. In ‘94, Mistral merged with North Sails, and Naish Sails was created during that acquisition. At that point, I began managing windsurfing sales efforts for both Naish and Mistral in North America. After a bit of a rough start, I ended up doing really well with the Naish brand. It was cool to watch the brand grow from nothing into something big. In ‘98, Robby asked me to move to Maui and join the international team. When I arrived here in early ‘99, the company consisted of only four guys: Robby, Don Montague, Pete Cabrinha, and Dan Kaseler. Ten years later, the company employs over 30 people located in four offices in three states, and is still growing.

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How would you describe your current role with Naish Kiteboarding?
As the General Manager, I’m involved in some capacity with every single department including international distribution and sales; the kiteboarding, windsurfing, stand-up paddle R&D departments; the creative department; our North American distribution, and our Maui retail store. You could say Robby is more focused on the brand image and product performance, where I’m more focused on the nuts and bolts of the company. He and I are a healthy balance for one another, and the synergy definitely works. Over the years, we’ve built an incredible team of very cool and talented people who are awesome to work with. It’s a great company.

How did you become involved in kiteboarding?
That happened here at Naish. Don Montague gave me a body dragging lesson at Sprecksville beach shortly after I moved to Maui. It was on a 2-line prototype kite called the AR 3.5. We hadn’t launched the kiteboarding business yet, but I had to learn it fast. I’m not sure how many cans of Red Bull Don was on that day, but I do remember his instructions were vocally very loud. I had a good time, but that was my first and last lesson from Don. He had a baptism by fire mentality, so it was trial and error from that point forward. Staying upwind was always a challenge, until Don gave me a prototype 4-line kite called the AR 5, which was an industry first. After that, everything changed. Once the AR 5 went into production, we watched the sport explode.

When was the decision made to manufacture and sell kiteboarding gear at Naish?
I believe the decision was officially made in early ‘99 to further develop a business plan, and commercially launch the AR 3.5 and AR 5 kites later that year. However, Don and Robby had been working on prototypes a year or two before that. In June of ‘99, I remember writing the first press release announcing our venture into kiteboarding. It was titled “It’s Time to Fly! Naish Sails Hawaii expands into Kitesurfing.” Looking back, the title was really corny, but, the content of that press release and the quotes from Robby, Don, and Pete are still very relevant today.

Was it hard to convince others at the company to branch into kiteboarding?
Not really. By the middle of ‘99, there was definitely a feeling within the group that we were onto something big. Very big. Don was always a believer, but for obvious reasons, Robby was a bit more cautious. After all, it was his company, his name, and ultimately his ass on the line. Clearly, there was going to be a lot of R&D expense, brand investment, and exposure to consider. Fortunately, the risk paid off big time.

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Where did the skull logo come from?
The original Naish skull logo was actually drawn by Robby himself. Most people don’t know that he’s quite an amazing artist. Over the years, that particular logo has gone through a few subtle transformations for various applications, but the basic artwork remains unchanged from Robby’s original drawing. It’s a great logo, and very popular commercially. In fact, I’ve even seen it permanently tattooed on a few people around the world. That’s hardcore. Our first kiteboard was called the Sky Pirate and it was only available in two sizes the first year: 7’0” and 7’6”. Can you imagine?

In the early days of the sport, what did you think the future of the sport would be like? Has the growth of kiteboarding lived up to your expectations?
Back then, the brand was growing worldwide at a blistering speed. The whole experience was mind blowing, and sort of like hanging onto a runaway train. We had hit a moment, so you didn’t really know what to expect. At the same time, we always understood kiteboarding was an extreme sport, and that the physics of the sport (i.e. line lengths and beach access) would limit its exposure to the general public. Therefore, I don’t think there were any preconceptions that it would become as big as something like snowboarding or skateboarding. It has lived up to my personal expectations, but it’s still growing at a healthy pace for us. Fortunately, the growth is more manageable now, and we’re much better organized with the right team of people to deal with it and adapt.

Which is a larger: Naish Windsurfing or Naish Kiteboarding?
Naish Kiteboarding is largest in terms of gross sales, followed by Naish Windsurfing, and then Naish Stand-up Paddling, which is now growing very fast.

Who did you work with in the beginning of Naish Kiteboarding?
Back in the early days, it was a small core group. Don Montague was the Kite Designer, Pete Cabrinha was doing graphic design, Harold Iggy was shaping the kiteboards, Dan Kaseler was taking over as Sail Designer, Dudu Mazzacato developed our design program, Uli Montague created our websites, and the wonderful Dee Reed was our accountant (and still is to this day). There were others involved with testing and input as well, such as Chris Gilbert and Flash Austin to name a few. Somehow, Robby managed to stay involved with all aspects while traveling and doing the Windsurfing World Tour. Amazingly, he never took a laptop on the road with him. To this day, his travel schedule still blows my mind, but at least he has a Blackberry now.

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In the early 2000s, Naish (and some other companies) were rumored to be paying some team riders salaries that went into six figures. Was this true? What has changed now so that team riders are not being offered nearly as much money as back then?
Rumors are always exaggerated. Back then, and even now, a top rider with decent clothing, energy drink, and kite sponsors could collectively earn a decent salary. Having said that, it was probably easier for a rider to get a financial contract back in the early 2000’s, because there were less talented riders around with a lot of new brands entering the business. It was simply a matter of supply and demand. It went from two kite companies to something like 30 within a three year period. I even remember some brands offering money to riders who had been kiting for less than a year. It made no sense, and many of them are no longer around.

What is a typical day at the office like for you?
My day usually starts with a wake up call from Michi Schweiger, our stand-up paddle product manager, with a surf report. If it’s big, Robby and Dave Kalama will be there as well. After a morning sesh, I’ll head into the office in a t-shirt, shorts, and wet hair. There is always a lot of action in our office in the morning. All the R&D guys will be there fired up, along with the creative department, sales department, and inevitably a few team riders. Some European importers will call just before going to sleep, and it will be mid-work day for our North American distributor. I’ll spend most of my mornings meeting with the various departments, answering questions and making decisions with them. Around noon, when the Maui trade winds pick up, the volume in our office will cut in half as the R&D guys head to the beach to test. By early afternoon, our Asian factories will open for business, as well as our importers in the Southern Hemisphere. Maui is a unique location for international business because it’s so centrally located within the time zones of our global business network. If it’s the primary development season, I’ll join the kite R&D guys on the beach by late afternoon depending on my work load. They’re always stoked to see me out of the office, and all the new gear will be rigged and ready to ride. I just grab a kite and a board and go.

Are there any mistakes that stand out in your mind in the history of Naish Kiteboarding?
Not really. We always had long term vision, which got us through a lot of highs and lows. After all, we’re still here and we’re stronger than ever. If I had any regrets, it would probably be our lack of experience in the patent world. There may have been some missed opportunities there. But, as Joe Strummer once said, “You have to have some regrets.”

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What direction do you think kite design is headed? Will Naish be sticking with the Sigma Shape? If the Sigma Shape works so well, why haven’t any other companies copied it yet?
We are sticking with the Sigma outline. Absolutely! In fact, we are further evolving it. Damien Girardin, our Kite Designer, is also exploring Geo Tech canopy tension technology with various profiling more in depth. We’re having incredible results with the Sigma and Geo Tech technologies, and both will definitely be part of our future. As you can assume, Sigma and Geo Tech are difficult designs to master, and hard to copy. Damien and our R&D team spent months and months on painstaking design work and prototype testing. Furthermore, Sigma is now so closely associated with and unique to the Naish brand, so for another brand to copy it would be far too obvious to the end consumer.

What gear do you ride personally?
I fly the Helix and ride the Haze 136 or Naish Custom Fish 5’7”. I wear the Naish Elite Waist Harness, Naish Loose-fit Short Sleeve Rashguard, and Quiksilver boardshorts, because Naish doesn’t make them.

What do you think about the current state of kiteboarding competitions? How do the events in kiteboarding compare to the windsurfing competitions you used to be involved it?
To be honest, I am not impressed by either of the professional kiteboarding tours, the PKRA or the KPWT. Nor am I impressed by the coverage that either tour receives in the magazines. Neither the PKRA or the KPWT comes close in comparison to the professional windsurfing world tour back in the late 80’s, when it was at its height. The prize money, sponsorship money, and television exposure are remarkably less than in the big days of pro windsurfing. Yet kiteboarding product retail sales are stronger and healthier for us than windsurfing, so I don’t think our success has anything to do with the pro circuit. I find the growth of wave riding and course racing is interesting because it appeals to a broader audience. Freestyle has gotten too specialized, and I’m concerned that the ISAF’s recent ruling to create two separate freestyle categories is going to make it even more complicated. And whatever happened to Big Air? One of the main reasons I got into kiteboarding was to boost.

Where do you think the sport of kiteboarding is heading? What will the sport be like five or ten years from now?
I believe that kiteboarding will experience a slower, but more stable and healthier growth than in the past. The top brands are more experienced and established now, and will most likely be around for awhile. The smaller under financed brands will continue to come and go, and hopefully not kill anyone in the process. The market is much wiser now and the room for error, by any brand, is much less. I strongly believe in the future of kiteboarding schools. This is one area where I know Naish will continue to watch and invest. Without question, professional kiteboarding schools will play a valuable role in the future growth of our sport.

Originally Published in the April 2009 Issue of The Kiteboarder Magazine

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