Australian Surf Originals: Natural Necessity
COASTALWATCH | AUSTRALIAN SURF ORIGINALS SERIES
It's A Natural Necessity
Interview by Hugh Wyllie
It’s almost 30 years since the Ladkin family first opened Natural Necessity surf shop on NSW’s South Coast. Just off the highway, this Gerringong surf superstore sustains a healthy tourist trade for the Ladkins, but like all roadside attractions, sometimes city-folk can’t help but take the wrong exit. Thankfully today, if you can’t find Natural Necessity on the map, you’ll find them in a search engine with young Forrest Ladkin at the digital helm.
In five short years Forrest has boosted the family dream onto an e-commerce platform catering to over 14,000 customers online. Meanwhile, he’s busy documenting his family heritage back to the early seventies and is even working on a Natural Necessity surf magazine! That’s in between organising television and radio campaigns, whilst managing stock and sales. Can you believe all of this is happening in a sleepy little town called Gerringong? Neither could we…
CW: How did your family get started in surf retail?
FL: We’ve got such amazing roots and I personally think it’s just as credible as any of the original surf companies from the 70s. Dad grew up surfing at Merewether and after studying at New Castle for one year, he decided to pursue an alternate lifestyle. He moved to Angourie where he lived in a treehouse for a few years, actually, it’s the same one from Morning of the Earth. He got into yoga, became vegetarian and went surfing every day.
At the time everyone was still using hard paraffin wax – the stuff from the petrol station which was a nightmare to work with – so Dad started experimenting with a formula containing beeswax, some paraffin and a few special ingredients, and came up with wax that was firm, sticky and way easier to use. This is a brand of surfwax which guys from 70s and 80s would definitely remember, called Honeysurf wax.
Around this time, Dad’s brother Brad had already moved his family down to Gerringong, renting this old rundown dairy farm in the hills, and Dad just jumped at the chance to set up down there. It was the perfect place for the brothers to grow the wax business. Through the 70s they ramped up Honeysurf to the point that they had 90 per cent of the market at that time. They sponsored Nat Young and sold literally two million blocks of wax! Kent setup the Honeysurf shop in an old rundown grocery store in Gerringong and these are the roots of our current surf shop. Kent also bought a big coaster bus and renovated it into a mobile home and stock room, so they’d load it up and drive from Gerringong to Noosa every month, to meet with all the surf shops up and down the coast, personally topping up stock levels across these stores. They were self-distributed on the whole east coast with agents throughout the rest of Australia. Other surf brands caught on and so Honeysurf started to distribute for them too, brands such as Balin and Mambo, board cover manufacturers and Phantom shirts just to name a few. So Dad found success in distribution. The Maseur sandals, who blew up really big in the early 80s, asked Dad if he wanted to launch their brand over in the States.
At the time he was already distributing them on the East Coast of Australia and thought this might be his big opportunity. He left Honeysurf with Brad, and moved to America, while Brad ended up working with Mambo in Sydney and the Honey brand and wax business was sold to Brian Creagan at Ocean and earth and remains to this day, O&E’s women's label.
Local professional surfer Chris Puckeridge leased the surf shop and ran it under the name of "Pucko's Honey Surf Shop" in Gerringong during the '80s until Kents return from the US when he reopened it under it's current name, Natural Necessity.
At what point did your Dad decide to get back on the horse with Natural Neccessity?
After living in California for 10 years, Kent had moved on from Masseur sandals and was working as a business consultant while running surf jet expeditions when he decided to finally come home. Upon his returned to Gerringong he found that the lease was soon up on the surf shop. So he decided to start it back up under the new name of Natural Necessity in ‘89.
He started teaching yoga out of the surf-shop shop by pushing all the racks aside after hours, which is actually how he and Mum met. Today, Dad’s achieved his dream of the ultimate surf shop that has over a thousand boards in stock, it does really well with swimwear and apparel too. It’s family owned and run as opposed to some of the other chain style stores and we stock local oriented gear, within a broad range that works for everyone. Since I left school I’ve been pushing really hard to setup our online presence. Now we have 14,000 online customers. It’s been tricky learning it as I’ve gone along, but I’ve put a lot into it and you can find most of our stuff online on quite a good platform. It opens us up to the whole of Australia.
What sets Natural Necessity apart from other surf retail outlets?
Dad had an interesting philosophy. He wanted to create a superstore, which really just started as a small shoebox style surf shop, but having heaps of land out the back we ended up expanding to what we have today which is a double story, 1200 square metre superstore with a 500 square metre warehouse. I think statistically it’s the largest independent single door in Australia. We run off quite a different business model to most other stores because of Dad’s vision to keep the range really diverse. I’d say that’s our main point of difference, because unlike the big flagship stores we maintain a broadest possible selection of brands. Dad’s always wanted to create a range that’s refined but still much more diverse than what you’d find at the average store. The fact that you can go to one place and get this much variety speaks for itself. It’s about finding the right balance of selection and quality, and I like to think we’ve found that. We also have an in-house café in the surf shop. The whole idea is you can get really cool organic coffee seven days a week while you do your shopping. It’s called The Perfect Break Café. That’s just another part of the dream, creating a holistic experience.
How do the waves of the South Coast influence your approach to retail?
The shop basically started with just the local area customers – people from the South Coast. We stay true to them with our locals discount and it’s such an important home base for us, but of course the highway really opens up Sydney to us too, what we do, and why we love it so much.
Dad wanted somewhere that had that beautiful small-town feel, with good waves but at the same time conveniently located from Sydney. One of the main reason the store was able to grown to be the size it is, is because of the thousands of people driving down the coast from Sydney over the summer period. You can look at it from the local core side, and we really appreciate that side to our business but realistically the people from Sydney who come down from holidays make up the majority of our client base. It’s a day trip, only two hours from Sydney and close to the highway, the gateway to the South Coast.
You mentioned you stock over a thousand surfboards in-store. Is there a particular type of surfer you cater to with this range?
Dad was a really early adopter of EPS and Epoxy, he went all out really early, when Surftech first came in and no one was really pushing EPS Epoxy that hard. I think he lost a fair amount of market there, but because he believed in having boards that hold up better, he saw an advantage in stocking high performance boards in these technologies. That goes for all the surfboard labels we stock aside from Channel Islands. Now all brands have finally adopted or even focused on an EPS / Epoxy construction, the board sales have gone to another level. Five years ago we were selling 400 boards a year and now we do 1200. As far as the types of surfers we cater to, in the past we were more specialised, but now we try to cover all bases. It’s going to be really hard for somebody to walk in and not find a board that’s going to work for them.
Have you experienced any shifts in demand for surfboards along the way?
The Haydenshapes Hypto Krypto is our best selling single model. The biggest shift in the last five years was the move towards these hybrid shapes in our range. I’m also told we’re the biggest Firewire dealer in Australia. We’ve really pushed for that, for people who want a small wave hybrid in their quiver. We also have a hire board service, with 120 boards to choose from, at thirty bucks a day it’s super affordable and you get your money back if you buy a board. It’s a great incentive, because there are so many variables with buying a board. The reality is you will only know for sure if you take it for a surf. So we’ve tried to bridge that gap with our demos.
With a predominately Sydney-based clientele, and a shift in sales towards hybrid surfboards, we must ask, do you think surfing is still core down in Gerringong?
Yes I do. We’ve got family friends who have been making custom boards in Gerringong for 20 or 30 years. That’s their niche and they’re still doing it. If people want a high-performance PU, they generally go custom. Our focus in equipment is on stock that will last longer. As for surf community down here… Dean Bowen just lives down the road, and so does Sally Fitzgibbons. There’s a good circle of crew from our town who all surf really well.
What’s the best time of year to visit your neck of the woods?
If I was going to pick one fun time, I’d say autumn for sure. Any time of year is good here really, but autumn’s pretty special because there’s swell coming and usually the wind’s are still light and there’s that clean beginning to the westerlies and north-easterly winds dying off. It’s nowhere near as crazy as the middle of summer. You can have some really special uncrowded moments to find your own space up or down the coast. There’s so many good places nearby.
What board and wetty combo would you suggest for that time of year?
I’d say come in, and we can find something that will work for the conditions on that trip and pick out something suitable. Otherwise you can cut right down the middle and find something easy that will handle a bunch of conditions from our range of hybrids like a mid sized Hypto Krypto. I’d say a 2mm short arm will do the job for wetsuits.
What’s in-store for Natural Necessity in 2017?
We’re just about to launch our magazine with the history of the business, sourcing all these amazing old photos from the early Honeysurf days. Aside from that it’s business as usual. Check us out online or come in and say g’day on your next trip down south.
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