Hobie Alter: Ahead of the curve, doing what he loved
Published on January 16th, 2014
Californian Hobie Alter has left an indelible mark. He launched the surfboard industry in the 50s and got into skateboarding in the 60s. When he tried sailing an 18-foot P-Cat, he found the boat was heavy, and decided to expand his business. Hobie tells the story, in this excerpt from the February 3, 2014 issue of Fortune…
I thought, if I wanted to spread out more, I’d build a 14-foot catamaran, weighing under 200 pounds, that could be sold for less than $1,000. A Newport Beach businessman named Art Hendrickson suggested that we form a separate company to do that. He would help with financing and sales, and I’d work only on the design. I said okay. We started Coast Catamaran Corp., and I began building a boat out of surfboard foam.
We launched our first four production boats, called the Hobie 14, on July 4, 1968. Both of us put in about $20,000, and neither of us took a salary. We built about 100 boats the first year. In 1970, Art wanted to erect a building to build the boats in. We needed some serious money, so we took the company public, and raised $200,000 or so.
In the meantime, I designed the Hobie 16, and we were growing fast. The Hobie 14 sold for $999 for about a year, and then we bumped it up to $1,100. We had a ton of dealers and made a lot of boats. The surfboard business continued to run on its own while I started the catamarans. Art left to start his own company, and in 1976, I sold the catamaran business to Coleman Co. for $3 million. I could stay on and build boats while keeping the surfboard company and retaining the name for everything except the boating products.
Along the way I licensed my name out for swimwear to McGregor Sportswear and Ocean Pacific. Eventually I got onto the board of OP, and am now licensed to Hurley for surfwear apparel.
I retired in 1992, and just completed building a 60-foot power catamaran for myself. My sons, Hobie Jr. and Jeff, now run Hobie Surfboards/SUP and Hobie Design, which manages licenses for the Hobie brand.
I started selling surfboards 64 years ago, and I’m proud that we’ve been a leading surfboard manufacturer and catamaran manufacturer. We’ve survived and are still out there. Hobie has become a national name, and I got to build things I like.
My advice is…
Find a hole to fill. There was a need for a lighter-weight boat, so I built the Hobie 14. There has to be a need for your product to compete.
Have passion for what you’re selling. I was an active user of surfboards and sailboats, and got our products out in the public eye. My sons sailed and surfed from the beginning and have the same attitude.
Your customers’ praise means everything. It’s important to have good word-of-mouth, and let the customers sell for you. We put on regattas to promote our sailboats, which are still going on today. We started a class of sailboat racing for the Hobie 14, and there are fleets around the world now.
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Note: Hobie Alter was a member of the first class of inductees on October 23, 2011 for the newly established U.S. National Sailing Hall of Fame.