Magazine

The Silver Surfer


Jeff Hakman raises a glass of wine to his lips. We are in Biarritz in Southern France, at the headquarters of surfwear giant Quiksilver, and Hakman is reflecting on the trials and tribulations of what can genuinely be described as a rollercoaster life. Now 54 years old, he still displays all the edginess and boyish excitement of a teenager straining at the leash to get out there and make things happen. Fingers dancing and shoulders flexing, he sums up his life for me in a few words: "I really should write a book," he says. "I could call it `How to fail at business and succeed in life."'

At first glance, the Jeff Hakman story looks like the stuff that the American dream is made of: surf-crazy kid becomes World Champion at 17, turns business mogul 10 years later and makes millions. However, scratch the surface a little and the dream looks more like a nightmare.

In 1958, when Hakman was nine years old, Gidget, the first mainstream surf film, was released. By the time he was old enough to compete in tournaments the surfing scene was well established and everyone under the age of 25 either was a surfer or looked like one. Hakman, surfing's youngest ever World Champion, found himself at the very epicentre of this cultural explosion and he made the most of it. Jeff Hakman was surfing's first bona fide superstar.

But this was the Sixties and Jeff was more intent on getting high than on becoming great. Surfing had no infrastructure and therefore no real money, so, along with a few surfing buddies, he turned his hand to drug smuggling. He was not particularly successful. After a couple of bungled trips to Lebanon and Thailand, Jeff got busted trying to smuggle strong Thai marijuana back to America via a US military base near Pattaya. The base had set up a system for allowing ex-pats to use their mail facility. Who would suspect the US military mail service of drug smuggling?

Unfortunately for Hakman, he was found out and arrested in a hail of police helicopters and squad cars. Just when he thought he was going away for a very long time, the good old US constitution came to the rescue. The FBI had hung onto the evidence for a couple of hours too long, thereby infringing Hakman's constitutional rights. The judge threw the case out.

Sensing his outrageous good fortune, Hakman decided to limit his partying and concentrate on surfing. Then, in 1976, he finally admitted to himself that, no matter how long he remained at the top, surfing would never make him financially secure. He approached two Australians, Alan Green and John Law, who ran a small board-short company in Torquay, Australia. He had an idea to license their company in America. The company was called Quiksilver.

At first the pair were sceptical, so they set him a challenge: if he could eat an entire paper tablecloth (they were five bottles of wine into lunch at the time) the licence would be his. Hakman set about the cloth and got himself a company.

"Suddenly I was dealing with finance people and lawyers, putting snaps in the shorts, buying fabric, doing sales and promotion and just about everything," he says. "Basically, I knew everyone in the business, had a passion and thought it could work. I wasn't a hard business man but I could get things done with little resistance."

By 1978 they were in impressive offices, leasing Mercedes and Porsches. "The second year we made about $1 million, which isn't much but our gross margin was $500,000 and our expenses were not that much," says Jeff now. "At the end of the year we had a profit of about 10%. The accountants told us the gross margin was the big thing. If it's below 42% in this business you're finished."

With the world in the palm of his hand, Jeff Hakman should have been contented. He had money, a great business and could surf the board shorts off all comers. But he wasn't satisfied. "I was 27 years old, my girlfriend was pretty fast-lane, and she introduced me to heroin in Indonesia. It wasn't rampant straight away. I used it socially and could stop and start, but with time you get hooked in."

In 1979, Hakman began selling off chunks of his Quiksilver stake and dispensing the proceeds into his arm. He was becoming a tragic joke, wandering around handing out the remnants of his success for the price of a hit. He became obsessed with committing suicide, a feeling which only abated after meeting Cherie, who would later become his wife and the mother of his son, Ryan. But he couldn't give up heroin. Even when Cherie was in labour with Ryan, Hakman went off to score. When he returned, she was giving birth. Hakman watched through a heroin haze as little Ryan entered the world.

By 1982, Hakman had been kicked out of Quiksilver USA. He wouldn't show up for work, and was constantly sick if he couldn't score. He blew over $1m in less than two years. "It became so blatantly, obnoxiously horrendous," admits Hakman. "No one could find me when they needed me, the behaviour was so erratic. Even when I was at work my attention span was focused entirely on how soon I could get out so I could score."

Hakman took his family and his last remaining $3,000 to Australia, where he was forced to get a job. The former World Champion was now to be found working behind the counter of a local surf shop. Still, he stayed clean, set up a modest surf school and even started entering senior surf contests again.

Then fate played a hand. In 1984, Hakman met up with his old buddy Harry Hodge at a surf contest. They talked long into the night about Quiksilver. Totally out of the blue, Hodge offered Jeff a partnership and the opportunity to co-launch Quiksilver Europe. After initial misgivings - after all, he'd already let down so many people and didn't know if he could handle any more disasters - he decided the chance was too good to miss.

It was a tough job - selling surf culture to a continent with nine months of winter - so they extended the brand into snowboarding gear. Their new approach took Europe by storm. Every self-respecting, style-conscious aspirant to outdoor life from 12 to 40 seemed to be wearing Quiksilver. Hakman fast established himself as the company "Guru" - brand custodian, charged with keeping what he calls "the salt" prevalent in the company and preventing the corporate side from running roughshod over Quiksilver's core values. During this golden time for the company, Quiksilver Europe's turnover leapt from $1m to $6m in two years.

Then, just when it seemed he was back where he belonged, Hakman experienced what heroin addicts refer to as the "tap on the shoulder". He suffered a heroin relapse. Before long, he was stealing from the company to feed his habit. The very people who'd offered him the unlikeliest of lifelines were being ripped off by the man they'd tried to save.

When his misdemeanours were discovered, all hell broke loose. The board was split about what to do with him. It came down to Harry Hodge, Hakman's old buddy, to cast the deciding vote. He made Jeff sign a letter of resignation, then put it in a safe and told him that, if anything else happened, he'd be out. Hodge also made Jeff's wife, Cherie, a signatory on all his accounts to prevent him relapsing again.

Now 54, Hakman has been clean ever since and Quiksilver Europe has gone from strength to strength, merging with Quiksilver USA in the early Nineties. Quiksilver Europe is now the most successful of all Quiksilver licensees. It got off to a good start, increasing its turnover 26-fold in the six years from 1985-91 to $26m. By 1996 this figure had grown to $72m. Hakman and the other European board members walked out of the merger with Quiksilver USA multimillionaires and stayed on as employees. In 2002, Quiksilver Inc turned over $700m.

Hakman still surfs, and his boyish enthusiasm remains remarkably undiminished, belying the traumatic events of his past. If ever there was a man looking forward to life, it is Jeff Hakman. But then, for some people, it doesn't pay to look over your shoulder. By Tim Southwell


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