Bernard Mariette: And he'll have fun, fun, fun - except for the 'stupid questions from analysts'

The boss of sports and surf gear firm Quiksilver has a lust for life, he tells Abigail Townsend. But will Wall Street take his T-bird away?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There's something strangely familiar about Bernard Mariette, president of Quiksilver, the US manufacturer of surfing, snowboarding and skating gear. His looks, his mannerisms, his enthusiasm, they all create a nagging sense of déjà vu. And then it hits you: he is the surf world's thinner equivalent of that ultimate force of nature, the easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

There's something strangely familiar about Bernard Mariette, president of Quiksilver, the US manufacturer of surfing, snowboarding and skating gear. His looks, his mannerisms, his enthusiasm, they all create a nagging sense of déjà vu. And then it hits you: he is the surf world's thinner equivalent of that ultimate force of nature, the easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

Careering in 45 minutes late for our interview, no excuse forthcoming, flanked by three PR flunkies and Peter Bloxham, Quiksilver's European vice-president, who "taught me everything I know", he lets rip.

No subject is left unturned: losing money, making money, the "kids", how much he loves his colleagues, his ignorance of the Brazilian economy, Marks & Spencer's head office, surfing, cars ...

(Especially cars. For a company synonymous with the eco-friendly surfing community, he has an unhealthy obsession with petrol. He never misses the Monaco Grand Prix. He has been a Ferrari fan "for ever - it's my passion". He owns a Porsche and a Ferrari and nears ecstasy when describing the time he drove an Aston Martin.)

His language can get confused amid the general excitement. Born in France and based in California since 2001, when he was promoted to group president, he speaks impeccable English. But the odd lapse of concentration leads to gems such as "piggy pig", as opposed to the more generally favoured piggyback.

There is nothing that cannot be laughed off or turned into an anecdote. Take his time at French cosmetics giant L'Oréal and the launch of the Laboratoire Garnier range: "We were losing money every day. That was a really good time. We worked hard, played hard and were really losing money. Which was very disturbing," he adds as an afterthought, though not with much conviction.

But this carefree attitude belies a somewhat tougher fundamental approach. Under the leadership of Mariette and Bob McKnight, co-founder and chairman, Quiksilver has hit its stated target of annual turnover of $1bn (£547m) well ahead of schedule. The goal now is to develop four or five "pillar brands", Mariette's term for brands that generate revenues of at least $500m each. At the moment the group has three core names: the menswear line, Quiksilver; the younger female range, Roxy; and DC Shoes. For the last one or two, it is on the lookout to make acquisitions.

Mariette does not hold much truck with maintaining a credible niche fashion brand. He would rather ramp up the appeal, tap a far wider audience and bring home the money. "We will lose some people for sure by getting bigger - the people who just want to be different. But these people don't interest us."

Quiksilver may not be battling with the bellwethers of Wall Street quite yet, but it's certainly come a long way from its humble roots.

The business was started in 1969 by two Australian surfers and at first it made boardshorts (the long shorts popular with surfers and US thrash-rock bands like Limp Bizkit). Seven years later, fellow surfers Jeff Hakman and McKnight bought the US rights and started to grow the business, taking it public in 1986. The most recent deal was DC, a brand of trainer beloved of skateboarders, bought earlier this year for $113m.

Acquisition is not the only way forward, however, because Mariette is turning inland to tap new customers. There might not be much surf in the American Mid-West or Eastern Europe, but that's not stopping him. "When people look at these countries, they are just looking at countries. When we look at these countries, we look at the kids. They have got MTV, the net and they love music. We're going to teach and communicate to the kids about the way we sell clothes."

Other areas have been settled on by less scientific methods. Mariette relates how he and Bloxham were arguing over dinner about the size of Brazil's economy. Having phoned a friend and ascertained that it was, in fact, quite big, they decided they would launch there.

This haphazard approach has been a familiar theme throughout his career. He started at Marks & Spencer, initially in Dublin, but a proposed transfer to the head office put the kibosh on his relationship with the retailer and he still recalls with stunned wonder the endless corridors and infamous traffic lights of Baker Street. It was enough to put him off and he moved instead to L'Oréal. There he met Bloxham but quit when his friend was promoted to another brand. "I wanted to work with Peter. I'm not for working in a company just for money. I don't just want to climb the ladder."

From there he went to the American outdoor clothing group Timberland, where he would have stayed had it not been for a headhunter enquiring about Quiksilver. Mariette was not impressed at first. "But then I met Bob [McKnight] and his wife and I thought, 'these people are fun'. I didn't want to work for them, but they were fun. Nine months later, I was in the company. I kept telling them 'no' but then we had a lunch, a lot of beers and I said 'yes'."

That was 10 years ago and it has, says Mariette excitedly, been "fun after fun after fun" - because, recognising that he is a sports fanatic and proud team player, the company lets him get on with, well, the fun things in life. A young 42-year-old, he doesn't surf but does snowboard, favouring helicopters to get to some of the highest peaks. He likes nothing better than sailing across the Atlantic, proudly relates how he can "still" beat his 14-year-old son at tennis, enjoys motorcross and is training for his helicopter pilot's licence.

"On one side we're a corporate company on Wall Street," he explains, "and every quarter we have to discuss earnings and answer stupid questions from analysts.

"But on the other side you have the brands and people. These are the ones committed to Quiksilver. The people who have not got into the company are not players; they don't have the passion. At Quiksilver, it's not a job, it's a lifestyle."

Mariette is lined up to take over when his still-surfing chairman tires of the world of business. And, if the current growth strategy goes to plan, it will be a considerably bigger company by then. No doubt his enthusiasm and passion for the brands will be a bonus; after all, it has stood Stelios and the "easy" name in good stead. But Stelios admitted that working within City strictures was not his forte. And whether the staid world of Wall Street will concur with Mariette's haphazard love of the good life has yet to be seen.

Except, he does at least seem to be learning. Halfway through a rant about his beloved Ferrari, he pulls himself up, pointing out that he also really loves the much smaller Formula 1 team Jordan. Which he should: Quiksilver is a sponsor.

BIOGRAPHY

Born: 29 May 1962.

Education: accounting degree and MA in marketing and finance, Montpellier University, France; MBA in international business, Bradford University.

Career

1986: first job, working in the finance department of Marks & Spencer.

1987-90: various management positions at L'Oréal.

1990-94: head of France and Spain for Timberland.

1994-2000: vice-president, Quiksilver Europe.

Since 2000: president, Quiksilver Europe.

Since 2001: president and board member, Quiksilver.

Comments