From boardbags to the boardroom

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2009, 12:00am

What makes a successful entrepreneur - a good idea, a lot of drive and a clear vision? Adam Healy had all of those when he bought his surfboard manufacturing company, but one of the keys to his success was experience. Not his own experience, you understand: someone else's.

With an innovative new surfboard accessory attracting global interest and due to launch shortly, this Hong Kong-born surfer, swimming coach and extreme sports specialist explains how hands-on mentoring and case-hardened advice gave him a vital platform for rapid business and personal growth. 'Board & Lodging is one of those brilliantly simple 'why didn't anyone think of that before?' ideas,' he said. 'It's a self-inflating bag for your surfboard that not only provides better protection for the board but also serves as a very comfortable air mattress for camping and the beach.'

Not surprisingly, the rapidly growing global surf industry has sat up and taken notice. With worldwide distribution already in place and a very healthy order book, Mr Healy's company Benpat International is looking strong. His Board & Lodging product will hit the beaches this summer.

Mr Healy does not fit the stereotype of the budding entrepreneur. Born and raised in Hong Kong, he won a bronze medal in swimming for the SAR at the 2001 Asian Age Group Games, he graduated in sports management in Australia before working as a swimming instructor and surf lifesaver. When he took over Benpat, he had little or no experience of corporate life and had not set foot inside a business school.

Fortunately for him, the man he took over from at Benpat had lots of experience. 'Benpat was started by John Patkin about 15 years ago. Its core business is making boards: surfboards, skateboards - every kind of board for extreme sports. But when I bought the company, I didn't just get the inventory and contracts; I got John's experience, too,' he said.

Mr Patkin, a surfer himself when he started Benpat, took Mr Healy under his wing. 'I wanted to use my experience to help him avoid some of the problems I'd run into early on - problems such as underestimating production lead times and ending up with an unhappy client as a result; basics such as managing the balance sheet and cash flow,' Mr Patkin said.

The founder's willingness to school the new owner through the early stages of running the business proved critical.

'I was phenomenally lucky to have John as a role model,' said Mr Healy. 'He really did take me step by step through everything and got me on track with all aspects of the operation. The easy part is to have the bright idea. The hard part is to have the structure and organisation to see it through, such as keeping the books up to date and inventory management - everything that you might think is less exciting but that can kill your business overnight if you're not on top of it.'

Less than a year into running his own company, Mr Healy believes that the innovative Board & Lodging concept is already changing perceptions of the company on an international scale and paving the way for growth. 'The response to Board & Lodging from the industry has been spectacular. Because of that, our strategy has been to move as fast as possible in order to make it difficult for others to follow. One way we're doing that is by encouraging existing surfboard OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to position their own brands on the bags alongside ours.

'The first production run is due out at the end of this month and we're ready for the next. Board & Lodging seems to be hitting a sweet spot and we're building on that by launching our own range of surf lifesaving boards under our own new brand, Ark. I'm very happy with where the business is right now.'

Mr Healy insists that his prime goal in buying Benpat was not just to run a company but to fulfil an underlying vision of providing new and better products for surfers. He acknowledges nonetheless that leadership and entrepreneurship are roles with which he instinctively feels comfortable:

'People have always told me I had leadership skills. That's not for me to judge, but I do know I have a very high level of motivation. I was lucky enough to be brought up in Hong Kong, which taught me to communicate with people from a wide range of cultures. But I honestly don't think energy and communication skills are enough. You've got to believe in your product. You need a vision. You need a lot of drive and perseverance. You've got to be able to take the knocks and get up again with the same determination.'

As for his personal growth since taking over Benpat, Mr Healy is in no doubt that his organisational skills, management technique and overall self-discipline have already 'gone through the roof'. But how does he think he would have coped if he hadn't had John Patkin to guide him through the early stages?

'It would have been immensely more difficult to have done this from nothing. Having John's experience, his contacts, his network, was invaluable. And I have to say I've certainly gained a whole lot of respect for people who do run companies, too. My advice to anyone who doesn't have a mentor such as John to support them is to go out and find one. Talk to all the people you can, learn your industry inside out, choose your advisers very carefully and then listen to everything they have to say.'

Ultimately, though, Mr Healy is still convinced that sound management skills alone are inadequate to equip the would-be entrepreneur for success:

'Every bit of extra experience is valuable, of course, and you're learning every day. But what really makes the difference is having a genuine passion for what you're doing. That's what gets you through the bad times and it's what makes it worth fighting for. Passion compensates much better for lack of experience than experience compensates for lack of passion.'