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Hobie Alter, the Henry Ford of the Surfing Industry

January 30, 2018

He’s been called an innovator, a toy designer, a Renaissance man, the Henry Ford of the surfing industry and an outside the box thinker. He was all those things and more. World class entrepreneur comes to mind to describe Hobie’s business skills. In his high school days he and his friends decided they didn’t want to wear suits or hard soled shoes to work when they got jobs and didn’t want to work east of the Pacific Coast Highway. Hobie thought in terms of building toys he would like to use himself and giving people games to play with the toys.  Although he was never a top student, he was good at woodworking and once he made a surfboard for himself, he kept busy making boards for other surfers.
His father suggested that he make a business out of his surfboards and Hobie graduated from Chaffey College, taking courses from sales and marketing instructor Elwood Chapman. It was Chapman who had his class do business plans for a future business and Hobie’s  proposed plan for a surfboard manufacturing shop and showroom named “Hobie’s Surf Shop” got an “A” and a “well done” plus helpful notes about markup and expansion.

With advice from his father Hobie moved his business from the family’s garage to a building closer to where he would be seen by prospective customers. He did a lot of the work himself and hired good people when he needed help. The business grew and as it expanded, more employees were hired, mostly surfers.  When their work didn’t measure up, Hobie had a way of taking people aside and explaining what the problem was and how to fix it. He never got angry or made employees feel uncomfortable.
Sometimes when the wind was right they’d close up the shop, buy 10 cent gliders and launch them off the cliffs behind the shop to see whose gliders could stay aloft the longest. On occasion they also launched water balloons off the roof over the parking lot.
Hobie’s skateboard venture came as a result of his visit to an inland surf shop whose owner wanted to be a dealer for Hobie surfboards. When Hobie saw the skateboards they stocked that looked like a cheap miniature surfboard on cheap wheels, he almost turned around and left, but he almost immediately saw the potential in skateboarding for areas that had no surf – “sidewalk surfing.” He went to work making a better skateboard with better hardware and wheels and his wife demonstrated skateboarding on the Johnny Carson Show
Barron Hilton of the Hilton Hotel chain called one day to see if Hobie would be interested in working with him on a co-branded skateboard. Two of Hilton’s children were an age that had an intense interest in skateboarding. Hilton had an interest in Vita-Pakt, an orange juice company that promoted healthy living. For turning in Vita-Pakt receipts, parents could get a reward – a cheap skateboard. Hilton was encouraged by his children to deal with Hobie, whose skateboards and surfboards they knew were top of the line. Hobie came to a meeting with Barron Hilton at his beachfront house wearing shorts and bringing a surfboard and a motorized skateboard. They all had fun and a deal was made.
From the time he sailed with Woody Brown on Brown’s catamaran in Hawaii in the 1950s, Hobie had an interest in multi-hull boats. He crewed in a race with Phil Edwards who had built two twin hulled boats. Hobie and Phil finished fourth in the 126 mile Newport to Ensenada race and Hobie started working on a small twin hulled boat that he originally saw as a way to occupy surfers when offshore winds flattened their waves, but he came to see that if the little boat was light enough and sturdy, and could be launched from the beach, it would attract a whole new generation of sailors that did not have access to yacht club docks and beaches.

As he worked on the first model, Hobie saw that it had to be easy to assemble and disassemble so it could be packaged and shipped to dealers who would have to assemble the boat. The parts had to be overbuilt so the dealers couldn’t break any of the hardware putting it together.
After making several models of the 14’ Cat, they made molds for the foam and fiberglass hulls and decks. They used lightweight aluminum tubing for the frames and a mesh trampoline to sit on. Kick-up rudders allowed the little cat to ride up on the beach at full speed without damaging the rudders or the boat. By 1968 six of the 14’ Hobie Cats had been built and Hobie took two of them to Hawaii. They sailed in high winds and rough water. The only problem they found was a weakness in the rudder pins that was easy to beef up. With less than 8’ beam the boat was trailerable, weighed less than 300 pounds and cost a modest $999.
Hobie saw sponsoring teams and races as an important part of selling surfboards and boats. He set up a Class Association to get Hobie owners racing, setting courses that were about a mile and a half long, fun races that would turn into social events and bring Hobie Cat owners together. It was as much cocktails and cookouts as racing that would bring whole families out. The 16’ Hobie Cat followed, still trailerable at 7’11” beam and still lightweight at 320 pounds. The next boat was an 18’ Cat.
The sale of Coast Catamaran to the Coleman Corporation gave Hobie the capital he needed to get the 33’ monohull started. The Coleman people wanted to expand their product line with a monohull that was fast, easy to launch and operate and trailerable, which meant the boat Coleman saw accommodating four people could only be 8’ wide. The only way to have a 33’ boat with an 8’ beam stable enough would be with a big keel and it was decided the keel
would

 

 

have to be retractable. They tested the first model by taking it on a Transpac race – Los Angeles to Honolulu – over 2200 miles. It not only survived, it came in third!
One of Hobie’s last creations was the Float Cat, a small fishing platform that a fisherman could fish from that could be paddled or pedaled. Hobie began making kayaks in 1996 with several sit on top models. A pedal model followed, then a fisherman’s kayak. The pedal system was called the Hobie Mirage Drive and it has evolved from the time Greg Ketterman designed it to the 2017 model, the “180.” The drive has flexible fins under the kayak.  Photographers and fishermen like the pedal drive that gets them close to their subjects and fish without any warning.
Hobie’s last big project was building the multi-hull boat for himself to replace the 46’ Hatteras that rocked at anchor. He and his wife wanted the stability catamarans offer.  Starting with a 5’ scale model he made and tested, Hobie went to Australia to get the only blueprints he needed. Lock Crowther, the multi-hull specialist, drew up bottom plans for Hobie’s boat and Hobie did the rest with a building crew.
How did Hobie – 16 years old when he started out – have the savvy to take the right steps, to stay with it when things didn’t turn out right? If you read entrepreneurial magazines and the business advice in Investors Business Daily, “heeding wise counsel” is high on the list of the ways to become a successful entrepreneur. Hobie was lucky to have the kind of father who paid attention to his son’s needs and abilities and gave his son good advice from the start. It was his advice to move the business to a site where he would be seen by prospective customers.
Hobie’s own instincts were good – his advice to business startups was to find a need to fill and to do something you have a passion for that will help you get through the rough spots.
The surfer’s “paddle-out” (a group of paddlers gather and form a circle in the ocean to throw flowers and say prayers) ceremony for Hobie held in front of the family home in Laguna Beach drew thousands on paddle boards, surf boards, kayaks, Hobie Cats and others ashore lined the road and the cliffs to pay their respects to the surfboard and sailboat builder who lived life as an adventure.


 

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