almost famous

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 October, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2002, 12:00am

When vast quantities of powder snow are dumped on Shanghai this winter for the city's inaugural snowboarding competition - 720 Big Air - Spencer R Barton will be surveying the scene from behind a pair of typically groovy wraparound sunglasses. He has big plans for China - providing the authorities give him the go-ahead. Barton is the first to admit he wants his 'underground company', 720 Eye Armour, to be the most famous brand in China. To that end he has devised extreme sports competitions for Hong Kong (the 720 Hong Kong Surf Open next month) and the mainland.

When I meet him on a recent reconnaissance trip to the SAR, where he has an office, he is tanned, relaxed and hidden behind a pair of 'sunnies'. 'If you're going to be doing freestyle extreme sports, you can't be wearing something really crook,' the 42-year-old New Zealander opines. 'I know the way young people perceive things, and I know what bloody well works.'

Barton is one of those inspiring entrepreneurial success stories. The laid-back character has no need for power suits and Italian shoes; the product speaks for itself.

Perrier in hand, he tells me how, at the age of 15, he left school in his home town of Dunedin in New Zealand's South Island, kissed his mum (housewife) and dad (butcher) goodbye and set off to conquer the world's waves. 'That was during the 1970s, at a time when no one was really into surfing,' Barton says. 'I went to Australia, then all around the South Pacific looking for new surf.' When the waves dropped off he headed for the mountains of Colorado and Japan, to teach skiing. Yet despite these hedonistic thrills, one thought haunted him: 'I knew a day would come when I would have to do something to tide me over.'

That day dawned when he landed in Hong Kong in 1995. After two decades he'd become disillusioned by the direction surfing had taken. On a trip from his new home on Australia's Gold Coast, he found something special here: 'The world's worst surf and the world's best surfing spirit.'

'People have lost it in other countries,' he snaps with disdain. 'You get surfers acting like tennis players, they're all spoilt little brats. In the 1970s it was a real trail-blazing thing, and here in Hong Kong it's still like that.'

The entrepreneurial nature of the city also appealed, and soon the surfer who had found fault with every pair of sunglasses he came across ('I have a really big head, so when I started I always made them fit me') started to create his own.

Since then his designs have proved a success worldwide, with distribution stretching from Bolivia to Belgium, and more than 300 outlets selling the brand in Hong Kong alone. Barton may just be on his way to world dominance. Not even run-ins with sunglasses bandits (he recently 'chased out' a team knocking off copies in Wenzhou) have left a scar on this burgeoning company. 'The answer,' Barton reasons, 'is to be so innovative that you're always ahead of the game. We've come up with six new styles in the past six months. Old fogey brands still have models from when I was a ski instructor.'

Indeed, it seems there's only one thing the blond entrepreneur is afraid of. 'If the suits and ties get a hold of it, the brand's cooked,' he confides.

The 720 Hong Kong Surf Open takes place at Tai Long Wan in Sai Kung on Nov 16-17. For more information visit