Bon Vivant Interview Series with Mitch Surman

Continuing our series of interviews with people we think are creating their own version of the good life is Mitch Surman. Mitch is the founder and head shaper at MS Surfboards - an ex-professional surfer who turned his love and understanding of the sport into a growing surfboard shaping business based on the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Mitch gives us the lowdown on the art and passion of surfboard shaping and how he uses that passion in his broader approach to life. Check out Mitch and MS on Instagram or on Facebook 

Photo by @sea_bass Sebastian Robison

Why did you bring MS Surfboards into the world?

We brought it into the world to produce high quality surfboards that will last as long as you want them to. If you treat a board with respect, it will last forever. We keep that in mind when we make our boards and only use the best materials. We want the boards to look good and be functional. I used to travel the world to surf as a job, and I have ridden a lot of boards. A lot were good and a lot were bad and you learn to tell what the differences are between them. From there, I started working with some shapers  and from all that surfing and discussion I got to know a lot about boards, what works and why: fin selection, set up and position, rail, tail, rocker entry, rocker concave. I was actually working with shapers saying hey why don't we try this hard edge here etc. When it came to shaping my own boards I took that knowledge with me. I was a carpenter by trade running my own company and I decided to start shaping by myself in a little shed in Caloundra because the rent was cheap. I just went about making a bunch of boards that I thought would go well and, actually, some of my first boards I still ride today and have become some of my best sellers and get great feedback. The other important thing for us is that I always wanted to have tint and colour in my boards - that's why 99% of our boards have colour. A white board will turn yellow and look old after 3 months. If you can make a board look new and nice for a long time, the customer will be really happy.

What drives you both professionally and personally?

I love the feedback of customers, whether they are serious surfers or just your average person looking to get into surfing. To produce good boards for them that they are stoked on. We produce around 6 boards a week so it is a lot of time involved in each board but it keeps me driven because I'm interacting with these people on a personal level and then they might go and talk to another 20 people and grow the business. To keep them stoked and everyone in the water stoked. I guess also producing boards that older shapers that I really look up to come past and go “this board is sick”. It's really nice and they pick it up and see my name on it. That I’m really proud of.

One of the biggest things I think about when I make boards is who is going to look at it. That's why I produce the best quality boards that I can make. I always want it to be that if the world's best shapers were to walk past one my boards they’d say "who made that? That outline is really nice; that finish is really good" That’s what drives me. And I’m really proud that I have had a few of those experience. In fact, I had Bill Tohler come up to me at the Noosa Festival and say "How do you finish those boards so well, Mitch?" "They look really nice." I think he is one of the most respected shapers so I was pretty overwhelmed. I put in so much time and energy to make sure my boards are well finished with good shapes. Having those people come along and make those kind of comments really keeps me driven to keep producing good quality boards.

I work with Ed Hooper. He actually used to be Al Burton's ghost shaper in the 80's. When Al was on the tour Ed would be shaping all his boards including all his channel bottoms for the pro surfers back in the day. I think he would be one of the best shapers in Australia and definitely the best underground shaper in my opinion. He keeps to himself and does his own thing, but I am helping him bring back his brand alongside his fin manufacturing. He stepped away from shaping for a while but has been really supportive of my boards and seeing the response has helped him decide to get back into shaping which is pretty cool. He overlooks all the boards that I put out. He has probably helped the most to give my company the name it has today.

Photo by @sea_bass Sebastian Robison

Do you cook?

Erm I work so much so my lovely girlfriend always helps me out by looking after the cooking. I work 3 jobs so I shaping boards from around 5am then I don't get home from my bar job till 10pm 5-6 days a week so I don't really have time, and if I do, I don't really want to spend it cooking.

My favorite time of day is? Why?

That's a hard one, I would say when I get to go for a surf, but I only go if its good, so it's not a specific time of day. Whenever it's good and I have a chance I will run down for a surf, that's definitely one of the highlights of my day.

Do you consider yourself a risk taker or cautious play maker?

Definitely risk taker for sure. I've always got no money because I'm always taking risks, taking money and putting it in different places. One day one of them will pay off haha.

If you had a theme song or song to enter the ring what would it be?

'Break on through', The Doors. I just love that song and it would probably work out pretty well walking into a ring.

When you hear the word success who is the first person to come to mind? Why?

My great grandfather, had a funeral home. EC Thomas and Sons Funeral Home in the 50's and my granddad dropped out of school when he was 15 and worked at the Sugar Mill in Nambour for, like, no money and just worked really hard and became quite successful and bought properties, sold properties and everything he did was for his family. He was a great family man. We still have a house in Fraser Island that we go to as a family that he bought which is pretty amazing. Sadly he passed however we still go there and my grandmother is still around and supported him through that journey. He became a successful person and it would be pretty cool to become like him in the future. So, on all my long boards I always put Mitchell T Surman for Thomas in memory of him. He used to make coffins in the 60's, 70's and I actually use some of the same cedar he was using for my boards which is a cool coincidence.

If you were a breakfast food which food would you be and why?

I guess crumpets or croissants, everybody seems to likes croissants and I really like crumpets. So yeah I love those two so I would probably be one of those

Photo by @sea_bass Sebastian Robison

What do you feel have become your top priorities in feeling happy, as in as you get older what do prize more or less?

For me surfing is still a massive priority but I feel like shaping boards has become just as big a priority. I guess I love shaping too. I mean, I wake up and I am stoked to get shaping. If you're stoked to wake up to do something then I guess it is a priority and if it pays the bills, that's even cooler. So I guess that's the biggest thing I've always worked at. If you don't go to work because its not what you love then maybe you should be working on your priorities. Doing those two are my priorities so being able to do them is a blessing I guess. When I get older I don't see too much changing. I get a pretty strong feeling I'm on the right path. I mean, I still have to work 5 nights a week in a bar to support all my bills but it would be nice in the future to focus solely on these priorities.

Is location important to your personal and professional happiness? ie Could you do what you do how you do it somewhere else? Would you want to?
Shaping is a thing that can take you around the world. It's just having the name and profile to allow you to do that. I guess I could pack up and do that, however to be able to live in Alex Heads and shape down the road in Caloundra, to be able to shape here on the Sunshine Coast feels like home to me and I don't think I could see myself going anywhere. Around here we have so many nice little beach breaks

What do you consider to be the key elements to a Bon Vivant?
Being happyBeing happy is living life well, if you're not happy you're not really living, are you? Because you're just angry. I work in hospitality and people come into the bar and they are just angry. When I go out to dinner, I'm so thankful to be able to go out and to have somebody wait on me. Just stoked to be there. People go out to dinner and they're angry and not happy with anything, and Im just like, 'Mate, cheer up. Put a smile on your face. You're out to dinner.' If im working and someone is angry, I do what I can to make sure that they start having a laugh. I mean, not being happy is something you can change. You know you are your own person, so seeing people that are stoked on life and being happy is is definitely living properly.

Favorite meal and location to eat it?
I don't mind a takeaway Butter Chicken from this place down the road. I go down to the beach with my girlfriend and eat it . Just park the car up at Maroochy Surf Club which is right on the ocean and sit there in the afternoon looking at the waves.

Do you have one item that you take everywhere?

Not really. I always just throw whatever is around in my bag and go. Ive never really had a material possesion that I take with me. If I have a good board, I always take it. Maybe if I find a board that is a gem and that I think will go well on all the different waves I'm going to surf, however those boards don't last too long because I tend to not surf with a leg rope and if the surf is big they might end up smashed into a breakwall.

Do you find you're less attached to specific boards?

I guess every board I shape and glass I wont let it leave the bay unless I am super stoked and would love to surf it myself.

Every board that comes out of my factory we think, "oh that board looks so good" and we are super stoked on it and we want to surf it ourselves. it is a little like a child leaving you, you get attached to it after you work with it for a while, because we spend so long shaping each board, so we get pretty attached. Especially when you are mixing colours. its not the hardest thing in the world however when you mix up a colour and you're really stoked on and you only mix up enough to glass one, then when you try to replicate it you cant quite get it right it's pretty frustrating.

How do you go about creating your ideal life, who is working behind the scenes?

My girlfriend really helps me with everything, she helps me with my bookwork she helps me with everything that needs to happen behind the scenes. I am really bad at sitting down because I am always doing something. She helps me with all the really hard stuff and to me that is the really hard stuff. She is probably one of the biggest helps, The other person is Michael Gill, he takes a lot of care with what he does with me. A lot of sanders can do up to six boards in a day. With me he will do 1-2 making sure everything is perfect, glassing filler coats and the behind the scenes things that people dont see. He really helps out with that. Oh and Ed Hooper and my parents of course.

Photo by @sea_bass Sebastian Robison

What are some of the thorny issues you find yourself dealing with whether ethical, emotional, practical?

Shaping can really take a toll. If you are shaping a lot of boards from scratch and doing a lot of customs it can be a big strain. Making boards that work is hard work and a big strain mentally. Some days I shape 3-4 shortboards, but I can only do 1 log a day and that's both really mentally straining and physically. You are sweating it out, making the rails foil through the water properly using the lights to help you create that. Sorry I shaped a few boards today so my mind is pretty strained.  

What advice would you give to people out there thinking of starting their own business/pursuit of dreams?

I think it is a good idea, but you have to sit down and think what is your motivation. Is it that you think its cool now or is it something you are going to devote yourself to? I think there are some things now where people aren't really passionate about it but maybe they just get into it because it is cool. You can really tell when someone is passionate about what they are doing because they are doing everything that they can to make it happen. I think if you want to do something really badly you can do it. I mean I work two jobs to pay the bills because I am passionate about being a board builder and board manufacturer. You see people that maybe haven't sat down and thought do I want this to be my life or am I just doing it because I think it's cool. A lot of people think that if they start something they are going to make heaps of money straight away. I have people come up to me saying, 'you're shaping heaps of boards, you must be killing it. But the reality of a young business is there are a lot of outgoings. I dont do this for money. I do it because I love it.

Where do you see MS Surfboards in 2019?

I hope that we can eventually have a bigger factory. We are already getting too big for our current digs. It's not about making money. It is about having the space to produce quality products, so if we grow enough to be in a bigger space thats great. I would love to move to a bigger space where we are able to increase the number of boards we are making while keeping the quality up.

If you had a committee of 3 people living or dead to help you make decisions who would you choose and why?

My grandfather, can my mum and dad be one, oh wait can I put my grandmother in there as well? And my girlfriend too! They gotta be in there. they make me slow down. If there is something that has to be done, I'll get to it, whereas they will get me to slow down and have a think about things and they always give good advice which is probably something someone like me needs haha.