In the final interview in this series ‘Meet The OTC Team’ it is only fitting to finish with Tris Best, OTC Director. Tris has huge genuine respect within the industry, with an unprecedented reputation; if you speak to anyone who windsurfs they will know of Tris. He has inspired hundreds of young people to love the sport and continues to bring out the best in all those around him. His humble nature and modesty is the secret of his success, his impact on the industry is palpable and the legacy he has created is something he should be very proud of!
When Tris was 14 years old he wrote to the Editor of Boards Magazine and asked him how he could get into the watersports industry. Even at a young age, he had a self-belief that has remained throughout his career. An outlook that you can achieve anything. He has a natural passion to succeed, evoked by the heartfelt inspiration his dad installed in him; he wasn't ever going to give up on his dreams. He has achieved what that teenage boy dreamt of, and so much more; his dreams have become a reality, not through luck, but through sheer hard work and determination. He has a job he loves and he continues to strive and evolve everyday.
When I spoke to Tris we went right back to where it all started, he said: “I used to work for a company called Wildwind in Vass and kind of always thought it would be good to have a centre of my own one day. From 1999, I was working there with an Australian called Ben Wood and he had similar thoughts and aspirations.
“We knew that the right location was key and did plenty of research, visiting Western Australia and Fiji amongst other places, trying to find a spot that would be suitable. We also knew that having a USP would be important, setting us apart from the crowd, so in the end I came up with the concept of the OTC, derived from testing for the magazine. That was in 2004, but it took a couple of years to size up the right location.
“Working for Windsurf Magazine and testing loads of kit was quite a privilege, and it was an opportunity I believed everyone should be allowed to have, as the 'right kit' is such a subjective thing. Even now I have some close mates teasing that I give everything 'five stars' when I write tests, which I take on the chin ... but the reality is the vast majority of modern windsurfing kit really is good! It has to be good to sustain a brand in the market today. So my role, when writing a review, is to try and provide perspective, and an idea of whom a specific board or sail is good for. Better still, the concept of the OTC gives everyone that firsthand experience, and the chance to have a go on the kit themselves. There is no better way than trying for yourself, in good conditions and rigged correctly.
“We toyed with the idea of lots of different locations, but settled for El Médano in Tenerife, opening in South Bay in 2006. I was testing out there at the time and had a little background knowledge, but also, as a location, it has so many good things going for it. It is very easy to reach for all the main windsurfing markets in the industry; it's an all-year round location, with good stable trade winds, plus it has a mix of conditions, from real-world coastal sailing to a world-class wave sailing spot.
“The biggest part of the jigsaw puzzle was to find an angel investor to help set the business up and that’s where Nick Simmons came along. He was introduced to me by Guy Cribb, being one of Guy's clinic clients that had expressed an interest in doing a start-up. Nick's a lovely guy. Very very astute; lots of business experience and success in other industries, including Yahoo and various other companies. He came onboard with Ben and I, and is still an integral part of the business today."
I asked Tris how he ended up at The National Sailing Academy? “In 2008, whilst in Tenerife, we received a phone call from the Business Manager of the National Sailing Academy, Chris Knight. He wanted to know if we were interested in being the Academy's windsurfing partner. I think I was on a flight back to the UK the next day to meet him and suss just what they wanted! (Funnily enough, Chris' ten-year old son, Finnley, windsurfs with us now, and is a proper little talent in the making.) At the time London had just received the contract for the 2012 Olympic Games and Weymouth and Portland had been designated hosts of the sailing classes. As a result, there was quite a lot of development going on, extending the boat park, pontoons and facilities. Phil Gollop was the Academy's foreman at the time, and being one of the original windsurfing pioneers of the area, orchestrated the prime spot in the Academy's grounds for a windsurfing centre. So I owe a lot to these two. I still kind of pinch myself that we were offered the opportunity to come and set up, but we grabbed the opportunity with both hands. A second start-up in three years pushed the business hard, but where there's a will..."
Which watersport does Tris enjoy the most? “For me, windsurfing is still the most important and I enjoy every aspect of the sport. Foiling is obviously now massive. Going cruising on big kit is great fun. I have dabbled in racing in the past. But if I get an opportunity to go windsurfing for myself, it is always wave sailing. Foiling is incredible as well, and as we have that on our doorstep, it has almost become the default. But if I am going on a planned trip or adventure it’s normally always wave sailing. I think, for me, the sport is so diverse. It provides complete escapism from the stresses of everyday life. That said, we have diversified over the years in the centre. With stand up paddling, kitesurfing, Onewheel, kayaking and wing-foiling most recently. I suppose it is really down to the location and the fact that we're in such a prime spot. It would almost be criminal if we didn’t offer all the options for people to enjoy the water."
“My proudest moment? I guess is kind of getting the OTC to where it is today. Every year we have grown a little, more organically than the initial years, so that we're not pushing or stressing the business. I have loved the sport from 12 years old, and to think we are offering the same opportunity for a lot of the local kids is probably the proudest part of it.
“Some of my best memories are from setting up; we were pretty green in the early years! Ben and I were working with Mark 'Sparky' Hosegood, Adam Lewis and Graham Woods at the time; we didn’t have a great deal of cash, were pretty hard up and had to work hard to establish the business ... but we were happy. We had a great spot on the beach in South Bay, had great kit and we knew we were providing a good service. Plus, if the conditions were good, we'd get a chance to go out on the water ourselves. A lot! We'd sail for hours amongst friends, quite often until it was dark, and have a few beers in the local bar to end. Life was pretty straightforward, and kind of proof that you didn’t need to have much to be happy. It felt like we were just having a big adventure! Today, the journey is no less exciting, but it has naturally become more structured.
“Today, the centre provides a platform for those that come and visit to thrive; to love watersports and enjoy being on the water. Much of that is down to the guys that work at the centre. They are some of the most genuine people I have ever worked with, and I know they all have a positive affect on those that they teach and mentor. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming (reflective of the sports we do I suppose!) and
I hope it makes our visitors feel very comfortable.
“I wouldn’t say I am the most natural at being a boss or a manager, but try to give people the opportunity and space to grow themselves. I hate micro-managing. It has a negative impact on everyone involved, and anyone who knows me will tell you how bad I am at multi-tasking! So to think for others as well as myself would make the situation unravel very quickly. I think in general, employing the right people, providing the environment for them to fulfil their potential and explore ideas ... and then holding onto them through new prospects: that is the best part of being a manager.
“I love to think that we have made a difference in the lives of some of the young people that have come to the centre ... and that we can continue to make a difference. There is a legacy there. If they find a real love and affinity for watersports, they will do it for the rest of their lives."
“Juggling stuff and prioritising is the hardest part of managing the business. There are quite a few days when I have a long list of things I want to achieve, but then I get to the end of the day and not a single thing has been ticked off ... yet I haven't stopped all day. It's just part and parcel of it; I'm sure everybody deals with that, whatever industry they are in. I suppose Alex [Tris' wife] would say the hardest thing is that I never switch off, even when I'm on holiday. Her dad had his own business as well, so she does get it, and is always supportive. I actually quite like it – but the key is getting that balance right. Because the business is in the watersports industry, I think it is important to remember why we do it. There are many easier ways to make money in life, but get the formula right and you can do it with a smile on your face.
Who does Tris go to when he needs advice or support? “Business wise, Nick is my obvious go-to. He is fantastic at providing the freedom to direct, but because he is removed from the day-to-day running of the business, can make good observations and provide scrutiny. He is certainly a realist, which is a good leveller for me! And then there's my other main partner, Marcus Yeoman - super experienced in business and my business mentor. He is always there as a sounding post and simply speaks business sense. There's also Sue Woods, who has been with us from the start. She's always supportive and interested in how the business and team are progressing. Day to day is obviously Alex. She will always have a different perspective, being removed from the situation. Anyone who has a good relationship at home will know just how invaluable that really is. I hope I do the same for her ... but I am probably a little more 'black and white' than is required at times!
“I love to think that we have made a difference in the lives of some of the young people that have come to the centre ... and that we can continue to make a difference. There is a legacy there. If they find a real love and affinity for watersports, they will do it for the rest of their lives. There are lots of people within the industry that inspire me; many just leading their lives with an emphasis on enjoyment. My initial inspiration was my dad; he inspired me whilst I was growing up and still inspires me to this day. He was a helicopter pilot in the RAF and flew for 38 years. I vividly remember him returning from work whilst we lived in Cyprus, wearing his flying suit and the biggest smile on his face. A real cliché to say, but find a job you love and you'll never have to work again in your life.
"We have got a fantastic team, which is absolutely the main foundation for the whole business. We have a great location and lots of support, both locally and from the industry. And I think we offer a really good product, so I suppose the future is pushing and exploring more of what we have got, and can offer."
“I try not to ever stand still. I always think to myself, "We've never achieved everything; there is still more to do." The opportunities available for SMEs within the UK are fantastic: we are a nation of shopkeepers, right?! Small businesses have the support and platform to thrive within the UK, something I felt we sometimes lacked in Tenerife. I think the digital era makes it easier as well. Most people within the watersports industry, and participate in them, are from the ABC1 demographic. They are articulate, clever people so they rightly want a good service and product. So we have to use the changing landscape and new technologies to meet their demands. We've got some ideas for the future, and it's exciting to feel that we can keep learning and evolving.
“How do I unwind? Well, I love to travel. Alex and I have a similar bug in that respect. But day to day ... without a doubt getting out on the water. Anytime I feel stressed, just going out on the water is the key thing. Or I go for a run. I’ve always run, pretty much from when I was a grommet. Exercise in general. In the past I've been thrown in at the deep end by one of my closest local mates. He runs the triathlon club here in Weymouth called Bustinskin and basically just signed me up for a triathlon one year, and an Ironman the next! But it's the best way: if I’ve something to focus on and train for, it helps to focus and direct my mind.
What advice would Tris have for someone that wants to follow in his footsteps?
“That's quite an ironic question, as it is one I looked to answer in my teens! When I was 13 or 14, I wrote to the Editor of Boards Magazine, Bill Dawes, and asked him how I could work in the watersports industry? To his credit he wrote back, but basically said ‘Don’t!', albeit in a much gentler manner. But it almost inspired me even more. It made me think if there is no obvious route, then I'll have to manufacture a path and just take advantage of opportunities as they arise. If it were easy, everyone would do it...
So to someone that wants to do the same, I would say: be resilient. There are going to be plenty of knocks along the way, but identify opportunities and grab them! Focus but also diversify – be a good windsurfer or waterman/woman, sure, but think of the bigger picture and how you can be a real asset to a brand or company. Be kind and approachable and there is always going to be an avenue for you. Whatever you want to be, just be the best that you can.
So what's Tris' secret to managing a successful team?
"I think just trying keeping people happy. Do that with the team and a happy clientele base is the natural byproduct. Being focused on (and making sure it is never lost) why we are doing it. If going out on the water is a person's thing, then make sure they have the opportunity to do that. And listening to people. Giving them the platform to be able to say, "Change that, or change this". Empowering them and making sure they know they are valued. If they come up with an idea, listen to it and act upon it.
“Surf Doctor was the obvious progression route for us. Since we are a school and test centre, we are guiding people into the various sports or giving them the chance to try the latest gear, so converting their enthusiasm into sales was the natural path. We tried in the past to affiliate ourselves with another shop, but that didn’t work, and we got burnt. So we decided we were going to do it ourselves. It's taken a while to identify the right point of sale and e-commerce software, but I think we have got something that works really well now, so will push it in the next 12-18 months.
And what of the future for the OTC and Surf Doctor?
"More of the same really! We have got a fantastic team, which is absolutely the main foundation for the whole business. We have a great location and lots of support, both locally and from the industry. And I think we offer a really good product, so I suppose the future is pushing and exploring more of what we have got, and can offer. It's been a real journey so far. Things have evolved and people's positions have evolved within the company ... but ultimately, I think the heart and soul of the business is still the same from when we set off, and I am pretty proud of that fact.”