Walking in to Freedom Boardsports for the first time, my jaw dropped at sheer number boards on display, lining the walls and stacked on shelves, there were hundreds of surf boards, wake boards, body boards, and stand-up paddle boards, taking up every bit of available space in the modestly-sized showroom.
I was there to meet Rick Reynolds and Tom Fekete who, with their half century or more of combined local surf knowledge, are the brains behind Freedom Boardsports – the largest boardsports dealer in Southeast Asia.
After some quick introductions, I sat down with Rick and Tom to talk about the history of the business and how they had steered it become such a prominent player in the Phuket’s, and indeed the whole of Southeast Asia’s, boardsport industry. As you might suspect, it wasn’t an overnight success story.
Rick, who opened the original Cobra Surf Shop in Phuket Town (because that’s where you had to go to buy anything, in those days!) has been a mainstay of the island’s boardsports community for more than 30 years.
“We first opened in 1986 and we were a purely windsurfing company – we were a branch office for a large manufacturing company called Cobra International, which is now based in Chonburi. It was then, and still is now, the largest windsurf, surfboard and SUP manufacturer in the world,” says Rick.
“We started off selling mostly windsurfing equipment and a few odds and ends. Over the years we expanded to become a comprehensive watersports supplier; selling hobie cats, kayaks, canoes, windsurfing equipment, body boards, snorkelling equipment and life jackets.
“The main target in those days was hotel supply contracts. So we were very well known for a long time with a lot of the big resorts like the [Le] Meridien and all the Laguna Resorts. We were active on both coasts too, especially in Samui and Koh Phangan. The entire south of Thailand from Hua Hin down we supplied… I won’t say every hotel, we had competitors… but a lot of them,” says Rick.
In the 1990s surfing took off in a huge way, quickly becoming a world-wide professional sport and a cultural phenomenon. Rick was riding the wave of the sport’s new-found popularity by organising surf competitions and helping to strengthen the local surf scene. It was during just such a competition that Rick first metTom Fekete – a lifelong surfer hailing from California’s Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles. They didn’t know it at the time, but that fateful meeting would serve as the foundation for what would become their long-standing business partnership.
I was around 2014 when Rick, then the sole owner and operator of his Cobra Surf Shop, found himself in search of partner that could help him modernise and revitalise his business.
“There were a lot of missed opportunities being a one man show, so I was very actively looking for a partner, but I’m very fussy… and Tom’s name ended up at the top of the list,” says Rick.
As luck would have it, Rick caught Tom at the perfect time, he had only recently sold off his surf-safari charter business in Indonesia after his largest boat was severely damaged in a tsunami. As soon as they had shaken hands on the deal, Tom wasted no time – transforming the company from a laidback local surf shop to a modern, online and tech-savvy enterprise. And it seems to have worked, says Tom, they’ve had steady positive growth over the last three years, that shows no sign of stopping.
“Freedom Boardsports was Tom’s brainchild and he built up our brand very effectively, it has really just been growing like a mushroom. Our reputation online is very solid, Tom does our social media and our website, which he maintains on a daily basis, and he is very, very active on it,” says Rick.
“The new website was key to the modernisation, I had some ideas for layout of the shop and I’m a little bit more active in the local surfing community. I’m out there everyday surfing and talking to everyone, so I’m a bit more familiar with the products, the new trends and what people want,” adds Tom.
Their online business is booming too, the only thing holding them back is high-shipping costs and cross-border tax and monetary law red tape.
“I’d say almost half of our business is taken care of online, even though we don’t have our online shopping cart open; due to issues with credit cards and the laws allowing us to charge over the internet. But nevertheless, all the communication goes through the website,” says Tom.
Both Tom and Rick agree that the current boom in stand-up paddle boards (SUPs) has been great for business and is just getting started.
“Thailand has been slow to get traction on SUPs, they are about five years behind on the popularity compared to other countries. But now, with the balance between surf season and the SUP sales, we have a much more even rate of sales throughout the year,” says Rick.
Adding to their booming SUP sales, Freedom has secured a contract with the Phuket Lifeguard Service to supply all of their surf-rescue boards. They make their own custom board-bags right in the shop. To top it all off, they even had a member of the Thai Royal Family drop in unexpectedly to purchase a surfboard.
Further strengthening the market, according to Tom, is the fact that surfing seems to be rapidly gaining in popularity among sports-minded Thais and they often prove to be particularly discerning customers.
“The Thais are starting to get into surfing more and more. Whereas before they were all on hand-me-down boards, now they come in and want the best. We’re even selling boards in Bangkok, no one used to want a tan, but now it’s becoming cool. I see kids from Bangkok down on the beach here all the time,” says Tom.
Another little-known reality of the boardsport industry is that Thailand is home to some of largest and best board manufactures in the world – most notably Cobra International Co. Ltd – the largest board manufacturer in Asia.
“Up to about fifteen years ago they used to hide the fact that the boards where made in Thailand, well not hide… but just not promote it. Nowadays, it’s a badge of quality to say a surfboard, or any board, was made in Thailand – usually at either at Cobra or at another factory called Firewire – both of which we represent exclusively. It’s a badge of quality, as opposed to ‘Made in China’, says Rick.
The other pillar of their success, says Rick, has been to stock the best quality brands and provide the highest level of customer service possible.
“Every product in this shop is top end, we get top of the line brand name products under strict quality controls, we don’t deal with cheap off-brand products, so we feel we can stand completely behind our products,” says Tom.
“When it comes to online shopping, we are a true bricks-and-mortar company and with our stock, if people see it on the website, they can come in the next day and buy it. Or we can ship it straight out to you. We ship overseas very frequently, mainly in the Southeast Asia,” he adds
So what’s next for Freedom Boardsports? I ask Tom and Rick. The gregarious pair seem a bit more tight-lipped about the future, but hint at plans to expand to become a region-wide distributor for some of the biggest manufactures in the industry.
“That’s what we’re tirelessly working towards,” says Rick, “fortunately we have the advantage of longevity, reputation and connections in the industry developed over 30-odd years,” he adds.
For more information visit Freedom Boardsports online.