Behind the brand: Chris Houghton of Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co

Interview: SUPM
Pics: Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co

Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co had a bright future a few years back, but then they disappeared. Or rather, Charlie Cripwell (founder of FWBPC) had enough of the industry. Then late in 2020, we got a whiff things were afoot. Sure enough, a revitalised Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co, with new co-owner Chris Houghton saw the Isle of Wight brand resurrected. We needed to find out the goss.

Why did FWBPC decide to go on hiatus a few years back?
Back in the earlier days, SUP was dominated by windsurfing companies using similar styles and construction methods to their windsurf boards. Freshwater Bay Paddleboards was originally born out of necessity to get boards to perform as I wanted based on longboard surfing that other brands weren’t producing. Having spent a lot of time and money developing products and building the business, the industry changed beyond recognition. It became saturated with companies just trying to make a quick buck, companies that didn’t care about paddleboarding or paddleboarders. It just stopped being an industry I wanted to be involved in. 

Did at any point, up until Chris came along, the brand consider a rerun?
I’d mulled over doing small limited runs of boards but was happy enough just doing things for myself, outside the industry. 

Chris, tell us a little about your background and what drew you to Charlie and the FWBPC brand?
I’ve had a reasonably broad career to date, everything from start-ups to larger corporates. I’m a professional wingman and angel investor – I look for individuals with vision and help them realise their potential. At the smaller end of the market, this has led to me becoming a director and co-owner of the Spoon Group of Custom bike brands (Spoon Customs, WyndyMilla & Gun Control Custom Paint) whilst, at the larger end, I was previously CEO of OVO Energy Retail, the second largest energy company in the UK today. I first came across the Freshwater Bay brand in Freshwater Bay. My folks had recently bought a house on the bay (I followed suit shortly after), and I’d seen several people out on the water on these striking, longboard style SUPs – I had to have one. Charlie had a great vision, a reputation for quality products and a brand with huge potential; he also happens to be a good guy! Long story short, I liked the brand so much that I bought into it and helped Charlie revive it. We complement each other quite well and have a shared vision of what we want to achieve.

What do you think makes the company and its products unique?
Ultimately the only thing that makes a company unique is its people; everything else is replicable. Our particular mix of values, grit, engineering and sense of community and place means that we have produced a small but highly curated range of premium products for real people who want fewer, nicer things in their lives; things that last, that bring joy and that have ‘soul’. 

Tell us how the company’s working now – who does what and how things have changed?
Chris runs the day-to-day, using his experience of scaling businesses; Charlie leads on the design and manufacturing side, and we ‘double up’ when it comes to brand development and positioning. 

Has the focus and ethos changed at all?
Freshwater Bay Paddleboards has always had a focus on quality and producing the best boards possible. That ethos is a constant. 

How do you guys see the SUP industry in 2021? Do you reckon it’s a tougher nut to crack, for instance?
It’s probably tougher in the sense that there are so many companies out there now, but a far greater number of people are paddleboarding. We just need to cut through the ‘noise’ and re-establish our position at the higher end of the market.

What strategy (or strategies) will you be employing to get the Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co message out there this time?
We have a simple strategy – produce great products and content, provide excellent service and be remarkable – in the truest sense of the word.

In general, what do you think makes a successful brand, regardless of industry?
People buy brands, not products. Yes, you need to master product-market fit, but consumers buy the experience you create, the sense of belonging you deliver and the view of the world you share. Ultimately they buy ‘you’; they have to like ‘you’ – and it’s difficult to fake ‘you’ for any length of time.

Tell us about the Freshwater Bay Paddleboard Co range of products. Any tweaks, upgrades or changes?
We’ve kept the Classic 9’11 that is the brand’s backbone, freshened things up a little, replacing bamboo with Paulownia, and brought out the blue and white colour scheme to go alongside the original orange. All boards are now wood sandwich with Kevlar rail construction and have a deep grip handle for extra comfort. The 10’6 Classic is a scaled-up tweaked version of the 9’11, and we’ve stopped the 11-footer that we did previously. The iSUP range has had an overhaul using the latest materials and bringing the colourway up to date. We’ve also upgraded the standard paddle to fibreglass. Initially, we are doing the 10’6 all-round and the 11’5 compact tourer as they were the most popular shapes, but we’ll be adding to this in due course. 

And what about moving forwards? Any plans to add to this?
We plan to keep the current offering and add to the hardboard and inflatable range.

Last time around, you had a couple of well-respected rippers on your books as team riders (local longboard legend Al Reed being one). Got any high-level riders helping out now?
We have people representing us on a more local level, such as Eddie Cole of Eddie’s Surf Academy here on the island. He’s a South African former junior surfing champ that coaches the next generation of rippers. 

Any plans to up your roster of FWBPC ambassadors?
We are expanding our roster, but not necessarily on the surfing side. We like to think that all the centres that use our boards, plus our existing customers, are the best kind of ambassador to have!

The SUP landscape has changed a little recently. Flying above water, aka foiling is a big talking point. What’s your opinion on this?
Foiling has undoubtedly come to the fore for people at the more ‘extreme’ end of the sport and has probably taken over for people that used to surf short SUPs. 

Any plans to get involved in foil or wings?
If we feel there is something we can add, then we’ll certainly consider getting involved. Nothing’s ‘off the table’, but, like our boards, we always aim to be classic and timeless rather than a setter or fast follower of fashion.

What’s your biggest goal for the brand, and why?
To re-establish our premium positioning in the industry and introduce ourselves to those who have found SUP in our absence. 

Final thoughts on the SUP industry?
We need to be pushing for ever more sustainable materials, manufacturing processes and end of life solutions. As an industry, there is much to focus on and deliver, and, in the meantime, we all have a responsibility to build genuinely high-quality products that stand the test of time and will not simply be next season’s landfill.

Thanks and praise?
Thanks to all our customers past, present and, of course, future. And also to our demo partners who were so quick to support us when they heard we were coming back!

Huge thanks to our advertisers

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