VORTEX Surf Skate Snow – the journey, the stories and at its core, quality hardware, celebrated its 20th birthday on Friday, November 27.
Vortex founder Steve Cousins opened the store inspired by the things he loved doing.
After 12 years of working in retail, Cousins had a vision for a surf, skate and snow hardware store in Wonthaggi.
“There was a need there in the town, especially in the hardware side of things,” he said.
“There were a couple of retailers that were dabbling in the surf side of things, but not really.
“I just thought Wonthaggi really needed a surf hardware-specific kind of thing and with skate, I saw the opportunity to take it on.
“Even after five years, I wasn’t sure if we were going to survive.”
Vortex started off on Graham Street, next door to Rob’s Takeaway.
“We struggled to turn over enough in that small shop. The town of Wonthaggi was thriving and it was really difficult to get into a decent-sized vacant shop,” Cousins said.
“We scrapped away for a long time, just making ends meet.”
Following waves of community trends in their varied sports, Vortex has now cemented itself as a quality hardware supplier with their production of custom surfboards.
“Twenty years shouldn’t sneak up on you, but it does, you’re constantly working on your business and you’re never sure if it’s going to survive.
“In that 20 years, we’ve seen lots of things that can threaten that and probably the biggest is online.
“Even after 15 years of trading in the store, there was still no certainty that we were going to survive, based on new threats.
“We’d been stocking other brand boards and the problem with that are changing trends of brands; you’re constantly changing the brands, most of them are travelling from Queensland and that creates its own dilemmas.
“We were getting a lot of damaged boards and we were paying a lot for the boards, there was very little margin in surfboards.
“The hard thing is, customers are outlaying a lot of money, but what they don’t understand is that so are we.”
But Vortex was never going to give up on selling boards.
“We’ve never wanted to be a surf shop, without the core product, you’re either a clothing shop or you’re a surf shop,” he said.
“So for a long time, they (surfboards) were almost a loss leader.
“The shop has always really been about making sure we have that core product, not just the latest brand of clothing,” Cousins said.
More recently, Vortex has focused on locally sourced and in-house shaped surfboards.
“It was difficult to get Australian-made boards at the time, we saw the opportunity to do our own and make them locally for local conditions, that was always the way we wanted to go.
“It was hard to produce the range, so customers took us seriously, but the local support for them has been amazing.”
Having the core product, supported by staff who live by the sports, has always been the backbone of Vortex.
“Our staff members have always lived that life and that’s been super important to us right from the start, it’s about the lifestyle.
“I’m a big one for creating a community within the community, which has always been around. A lot of the surfers know other surfers, the skaters do, a lot of snowboarders do and they travel together, or they participate together and it creates their own community.
“And for a surf shop, particularly in a small town, it has to be at the core of that and somewhere that people can come and meet, talk about waves, talk about things that are good… giving people in the community the opportunity to come in and share that experience.
“The staff and everyone here, they care and it’s a genuine interest.
“For those three sports, there’s a buy-in to people’s lives, it’s not just a part-time thing they do, it’s a genuine lifestyle, to share that with other people who share that life is a massive part of the surf business and we need to keep it that way.
“There’s way too many suit and ties in the online, and multi-store businesses who aren’t actually surfers.”
Cousins said COVID-19 had brought new awareness of shopping local.
“We like to build our store around quality products, not just the coolest brands,” he said.
“COVID has created an awareness to go back to the roots a bit more and support the people who have been supporting them for years,” Cousins said.