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  • Mr Jones

Colour & Shape: JONES meets Hayden Cox

Photography by SIMON UPTON Photography by SIMON UPTON

UP THE BACK OF A CAR PARK on a commercial strip of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, tucked amidst an air conditioning dealership and the Mona Vale bus depot, is a stylish gateway to transnational, transoceanic, designer leisure. For here lies the pristine showroom of Haydenshapes, a top-shelf surfboard enterprise that is making its mark on the world stage. Five years ago, the business exported its innovative boards to a couple of countries; now Haydenshapes ships to 70.

Hayden wears Armani Collezioni jacket, Sand shirt, J Brand pants, Grenson shoes, Ben Sherman tie, Armani Collezioni tie pin, Hardy Amies pocket square, and Calvin Klein watch. Hayden wears Ralph Lauren blazer, Zanerobe T-shirt, Nudie Jeans jeans and Common Projects sneakers.

The retail space is devoid of surf culture’s familiar art and tattoo aesthetics that routinely flitter between punk, funk, hippie and the Mamboesque. Instead, the showroom’s walls are white while its tables and plinths are fashioned with sharp-angled concrete sculptings. The only picture I can spy on entry is a portrait of company founder Hayden Cox staring out from a hardback cover of New Wave Vision, his written account – supplemented with inspirational inserts from corporate and cultural heroes – of the ascent from schoolboy surfie to jet-setting design entrepreneur.

Cox himself pops up from a black couch. Comfortably encased in a beanie and spectacles, the trim, neat 35-year-old tycoon introduces his national sales manager, the more lived-in-looking Kye Fitzgerald. Kye is son to Terry Fitzgerald, an Australian surfing legend immortalised in Morning of the Earth, the 1971 dialogue-free surf movie that glamorised Bali with its pre-mass tourism location shoots.

“G’day, mate,” says Kye, whose father also founded surf – and later skate – design company Hot Buttered. The ambitious Cox lacks such a lineage, instead being the child of a pair of non-surfing professionals from Sydney’s North Shore. Despite the area’s name, most of the North Shore’s suburbs are not beachside. From the sleepy, leafy, wealthy suburb of Gordon where Cox spent a good chunk of his teenage years, it’s a 20km drive to the sand. Nevertheless, after an older brother introduced him to the way of the wave, surfing claimed Cox, especially when his mother then bought him a board (a Hot Buttered one, what’s more).

Hayden wears Hugo Boss jacket, Marcs T-shirt, Nautica shorts, Grenson shoes, and Hugo Boss watch. Hayden wears Hugo Boss suit, Jac+Jack shirt, Paul Smith tie, Hardy Amies pocket square and Ralph Lauren belt.

Encouraged by his engineer father, Cox learnt to repair his own surfboards to fill in the inevitable dings and dents. But as time passed, he got more ambitious. When his board finally snapped during the summer holidays, he decided to create a new one from scratch.

“A new surfboard was around 600 dollars,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Surely I can make one?’ I was studying design and tech at school, which involved woodwork and metalwork. I was even drawing stuff on CAD, so I rang up a local factory and asked to do work experience.”

That factory belonged to Rod Dalgleish Surfboards, a more modest enterprise further along the very same Mona Vale road where Cox now displays his shining creations. And what snazzy wares Cox has to showcase. His ‘FutureFlex’ technology, for instance, has transformed boards by dumping the stringer (the traditional wooden reinforcing strip that runs up the centre-line of foam surfboard ‘blanks’) and replacing it with a carbon-fibre frame that instead wraps around the foam’s circumference. He describes it as ‘parabolic rails’.

“It’s like a tennis racquet,” he says. “They use graphite and carbon fibre materials and have the frame around the outside and strings in the centre. So my boards have the flex and the strength along the rail-line. When you’re surfing, you only ever surf on one rail: there’s only one side of the board in the water. So now the flex pattern is on that rail line.” Along with the materials he uses, this gives the boards a higher performance level than traditional centre-stringer varieties.

“From a flex point of view, it has a very rapid response and it can be flexed a lot of times without breaking down. So 10 years on, it might have only lost its flex characteristic by about two to three per cent, whereas a wooden stringer has basically lost all its memory and its flex.” One prominent supporter of Cox’s system is Tom Carroll, the Aussie surfing icon who won the 1983 and 1984 world championships. Carroll has said that Haydenshapes makes “the Ferrari of surfboards”.

Photography by SIMON UPTON Hayden wears Canali suit with Hardy Amies shirt.

Given that Cox has no qualifications beyond high school, I’m curious as to how he forms his theories? “Surfing the product,” he replies. “And there’s a lot of science that goes into it. Where I’ve learnt a lot of that stuff is reading – Google – and collaborative projects. On one project I worked with naval architect and engineer Andy Dovell. He understands and is able to compute flex.”

Sydney-based yacht designer Dovell has worked on a series of America’s Cup challenges, and collaborating with him is just one example Cox gives of his relentless quest to team up with and even hire people who know more about particular aspects of design or production than he does. “I tell my sanders, laminators and shapers, ‘You should be way better than me at doing this process because you’re doing it every single day.’ I might laminate a board every couple of months. Sometimes I get in there and do it because I want to stay in touch with it, but I expect and want my staff to be better than I am at what they’re specialising in.”

Cox has plenty of people to expect this from, with towards 300 workers at a factory in Thailand producing Haydenshapes boards, and another couple of dozen at a second facility in Mona Vale. There used to be a third manufacturing site in El Segundo, Los Angeles and Cox and his wife even moved there for five years, living just along the bay in Venice Beach. This site, however, moved to Palm Beach for the birth of their first child. “I offered everyone we had in LA a job here. I said to get an apartment on the Northern Beaches. A couple of them came and they love it.”

There were some interesting differences between the US and Aussie workforces. Cox says it’s much easier to hire employees in LA than Sydney, but that the Angelenos are, on the flip side, far less loyal.

“It’s more transient, and a lot of people tend to want to gain certain skills they can then use to try and get work on movie sets.”

Nevertheless, Cox loved the vibe Stateside. “It’s super exciting. The energy of LA as a city and America in general is very motivating when you’re in business. It’s very encouraging, people are quite open, supportive and they don’t see any ceilings to opportunity. The energy there motivated us to take our brand all around the world. What we noticed was a very positive experience of encouragement and excitement.”

“That differs to the Australian culture, where you do find you hit ceilings. Australia is just a very different place – it’s harder and hardier. It’s not as easy to source things so you’ve got to get innovative with ideas. You’ve got to make the most of what’s around you, because we are an island way down the bottom of this earth. You can get most materials imported in but they cost a lot of money so sometimes you get creative with using alternatives.”

Hayden wears Hugo Boss blazer and trousers, Ralph Lauren shirt and Hardy Amies pocket square. Ralph Lauren blazer and shirt, Hugo Boss trousers, Hardy Amies pocket square and Common Projects sneakers.

It was this intrepid Aussie spirit that led the then mid-20s hustler taking on California by launching his innovations at a San Diego trade fair back in 2007. This was in the topsy-turvy board landscape that developed after ‘Blank Monday’, the infamous December day in 2005 when Clark Foam, which supplied 90 per cent of America’s surfboard blanks, abruptly shut up shop.

After decades of Clark-standard formats, Blank Monday prompted the US surfboard market to open its collective mind, so one could argue this was a good (and fortuitous) time for young Aussies with fresh ideas to enter the fray. Cox, however, pays only a tactical heed to market conditions at any given time, emphasising instead that right from those mid-teen years when he built his first boards, his vision has always transcended the now and focused instead on the longest-term he could conceive.

COX ACKNOWLEDGES HE’ S not the first to build a board differently, and stresses that the make-or-break stage is commercialising the idea. “That takes time and risk,” he explains. “You’re going to fail a lot. My journey has been made up of a ton of failures with a couple of success points which keep me motivated to go through to the next project. You get used to being punched every day, whether it’s by your critics or the struggle of being in business. Look at your critics as motivators. Be self-aware enough to understand that they’ve got an agenda.

That’s where self-control is important – it allows you to emotionally step back from the situation. But you will have moments where you break down. You’re upset – you have those late nights thinking about things and questioning yourself. But on the business front, you’ve really got to stay strong. You need to understand who you are in business and stick to that.”

Cox is so focused on corporate excellence I try to bring the man back to surfing. So I ask what surfing is to him. Is it manic and competitive, dangerous and exciting or about communing with nature?

He arcs up. “People think that because we build surfboards, the business – and the idea of building surfboards – is the same as being a surfer. It’s different.”

“Well what’s it like?” I ask.

“For me, it’s the same as for every other surfer – except I’ve built the products I’m riding underneath my feet.”

“But what do you enjoy about it?”

“What do I enjoy about it?” Cox says, staring at me. “It’s a challenge that you can never perfect. You can always improve and ride better waves.”

When we wrap, Cox leads me around the bus depot, down an alley strewn with broken bottles, to his new factory that is in the final stages of a fit-out. We step into a blue shaping room, where low lights throw shadows across the bare foam, highlighting surface irregularities to be eliminated in the quest for a perfect board.

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