Behind the curtain with Scott Burke Boards – An Industry Leader Profile

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Keeper Sports industry leader Scott Burke in the factory with Scott Burke boards
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Keeper Sports and Scott Burke Paddleboards are rapidly becoming a house hold name.  Whether you go to BJ’s or Sam’s Club to find a economically friendly starter board for your family, chances are, you’re going to come across Scott Burke Boards or their sister company, California Board Company.  How does a brand become so popular?  Who is the inspiration behind the explosive growth of Scott Burke Boards and California Board Company?  Take a look at the road to success from paddleboard king, Scott Burke, the man behind the development and growth of this explosive company.

Scott Burke industry leader profile
Scott Burke worked his way up in the surf and sports industry from the age of 19 to become the brand leader he is today.  Here he is checking equipment from his Scott Burke boards stand up paddle line in the factory.  He is on the floor and working, every day.

Early Days:  Entering into the Surf Industry as a Teen

Scott, what was it that got you started in the Surf industry?

I was born on Camp Pendleton (Marine Corps Base) and brought up in Oceanside, just about a mile from the Oceanside Harbor, Pier, North Jetty, and started body boarding in the summer of 1976.  I  couldn’t help getting caught up in the California beach scene since this is where we spent most of our free time.

I really kind of stumbled into the Surf Industry. I was dating a girl in 1981 and her brother-in- law ran a soft (foam) surf board and body board manufacturing plant down in the Oceanside Valley next to the Oceanside Municipal Airport.  I was attending a community college and was in between jobs when he offered me a job in April of 1982, I was 19 years old.

Tell us about that first industry experience.  We want to hear about the roots of your history in the business.

My first job was sweeping floors and assembling corrugate boxes for Pacific Soft Boards, who manufactured Doyle soft surf boards, and PSB branded surf boards and wave ski’s as well as Scott Hawaii branded body boards. This was 2 years before the slick PE bottom was invented by Sentinel Foam/Packaging Industries. Prior to the slick material, the bottoms of all the boards used similar or the same material as what was on the decks.

The plant manager who hired me was Bobby Szabad ( of BZ Pro Boards) and my direct supervisors were Rick Broderson (Broady Indonesia) and Debbie Colwell (Custom X). Each one of these people are true pioneers in the industry and had a hand in showing me the ropes on perfecting the art of shaping body boards!

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Scott Burke in the shaping room. He credits his ‘shaper’s eye’ to such icons as Bobby and Greg Szabad from BZ Pro Boards

Evolution:  From Pacific Soft Boards to BZ Pro

“I really believe in leading by example. If those around you see that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and jump in, it motivates them to be their best too!” – Scott Burke

How long were you with that first company? Why did you decide to leave and who did you start  working for?

Bobby Szabad left Pacific Soft Boards in the fall of 1984 to start his new company, BZ Pro Boards. I had been working  for Pacific Soft Boards for just shy of 3 years when Bobby offered me a job at BZ Pro Boards, so in early 1985, I decided to leave PSB to work for BZ.  It was during this period that I was able to spend time learning the art of shaping surf boards.  Bobby and his brother Greg Szabad spent a lot of time mentoring me and helped me get the “shaping eye” that is needed in order to perfect this craft.

In late 1986, BZ was purchased by Packaging Industries (Sentinel Foam Products) who made the type of foam that we used in our product. The Consumer Products division at Sentinel helped put BZ and A-tach brand bodyboards on the map at surf shops and into the big box stores!

I’m guessing you moved up the ladder within these companies until you captained the ship. Tell us about that climb? Where were your strengths beyond shaping boards? Don’t be bashful.

There was no job I did not want to learn and perfect.  From A to Z you name it, I did it and tried hard to be the best at it. There were many learning curves, but ultimately, I believe my drive and desire to try to be perfect – which I know is virtually impossible – helped me see beyond manufacturing. This led my superiors to eventually offer me supervisory positions, beginning with plant manager, then VP of  Operations and Sourcing.

One of my favorite lines is “The Road to Success is Always Under Construction

BZ Pro Boards was the premier high end bodyboard at the time (1990’s).  What was it like on an average day?

LOL! We went from a crew of guys (5-10) to over 100 employees, and 3 shifts! Luckily I had a great core of shapers that I like to think I helped along the way:  Guillermo “Yamo” Guerra, Mike ”X-Man” Fleming, Jimmy “JL Designs” Linville, John “INT” Castro, to name a few. They helped train the influx of employees we needed to produce the increasing orders in the years to come.

Were you actively involved on the floor then too? Or just conducting the music around you?

I was and still am what some would call a Working Supervisor-Plant Manager. I really believe in leading by example. If those around you see that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and jump in, it motivates them to be their best too!

Scott Burke at Surf Expo Scott Burke Boards
Scott Burke on the floor of the Surf Expo, taking time to talk to retailers and showcase his product.

What Makes a Brand Stand Out?

Morey Bogey Boards had the Mach 77. What was BZ’s answer to that board?

We countered with the Stinger series of boards.  Then eventually, we were the first to come out with the all slick rail BZ Ben Severson T-10 Channel. The T-10 was a thing of beauty and our President at the time had a great idea to launch it by offering only 1,000 numbered boards. The marketing campaign worked so well that we made and sold a second round of 1,000 boards. Today, 1,000 boards may not sound like much, but this was the 1990’s and the T-10 was a high-end board. That move helped BZ to unseat the other brands and become the #1 body board brand in the country.

What about surfboards? BZ was known for having one of the best soft surfboards on the market along with Doyle. What made BZ’s stand out?

Initially Soft Surf Boards were manufactured with a traditional fin box and fiberglass fin that was mounted in between two fiberglass stringers. The problem with that was when the rider rode the board up onto the beach – which is not good for any surf board – the fin boxes would break! The fin box could not be repaired rendering the board useless; hence the current fin system was born.  Urethane fins and nylon screws that can be replaced if needed. We were the first out with that design and it made our BZ soft surfboards very popular!

Change Comes Quickly

“Earth & Ocean Sports was out to purchase Morey (so I thought) and BAM! We get purchased  by Wham-O.”

In your career to this point, who would you say, other than a family member, was your biggest influence within the industry? Who was your industry mentor?

As I mentioned earlier, Bobby, Rick, Debbie and Greg in regards to shaping. As for leadership and managerial skills there was Rita Kerr and Greg Palmieri but I have been very lucky to be around many great people that worked for Pacific Soft Boards, BZ, Sentinel, Earth & Ocean Sports, Wham-O, and now Keeper Sports Products LLC.

So, Wham-O swoops in and buys your parent company, Earth & Ocean Sports. BZ becomes part of that packaged purchase. What’s next for Scott Burke? What’s your role at Wham-O?

This was a surprise, because Earth & Ocean Sports was out to purchase Morey (so I thought) and BAM! We get purchased  by Wham-O.  This was late 2002.  I was made their Director of Sourcing and eventually went on to VP.

At Earth & Ocean Sports we had already started moving manufacturing to China.  I was spending up to 10 to 12 weeks a year training partner factories in China. This continued during my time with Wham-O. At the time, the Chinese could only make glued body boards and surfboards and it was important that we taught them  how to make a good heat laminated product.

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“I really believe in leading by example. If those around you see that you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and jump in, it motivates them to be their best too!” – Scott Burke

Scott Burke:  Launching his Own Brand

“At first, we thought he was kidding, but after Mark and I talked, we decided I’d call China to see if the interest was legit. It was, and that’s all we needed to hear!”

Okay, so you’re flying back and forth to China and driving down and back to Mexico – a world traveler lending your expertise and getting these factories set up. That had to be hard on the family? Had to be hard on your emotions too, teaching factories in other countries what you learned over 20 years.

It was tough for sure, especially when all you have ever known were the people you have worked with side by side producing product you love.  That, and knowing that our craft was making people around the world enjoy their time in the water. We had no choice.  If we wanted the brands to survive, we had to move overseas.  Labor was cheap, and our competitors, especially the big retailers were forcing the issue. Although we are manufacturing overseas, I still design and shape our initial board blanks here in the USA before sending them over for tooling.

Although all the traveling and time away from my wife Rita, and our boys, Ryan, William, and Collin, was tough on my family, they have supported me 100%.  I can’t thank them enough for that.

All right, let’s fast forward 7 years. You get through your time at Wham-O, and you decide to start up Keeper Sports with some industry colleagues?

Late in 2008, a friend and colleague of mine, Mark Kelly, called me up and asked if I was interested in doing a joint venture with two of our professional friends, Charlie Shen and Michael Shen from China. Mark and I worked together at Wham-O and were together as far back as Sentinel in the late 1980’s, and then at Earth & Ocean Sports, so we knew each other pretty well.

We were both ready to move on from Wham-O, and we were approached by Charlie to start our own company together. At first, we thought he was kidding, but after Mark and I talked, we decided I’d call China to see if the interest was legit. It was, and that’s all we needed to hear!

It was a big gamble at first as we both had good jobs and younger families, but we took the plunge and 8 years later, I’m proud to say that our brands like California Board Company are world renowned. We both owe a lot to Charlie Shen. The Chinese sometimes get a bad rap in and outside of our industry.  Charlie has as much integrity as any person I’ve ever met and we’re proud to say that Charlie and Michael are not only business partners but also our very close friends!

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Scott Burke continues to be a ‘hand’s on’ kind of industry leader. He works on the factory floor and in the showrooms, rolling up his sleeves to inspire others to do their best.

Now:  Scott Burke Boards and California Board Company

“It is a bit weird seeing your own name out on the store shelves, but pretty awesome just the same.”

You must be pretty stoked after all these years to own your own brand. So how does the Scott Burke™ surf brand come to be? I mean, don’t you guys also have California Board Company?

It is a bit weird seeing your own name out on the store shelves, but pretty awesome just the same.  Yes, it is something that I’m proud of. It wasn’t my idea to put my name on a line of product and I would not have agreed if I did not think the product was a good performance quality brand. California Board Company (CBC) was our very first brand we had worked hard to develop and place in as many outlets as possible. The Scott Burke brand came about out of a need to offer a more core type brand- product for the specialty shops and sporting goods retailers. It was actually a product of the success of California Board Company.

Because we had grown so quickly, we started to get complaints from a number of customers that they could not compete with the California Board Company brand if they were to purchase it. CBC was in Sam’s, Costco, BJ’s, Wal-Mart, Dicks, Big 5 and more big box retailers. Those retailers tend to work on lower margins – and we therefore started to lose market share with our specialty accounts. Scott Burke has not only helped us get back into some core shops, but also gives us another vehicle to experiment with, allowing us to get creative with both lines. We hired a product designer and graphic artist back in 2012, Gary Fidele. Gary and I complement each other when designing new products for Keeper’s future growth and line expansion. It’s worked out well for the company.

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Look for a whole new line of body boards and surfboards from Scott Burke in 2017!

So, Scott Burke Boards has body boards, surf boards, stand up paddle boards and a marine item? What’s new for 2017?  Anything you want to give us a peek at for 2018 or beyond?

Yes, we have added the Scott Burke Launch Pad to the line and a floating SUP dock crossing over into the marine category.  Also for 2017 there is a whole new line of bodyboards that I’m very proud of: the Air Cal and Diamond series.  Both of these models have design “firsts” – features that you have to see for yourself! The DD = Deep Dish / TH = T-Hull with a surf board rocker-taper – and these are affordable boards too! We also introduced the new Quest I-SUP line that includes four board sizes. And we’re only getting started!!

We’re hard at work on 2018 and ’19 and beyond. Oh, and I want to give a shout out to our joint venture company and our other partners: Jeff and Dave Hubbard and our Hubboards brand of hi-end bodyboards!

That’s a great story Scott, thanks for sharing it. The company seems to be heading in the right direction.  I see the brands all over the place. Surf shops, sporting goods stores, specialty stores . . . everywhere. We’ll be watching for more over the coming years.

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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.