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Riding a Wave of Success : Business: Surfboard maker Phil Becker has survived an industry ebb by eschewing frills and building his company on craftsmanship.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As surfers ride waves a few blocks away, Phil Becker holes himself up in a factory workroom, where plastic foam shavings cover the floor and a yellowed newspaper photo of Lyndon Johnson is posted on the wall.

Most every day he carves rectangular sheets of the plastic foam and shapes them into the product his Hermosa Beach-based company is famous for: Becker Surfboards, built at a rate of 11 a day, about 2,500 a year. It is a routine that Becker has followed for 30 years, broken only for annual surfing vacations and an ill-fated attempt to retire to Hawaii.

In a sport so tied to the whims of youth, Becker’s workmanlike approach appears dated. But the balding 53-year-old is busier than ever, and his business--which includes surf apparel and accessories--has grown steadily, even after the nation’s surfing craze hit its peak four years ago.

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The reason, experts say, is that Becker Surfboards followed its co-founder’s philosophy: It stuck to the basics, resisting the temptation to branch out from surfing gear into such areas as snowboarding and skateboarding.

“I’m in this business to keep people happy riding surfboards,” said Becker. “I’m not in the business to get anyone to ride a certain type of board. Surfing’s a very individualistic sport.”

The company does little advertising, almost never sponsors events or surfing pros and shies away from offshoot crazes. But sales are expected to hit $5 million this year, up from $4.7 million in 1992.

“He’s not a trendsetter, that’s not his way of doing things,” said Mike Eaton, who grew up with Becker and owns his own surfboard company in San Diego. “He makes what the market demands. He’s real consistent in delivering a real solid product.”

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Because each board takes about an hour to shape, many surf shops employ several different people to do the task. Becker, soft-spoken and somewhat blunt, has almost always done that job alone.

“He has the tightest ship in the industry,” Eaton said. “He shapes them, another guy glasses them, another one paints them.”

Pacing back and forth along sawhorses holding the plastic foam, Becker uses sandpaper and planes to get boards smooth and precisely curved. His finished product will then be sent to another room, where partner Steve Mangiagli melds Fiberglass to the board. After that, other workers spray-paint the board to a customer’s specifications, and it is then glossed and readied for shipment.

“You get tired of it, just like anything else,” Becker said as he worked to the sound of Rush Limbaugh on a radio. “But I wouldn’t want to do anything else. I’m spoiled.”

Becker is one of only a handful of surfboard shapers who date back to the 1950s, when surfing was still in its infancy. As a kid on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, he surfed at Bluff Cove, in the days when surfers used heavy balsa wood boards instead of foam. Unable to afford such a board, he and a friend once tried to use a hollowed plywood board that they had bought for $5.

“We couldn’t surf it,” he said. “We couldn’t even get it down to the beach. I think the other surfers gave us that to get us out of their hair.”

In his teens, simply by watching other board makers, Becker learned to shape on his own, producing boards in his garage. That led to a job shaping for Rick’s Surfboards in 1962, earning enough to live the beach lifestyle then being popularized in movies and on TV. In his time off, he would go on surfing vacations, often to Hawaii.

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His parents “didn’t discourage it or encourage it,” he said. “They just said ‘Do what you want to do’ . . . I wanted to make boards and have a good time. I wasn’t concerned about a career. I liked surfing and I liked to do stuff with my hands, so it was a natural.”

He still drives the same white Alfa Romeo from those days and lives in the same duplex apartment.

“The average guy could not have done what Phil has done,” Eaton said. “He’s not married and has no kids. It’s self-discipline. He answers to no one but himself.”

His life changed a bit, however, in 1980, when he and Mangiagli teamed with Dave Hollander and John Leininger to form Becker Surfboards. They bought Rick’s Surfboard factory, where Becker was still shaping boards. But the team also started a retail surf shop several blocks away on Pier Avenue, expanding into other products.

“You can make a living just making surfboards, but not much of a profit,” said Steve Pezman, owner of the Surfer’s Journal in San Clemente and publisher of Surfer Magazine from 1970 to 1991. The surfboards lure the customers into stores, but money is made on surfing accessories and clothing, he said.

When the surfing craze took off in the mid-1980s, Becker capitalized on many of the trends.

At the time, entrepreneurs entered the business en masse, opening surf shops or creating clothing lines. Surfing apparel alone grew into a $1-billion-a-year business, with brand-name shorts and T-shirts populating department store racks.

“There was as much hype as you could imagine,” said Hollander, who handles the retail side of the business and its apparel line. “It got to a point where we thought, ‘This is going to be a bust.’ ”

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While some surf shops added stores and dealers exponentially, Becker opened only three other stores: in Mission Viejo, El Toro and Malibu. The company also tried not to stray from its core business.

“We bought about 10 snowboards (to sell) and sat on them for a year,” Becker said. “You try to stay aggressive without sticking your neck out too far.”

During the late 1980s, the Becker stores sold T-shirts bearing the slogan “The Quiet Revolution,” homage to surfers alarmed that the sport had abandoned its roots.

The slogan proved prescient. The surfing population is getting older, and many parents are trying to get back into the sport or teach it to their kids, Pezman said.

“The sport, now as it grays, is revering its roots,” he said. " . . . For every half-million new kids, there’s a million in their 40s and 50s.”

Longboards--more than eight feet in length--are back. They account for about half of Becker’s surfboard sales. Becker’s stores also stock long swim trunks and even Hawaiian shirts, resembling attire worn back in the 1960s. And every year, Becker still shapes a couple of the balsa wood boards, which stand out in stores almost like museum pieces.

“We’re trying to play it close to the vest,” Becker said. “It’s just steady business procedure. We’re counting on a guy throughout his surfing career.”


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