Understandably, there aren’t too many areas of business where little Australia, with only 0.3% of the world’s population can lay claim to dominance. However, the sale by publicity-shy, Melbourne-born, Jan Cameron of 51% of clothing manufacturer and retailer Kathmandu for $234 million follows a long line of Australian success stories in outdoorsy type businesses.

Leading the pack is surf company Billabong, founded by surfer, Gordon Merchant, in 1973 in Torquay. Billabong went public in 2000 and hasn’t looked back, being capitalised at more than $3 billion. Billabong is a leading name in not only surf wear but skate, ski and footwear, boasting ubiquitous youth brands such as Von Zipper, Kustom and Element. Merchant has done well from his investment with BRW estimating his wealth last year at almost $700 million.

Billabong’s success has been emulated by the privately-held, Torquay-based surf manufacturer Rip Curl. Founded by Brian Singer and Doug Warbrick in the early 60’s, Rip Curl is synonymous with surfing culture. The low-profile surfers’ stake in Rip Curl is estimated to be worth more than $425 million by BRW.

The Australian surf wear trifecta is completed by Quicksilver (now known as Quicksilver-Rossignol) which was also founded in the early 1970s by another bunch of Torquay locals, Alan Green and John Law. Green and Law sold the US-rights to Quicksilver back in 1986 and the Australian company was formally consolidated in 2002. Quicksilver is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Quicksilver-Rossignol (whose stable of brands includes DC, Roxy, Lange and Dynastar among others) rang up sales of US$1.8 billion in 2005, with BRW estimating its founders’ wealth at more than $300 million in 2005.

And while it has struggled in recent times, ASX-listed Globe International (which was founded by skateboard champions, Peter and Stephen Hill) is a dominant skate and apparel company with leading brands including Globe, Mooks and M-One-11.

Let’s not forget Melbourne’s own Lonely Planet, with more than 600 titles, is the dominant travel guide franchise globally. Famously founded by Tony and Maureen Wheeler in 1972 after travelling from London to Australia, the privately-held Lonely Planet has, according to its (possibly biased) 30% shareholder, John Singleton, “more potential than any other Australian brand.”

The Australian founders of Rip Curl, Billabong, Quicksilver, Kathmandu and Lonely Planet have managed the rare feat of corporatising a brand yet remaining popular in the most cynical of marketplaces. These trailblazing businesspeople who almost all started with a sewing machine and a garage have combined Australia’s love of all things outdoors and a canny knack for marketing to create the majority of Australia’s global brands.

It’s good to know that while our banks and beer companies may flunk overseas, when it comes to surfing, skateboarding and travelling, Australian-born companies are true global leaders. The members of Australia’s directors club could do worse than venturing from Collins Street or Martin Place down to Torquay to get some tips from our few world-beating businessmen – they’re the ones wearing wet rather than pinstriped suits.

Peter Fray

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