The surfin' CEO

A trip to Bali set Bob McKnight on a path to run surfwear giant Quiksilver.

Interview by Alyssa Abkowitz, reporter

Bob McKnight, CEO of Quiksilver
Secrets of my success
Bootstrap if you can
I must see 10 entrepreneurs every month who come in with ideas and ask me, "What's the most important thing?" I always say financing. Do you have a rich uncle, or are you going to borrow money from a bank? I try to tell them to do anything but bring in a partner. The longer you can stay independent, the better off you'll be.
Make the first move
We take a lot of risks. We were the first company to do women's [surfwear], and everybody thought we were going to go out of business. But we communicated it right, we executed it properly, and now Roxy is a billion-dollar brand.
Focus on what you know
Our biggest failure was the [2005] acquisition of Rossignol [skis, for some $300 million]. There was too much involved in hard goods, factories, and seasonality. It just wasn't the right thing for Quiksilver. [The division was sold last fall for $51 million.]

(Fortune Magazine) -- We had a vacation house in Newport Beach, Calif., so I was always in and around the water and loved to surf. My dad was an importer, and on a trip to Japan he brought me home a movie camera. I started filming surfers at the local beach and then editing and splicing my own little surf movies. When I went to the University of Southern California's school of business, I helped pay my way by showing surf movies up and down the coast for $1 a ticket. "

Look for a product that's proven.

I thought I'd just bum around for a year or two and then get serious about life. I started traveling to go surfing and ended up in Bali in 1974. I met Jeff Hakman, who's a very famous surfer. We became good friends, and he invited me to spend time on the North Shore. He knew about these shorts coming out of Australia called Quiksilver (ZQK). He also knew Alan Green, the guy who designed them, and Alan sold us the rights to Quiksilver in America in 1976. "

Do it yourself.

Jeff and I started buying the fabric and getting the shorts sewn one at a time. I put the snaps in every pair, Jeff would iron every pair, and then we'd put them in the back of my Volkswagen van and drive up and down the coast to sell them. By doing that we built relationships with surfers who owned local shops that are now larger accounts.

Find a niche.

Most people didn't sell [surf] clothing back in those days, only boards and wax, so we were really different. The marketing was easy: Give free pairs of shorts to hot kids who surfed. That's the grass-roots methodology that we continue to use.

Don't listen to the naysayers.

Early on when I told my father about Quiksilver, he said, "I spent all this money on education, and you're going to go and make surf shorts?" Thankfully, I proved him wrong.  To top of page

More Galleries