A LIFE AND DEATH PERSPECTIVE: INSIDE THE RAGLAN SURF CO LEGACY
Originally published on ASB Magazine, 28 July 2019.
Words & Photo’s Derek Morrison @ https://www.nzsurfjournal.com
They say the phoenix rises from the ashes, but what they don’t always tell you is how tough that journey actually is. Luke Hughes, more than most, knows what it means to start from scratch. He shares his story with ASB’s Derek Morrison while “scratching out a few blanks” at his shaping bay in Whale Bay, Raglan.
Luke’s whole world shifted beneath him in 2013 when his father, the legendary shaper and Raglan Surf Co founder, Craig Hughes, succumbed to cancer after an eight-year battle.
“One year I came back from travelling and I will never forget it,” recalls Luke. “We had been in East Timor and we all shaved our hair completely off. We all walked back through customs and the first sight Mum and Dad had of me was with a completely bald head.”
Luke had no idea that his Dad was sick.
“That struck pretty hard for Mum and she was quite emotional,” he offers softly. “They then told me that he’d been diagnosed with cancer.”
With that news, Luke had a decision to make.
“The decision was completely my own and was by no means pressured: to take on a more senior position in the business to alleviate the pressure on Dad so he could still shape boards, which he was doing, but so he wouldn’t have to be present for the retail side.”
Craig and Liz started Raglan Surf Co in 1992 to accompany the thriving shaping business. It became an icon of not just Raglan, but New Zealand surfing. Luke was born into this environment – virtually “raised in the factory”.
“This was when the factory was right out behind the retail store in town,” he adds. “So for me, I grew up surrounded in surf retail, surfboard manufacturing and surfing as a lifestyle with something that was literally right there on our doorstep. It was always around me and I was forever taking it in. When I look back on it now, I realise that I learnt so much in those younger years of my life just through osmosis of being here. I’ll often come across something in business and I’ll know how to do it from a memory I had as a little kid. Kind of like second nature.”
Luke is no prodigal son. He always had a strong work ethic and curious mind. He was head student, got honorary grades and applied himself all through his schooling. At the same time, he was the top surfer in the Raglan Surf Academy.
“I wasn’t the kid who would flunk class to go surfing,” he admits. “I spent my time in school getting an education.”
He said he got sponsored early, at just 13, because he was Craig’s son.
“Yeah, I might have been a good surfer, but I got sponsored because of who I was,” he smiles. “And with that came all the expectations to compete in contests, do photoshoots – but I still knew the fact that I needed to get an education for my future.”
Once Luke had finished school he had the choice to pursue his career in surfing or take an option with the business.
“That decision was never pressured and, as a result, I went off and did the Pro Junior Series and travelled with Billabong.”
But the revelations imparted in that airport arrival hall upon return from his East Timor trip changed Luke’s perspective completely.
“Naturally that decision was not a hard one to make,” he recalls. “I didn’t forfeit anything that I had with my surfing. I was still enjoying it and competing, but just not consistently on an international level.”
As Luke started to manage the store he found himself tapping into what he’d learnt during his school years.
“I started to take responsibility for the retail environment and in my natural way of processing things, problem-solving, incorporating systems and figuring out strategies to make the retail business run more efficiently,” Luke explains. “It kind of worked in my head more naturally because I could relate to everything very easily. I never went to university and I didn’t get a degree. I’ve never had any further education beyond my high school years, but I’ve related to the entire situation because it has literally been my entire life.”
Together with Craig, Liz and the family, Luke split the businesses into the Hughes Surfboards and Raglan Surf Co brands.
“Dad had a bit of a plan,” smiles Luke, with a shake of his head. “He always had a plan or something going on – ‘a cunning plan’ he’d call them.”
“A lot of them backfired and we, as kids, didn’t think they were that cunning,” he laughs.
He points to a magazine clipping on the wall of the shaping bay.
“You can see there it shows Dad watching this exact environment with a person shaping who is not me. It’s my younger brother, Nat,” reveals Luke. “So, originally Dad kind of had this intention of me taking the reins of the retail business and furthering that. And my younger brother would have an apprenticeship in shaping and the manufacturing craft of the board business.”
“What we didn’t realise was Dad’s condition of cancer and it worsening in the timeline that it did,” Luke shares, fighting back tears at the memory. “It got to a point where his condition was so severe that he himself could no longer shape. For us that was pretty scary – it was such an integral part of what our business was and who we were as people.”
Luke evaluated the time and energy his father had put into the shaping business. It had been established for 20 years at that point and he had developed an incredible reputation across more than 40 years of building boards.
“There was no option for it not to be a part of the business,” confirms Luke. “My younger brother at that point was still a bit young to take on that responsibility by himself. There’s a six-year age gap between me and my brother. I was 23 and very busy with the retail side, but I put my hand up to take on the boards.”
Luke said it was frustrating at first – juggling the business with time in the shaping bay.
“There were days when Dad would sit at the end there with his walking stick and watch me do it and talk me through it all,” he recalls staring into the corner of the shaping bay immersed in the memory. “Then eventually I got through that stage where it was frustrating and it was hard. I started to get more confidence and naturally the boards I was crafting started to improve.”
Nat joined Luke in the shaping bay to help out and to take the steps to move the business forward.
“Taking on Dad’s legacy, his brand, his name and his reputation wasn’t easy and we had to work hard to not only upkeep that name, but ideally move it forward,” admits Luke. “I feel as though we’re in the process of doing that, which feels pretty cool.”
Balancing the workload with Nat is exciting for Luke, but fringed with caution.
“Nat loves getting into the shaping bay,” he offers. “It comes naturally for him also and he has a great eye. But he also has to make his own decisions. He has his own life and I don’t want to pressure him at all.”
More recently Luke’s focus has been consumed by the retail side with things coming to a head around the building that had housed Raglan Surf Co for around 25 years. They knew the lease might not be renewed, but hadn’t quite got through the process of planning as Craig’s condition worsened.
“A good friend of mine and of dad’s – our accountant came to me two weeks after dad passed away,” recalls Luke. “He pulled me into his office and said we had to look at a situation that had evolved. He said we‘d known for some time, but we had to find a new location to run Raglan Surf Co from. I don’t regret him doing that, but it was pretty heavy at a time that we were still going through the grieving process.”
That decision came in the aftermath of Craig passing away. The Hughes family found themselves asking: “should we continue this? Should we keep it all going?”
“It was an emotional decision, that’s for sure,” considers Luke. “We looked at what we had, what we’d been through and we made the decision.”
One of the earliest buildings in Raglan – with a historical title – came up for sale.
“It was built in 1880,” offers Luke. “It has been a church and a list of things that would make your mind spin. It actually housed one of the first surf shops back in the day when Miki Dora was frequenting here. It has a very deep history, but most people in modern times would know it as Vinnies Restaurant.”
Luke said it was fitting that it was the new home of Raglan Surf Co because as young kids growing up Raglan Surf Co and Vinnies were both icons in Raglan and he’s grown up alongside Colin and Rhonda’s kids (the owners of Vinnies) in Whale Bay.
The chance to purchase the building gave the Hughes family an option to get away from “the clutches of someone else”.
“But we had to man up and purchase the property,” reveals Luke, shaking his head at the prospect. “It was a heavy decision to make just two weeks after your father has passed away. We talked about it as a family and there were even discussions as to whether we even kept the retail store running. Truth be known, Dad never wanted a retail store – he hated the surf shop. All he wanted to do was to be in the shaping bay talking to his customers and out surfing with them. He didn’t want to sit in the shop and talk to a sales rep about which T-shirt was the new fashion and how he had to order this many as a minimum. That wasn’t who he was. He couldn’t be fucked with that. He wanted to create stuff and use his gift to allow people to enjoy their surfing experience.”
Just as Craig and Liz had realised the importance of the retail store in the early ’90s, Luke also came to the conclusion that it was necessary.
“Everything he had done to build that business could have been gone in the space of two weeks if we hadn’t decided to keep it going,” he considers. “That seemed like the easy way out and Dad was never about the easy option. Although it was hard, we decided to continue. Mum put herself in a hard position – something she had never done before and it scared her – she invested in this commercial property.”
In 2017 the tenancy came up and Raglan Surf Co moved into the new premises.
“It was the first time we weren’t dictated by someone else,” adds Luke with tears flooding. “We had no landlord watching over us – that had never been a reality to Dad. He had wanted to invest in a property, but he never had the chance.”
The family found themselves in a new chapter – grieving a lost father, running the business and renovating a building all at the same time.
“Timing-wise it was tough,” he concedes. “Everything came together at the same point. We were like, ‘fuck, are you kidding me?’”
Luke credits their navigation of that time to a group of mentors and advisors who gathered around the family to support them through it.
“A lot of them had lived through Dad’s eight-year fight and understood what we’d gone through in losing him,” Luke explains. “They knew deep down that we were good people and they knew that what we were aspiring to create in that new environment was a succession of the business that had already been established. It was going to be a reflection of not just Dad, but our values and who we are as people. So with a lot of late nights, hard work, blood, sweat and tears we got in there as a family and we ground it out.”
“I remember the night before we opened, my mum, at age 57, myself and my now partner, we were there until 4am merchandising product and just getting it ready so we could trade the next day.”
After all the adversity and hard work, Luke said it was a surreal feeling to finally sit back and look at what they had achieved.
“We had done it,” he smiles. “We opened the store the day we planned, we vacated the other store the day we needed to and we did it all exactly the way we had hoped to do it. Now we have a new environment to call home and it is ours.”
Luke wasn’t afraid to seek guidance and mentorship as he set the new retail space up.
“A lot of advice I have taken is around implementing systems to make it easier and save time and money,” he smiles. “Then I can spend more time doing what I want to be doing. Just like my father, I would love to spend more time making surfboards and interacting with customers around their board designs.”
Luke, who has spent 10 years now in the retail store, said he would spend about 60% of his time in retail and just 40% shaping.
“My partner says I spend too much time doing both of them,” he admits.
“I have a vision for the retail side and I intend to achieve that vision,” Luke asserts. “It will be hard work that will get us there. If I can create a lifestyle where I own and have a retail business that I direct, but I can spend my time shaping boards, then I’ll be happy.”
“And surfing, of course,” he laughs.
He said some of what he wanted to achieve in the retail space remained a guarded secret, but hinted that adding the coffee bar to the shop front was part of that evolution.
“We’ve built a reputation on the service that we offer in the retail environment and we stand by that,” Luke explains. “Times are changing in retail – all retail – but it’s even more dramatic in surf retail. What people are now looking for through a retail portal is different to what they were in the past.”
“I’m trying to create a retail environment that has a community around it,” he shares. “We have culture and we have a real place for people and surfers to relate to. Yes, it is a retail environment where people can buy things, but it’s not an environment where you’re obligated to spend your money. You can just come and grab a coffee and just hang out, talk to us and get some insights. If you want to spend your money then that is cool as well.”
Luke said he saw the future success of physical retail stores as being centred around their point of difference.
“A successful bricks and mortar store needs to be unique,” he offers. “Our story is unique and the environment we have now is unique. This is a real surfer’s surf shop … okay, that term is cliched, but in our case, we are real surfers riding the same boards and using the same gear as our customers. That’s based on my father’s morals and philosophy. He wanted to make surfboards so that he could see his customers riding them and to see that smile on their faces. If I can offer that to people through the new shop, then I’m succeeding. It’s furthering a legacy.”
Luke admits he likes a good goal to chase and when you look at his past six years he’s been on a very steep learning curve littered with goals. He’s learnt to shape surfboards, learnt to run the business and successfully delivered the relocation.
“The essence of our business will always remain the same: it comes back to who Mum and Dad are and what we can give back to our customers,” Luke confirms. “Surfboards will always be a part of that and the space we are creating and developing will be different to everything that exists in New Zealand. It will be something that gives back to the community and has a positive effect on it.”
Luke said, rightly or wrongly, he wore his heart on his sleeve.
“I don’t hide anything,” he confesses. “I’ve learnt a lot about myself throughout the journey and I have a weird way of looking at things now.”
“We don’t need to go into that and get all hippy on everyone,” he laughs.
But I’m curious to know how he manages himself from a place of loss and despair to a place of resilience and opportunity.
“It’s about understanding yourself,” Luke tells me. “The biggest thing I can pull up is the grief. We can choose to be positive or negative. We can choose to let things affect us or not. It is all a learning curve and things are going to come at you and they might not always be ideal, but if you can learn from those experiences then you can use them as an advantage.”
He tells me a story about a recent trip he took to Indo – a month-long journey with a bunch of good mates and a Mentawai boat trip in the mix.
“We’d been planning it for years – it was my reward to myself for getting the shop relocated and going through everything,” he explains. “I had damaged my thumb before the trip so hadn’t done a lot of surfing in the lead up. I was just really looking forward to getting there and relaxing and surfing with friends.”
“What do I do?” he asks rhetorically with a roll of his eyes. “Third day on my first wave at HTs I jump off in the whitewash of a closeout, as I have done many thousands of times in my life, and my surfboard smacks me in the side of my head. It perforates my eardrum. Because we are in the Mentawai island chain on a boat it gets heavily infected and I can’t surf for the rest of the trip. I end up in the hospital. I’m like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I couldn’t even drink because I was on antibiotics.”
It’s a heavy situation, but Luke refused to cave into his circumstances.
“I found myself doing something completely different because I couldn’t surf,” he shares. “I’ve always travelled with surfboards. For the first time ever in my life, here I was with three and a half weeks in a country where I couldn’t surf and couldn’t party. So, I went on a different journey. I spent a lot of time by myself, did a lot of yoga, which was cool, and visited some awesome surf shops and shapers.”
“I didn’t let the injury bum me out and I took as much positive from that unfortunate situation as I could. That’s the way I try to look at things now. Especially with Dad. I wouldn’t have started shaping if Dad hadn’t died. He was so good at it that there was no need for me to shape boards. Now I am in a process where I am learning more and more through shaping and business. But I am taking positives from it rather than getting down when it doesn’t go the way I had hoped. That’s the way life works – it doesn’t always go according to plan, but it is your outlook and how you treat the experience that’s important.”
Last year Luke and his partner Karamea brought a wee girl into this world, Peara, which means pearl in Māori. Like all new arrivals, she has changed the future for Luke and Karamea.
“To have a little human there that wakes up in the middle of the night … I don’t really know how to explain how amazing it is,” Luke shares welling up. “For me to see my partner carry a child and nurture a child all that time and to bring her into the world … of all the things I have experienced in my life that is by far the most powerful thing I have ever been a part of.”
“It, like death, puts a lot of things into perspective.”