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Cooler than Thou
Karl Taro Greenfeld
February 18, 2005
Quiksilver, which began with one pair of shorts, is now a billion-dollar company that sells the look and attitude of hard-core surfers. Staying on that cutting edge requires constant vigilance ... and the wisdom of Mr. Sunset
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February 18, 2005

Cooler Than Thou

Quiksilver, which began with one pair of shorts, is now a billion-dollar company that sells the look and attitude of hard-core surfers. Staying on that cutting edge requires constant vigilance ... and the wisdom of Mr. Sunset

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McKnight remembers that meeting as "the hardest thing ever in my life other than my father dying. To see a guy who had been so full of life basically dying from the inside out on my watch, and to then see my partner do that to him...."

For the first time in their relationship, Hakman had disappointed McKnight. "Before that, Jeff had been the best partner you could have," says McKnight. "He was the guy who founded this company. He basically gave me everything I have now."

Why, then, did McKnight sit by and watch Crowe fire Hakman? "Maybe it was a mistake," he says. "But I didn't know what else to do. When someone is in that situation with drugs, you have to let them go."

Hakman went back to Australia in 1982, now with a wife, Cherie, and an infant son, Ryan. He rented a flat and lived off the dregs of his Quiksilver stock. After eight months he was broke, and too embarrassed to get a job. "I had no skills, no education," Hakman says. "I was a surfer. Before founding Quiksilver, the only guy I knew with a college degree was Bob." The 32-year-old took to surfing the morning swell and then brooding all afternoon, sitting at his folding kitchen table with his toddler, Ryan, on his lap. One day Cherie told him, "We don't have food for the baby. You need to get a job."

Mr. Sunset, who had founded a surfwear empire, was reduced to calling a friend and asking for a job as an assistant in his surf shop. "People would walk into the shop and say, 'Didn't you used to be Jeff Hakman?'"

In 1986 Quiksilver went public on NASDAQ; in 1998 it became the first surfing company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Hakman's stake in Quiksilver, had he kept it, would now be worth over $450 million.

Bob McKnight is happily married today. He has a lovely wife, Annette, who's from New Zealand, and three children. There are pictures of the smiling clan spread across the granite counter opposite the kitchen table of his 8,000-square-foot mansion in Laguna Beach. Out the window is a lefthanded break on a private beach that he can almost dive into from his bedroom. As he sits sipping a cup of coffee, he insists that Quiksilver can become a global conglomerate and stay core. It's easy to be skeptical of that, coming as it does from a man who wears a Panieri watch, travels by private jet, has an Astin-Martin in the garage, has just purchased one of the choicest parcels of land on Hanalei Bay in Kauai and still owns 4% of Quiksilver. But view McKnight in the context of the relationship between the wannabe and Mr. Sunset, and his "surf or die" spoutings not only become believable but also somehow explain all of Quiksilver's success.

Green, who became one of the wealthiest men in Australia because of Quiksilver, agrees that McKnight's success is based on his veneration of all things surfing. "Bob is the guardian because he looks up to these guys, he worships the culture. If he were just another pro surfer, he might not even think twice about what it all means."

At a recent brunch in New York City's Soho, Jeff Hakman sat with his current girlfriend, Arancha, and considered his history with Quiksilver, his past with McKnight and the challenge of expanding the company without, as he puts it, "turning it to crap." The prodigal son finally came back to the company when he joined with a few other entrepreneurs to found Quiksilver Na Pali, the European licensee that was acquired by Quiksilver USA in 1991. His proceeds from that deal would amount to about $3 million, but more important, he was back in the Quiksilver tribe. He is now the chairman of Quiksilver's Global Advisory Committee, what Green calls the "tribal elders," and manages the accounts of what the company has deemed the 100 most important retailers in Europe. He lives in Biarritz and is building a mansion on the beach in southern Morocco. He has been clean and sober for over a decade.

When you meet Hakman, it's still easy to see how McKnight was seduced by him 30 years ago. He has the easygoing confidence of a great athlete, an aplomb that lends credibility to everything he says--especially when he talks about the painful lessons in his journey from surfer to businessman to junkie and now back to surfer and businessman. A businessman who still has some unfinished personal business. "It was hard for a while," Hakman says of his return to the corporate world. "Bob and I were very cool with each other. When I came back, we just sort of picked up our relationship from there. But we've never sat down, one-on-one, and gotten things out. When it comes to the company, we can talk more openly. One of these days we're going to talk on a very personal level about our whole history."

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