Behind the brand with Mad Water Sport’s Steve Kirk

Today we are talking with Steve Kirk MD about Mad Water Sports Ltd and how it has come into being.

Interview: SUPM
Photos: Mad Water Sports Ltd

Mad Water Sports Ltd is a SUP retail operation based in North Cornwall just outside the town of Wadebridge. The business has a fabulous well-stocked store, which is worth visiting and has an online presence with an e-commerce shop. It is a family business run by the Kirk family, and today we are talking with Steve Kirk MD about the business and how it has come into being. For many years, Steve has been involved in watersports, kayaking at school, paddling playboats, K1 and K2. He is an accomplished and qualified coach with British Canoeing and BSUPA for paddleboarding. In the last 20 years, much of his time has been exploring the waters around the stunning Cornish peninsula in sea kayaks or on paddleboards. 

So, Steve, how did the Mad Water Sports business come about?
In 2002, Lesley, my wife, two young children and myself moved from Nottingham in the midlands to Cornwall. We bought an eighteen century manor house, and we intended to turn it into an outdoor centre. It became a very successful residential centre offering school activity courses during the summer and an outdoor instructor training course during the winter, training adults to become outdoor instructors. When the COVID pandemic struck, we decided a change in direction was needed. Over the following months, we began the process of establishing the retail operation in Wadebridge. We finally went live just before Christmas 2020 in what we called a soft launch. But we didn’t start trading properly until April when shops were able to re-open.

So Mad Water Sports is very much a family business?
Yes, initially just myself and Lesley, and then our son, Tom, joined us in January this year. Between us, we have a wealth of experience both commercially and practically with the activities. Tom has been surfing since we came to Cornwall in 2002 and tries to get out every day when the surf is up. He is quickly developing his SUP skills and, at the minute, enjoying paddling the top end race SUPS that we sell. We are just recruiting and in the process of adding to the team.

When did you first get involved with the sport of SUP?
In 2008, we introduced SUP as an activity in the centre, initially children on individual SUPs, but frankly, it was a nightmare trying to manage the children. Then during a conversation with our supplier from Mistral, I spotted a picture of what became known as a ‘Big SUP’, and within minutes I had ordered two. We launched the sessions with children on big SUPs, and it was a tremendous success; in fact, we were probably one of the first, if not the first, to introduce big SUPs into an outdoor centre. We also used them when teaching Instructors; standing on a big SUP is an excellent way to coach paddle technique, and we found instructors developed their skills so much quicker in this way.

We embraced BSUPA as an instructor qualification for students on our training, which worked well for us.

Do you think the outdoor centre experience is helpful in this new business?
Yes, I do. Over the years, we acquired lots of experience and qualifications in each of the disciplines we coached and knowledge of products; this has proven invaluable when sourcing products to sell and advising customers to make the right choices for them.

I also had a good few years working in the commercial sector before we moved to Cornwall; some of that was in retail B2B and B2C, so we do have some experience in retail.

Some of the suppliers that worked with us at the centre now supply our new venture, which is also great – we appreciate their support and help. We have added to our supplier list and will continue to do so, always interested in new products and established good quality brands.

Do you intend to re-establish the outdoor centre; clearly, that was a very successful business and strong brand? 
We sold the property but still retain the brand, so possibly, but we have no immediate plans. The outdoor sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, so it needs some time to re-establish itself, and when the dust settles, we will see.

Does it seem a brave move to be setting up a retail operation when many big established high street shops are closing their doors for good?
Well, they say, ‘fortune favours the brave’, and I have never been afraid of a challenge. I think this is the perfect time to be a part of this developing sector and specifically SUP. We have an online presence, but I think some products need to be seen, touched and experienced, and I think many customers still value and enjoy the high street shopping experience. The sport of SUP is relatively simple but getting good advice when purchasing is so important, especially when looking at the more expensive touring and race boards. But even purchasing your first board, good advice from the beginning can help avoid making some simple and potentially expensive mistakes. 

What is the business focus?
When people take those first steps into the sport of SUP, we want to help and guide them; we want them to come back and buy the next board as they progress. We want to share our enthusiasm for the sport and guide them along the way by offering a service second to none. Every time we sell a product to our customers, they become part of our family; we want to be part of their journey and share the experiences.

What brands are you working with?
We currently have a good selection of paddleboards, including Mistral, SIC, O’Brien, TAHE, NSP and more. We also offer a wide range of associated products, wetsuits, BAs etc. We will add to the range as we evaluate new products and equipment to increase our choice and offers. 

How do you see the future?
Well, it’s still very early days for us; during this first year, we will evaluate how things go and carefully consider the brands and products we offer going forward. The sport will, I think, continue to grow for now, inevitably at some point, sales will slow, but currently, I see no signs of that in the short term. We have exceeded our expectations already, which is good, and we are attracting customers from all over the UK, which is excellent.

You were involved in the world of windsurfing back in the eighties, weren’t you?
Yes, I feel lucky to have been a part of something really special, seeing a sport develop and evolve so quickly. I was very much a consumer and wasn’t involved in the industry as a retailer at that time, but those experiences certainly gave me a good insight into what’s now happening with SUP. Many of the suppliers of SUP equipment also have roots in the sport of windsurfing, and I keep meeting people I sailed with all those years ago! I look back on those years with a lot of affection; it was a great era.

Do you see any comparisons with the growth of windsurfing in the eighties and SUP now? 
Yes, definitely, and I think we can learn a lot from what happened to windsurfing. We should also keep in mind that many of the long-established windsurfing companies are today producing SUP boards, which in some ways is good, but also it does have risks associated with it. I think some manufacturers drove the demise of windsurfing from its peak; prices went up and up, and it became a sport only accessible by the well-heeled at that time. Entry-level products became more challenging to find, and so the sport became less accessible. The sport also seemed to move away from its roots, focusing on marketing around big waves in Maui. I am sure lots of other aspects also contributed of course.

Do you think the boom in the inflatable SUP is good for the sport?
Yes, but I do think we need to try to move the quality of the intro boards to a level where they will have a decent life span and second-hand value. There seems to be an influx of poor quality products currently. I would like to see the big retailers, food supermarkets, for example, stay out of this space; they make lots of money doing what they do and in my opinion, selling inferior quality products, I think, does nothing for the sport or the planet! I do not believe that this is good for the consumer or the planet as many cheap inflatables are destined for landfills.

You have a good range of hardboards and a large selection of inflatables in stock; how do you see the market developing?
I think we will see growth in the hardboard sector of the market as people try better performing boards and suited to the paddling they are doing. Most people paddle on lakes, rivers, canals, and estuaries, generally relatively flat and calm. When people try the touring and race boards, they will experience a craft far better suited to those locations. The drawbacks of storage and transportation of hardboards are far outweighed by the feel and performance of a quality touring or race board. I am sure some inflatable products will improve but at what cost. Experience of other sports like kayaking and windsurfing has shown the enthusiast is always willing to adapt and accommodate larger craft to get the quality experience they are looking for.

The other essential factor is that the lifespan of the hardboard is always going to outperform inflatables. We need to encourage the sale of these products and reduce the impact of poor products that need to be disposed of in relatively short periods.

Do you stock an extensive range of paddles as well?
Yes, so often, when people upgrade their boards, purchasing a paddle becomes a secondary consideration, which I believe is a mistake. SUP is a paddlesport, and the paddle plays a massive role in the overall performance and experience. We need to help people understand the science behind the paddles themselves and coach them on the water in the technique and use of the paddle.

The better Instructors I have worked with, who have become SUP instructors, often have a foundation that comes from kayaking where the paddle is recognised as critical both in itself and in its performance on the water.

What do you see as the threats to the growth of the sport?
Over the last few years, the sport has grown at an extraordinary rate; inevitably, the growth will slow and possible plateau. To ensure its longevity, the foundations need to be put in place now with good governance and supported by manufacturers and retailers to ensure we do it right. Inevitably some businesses will disappear as it’s obvious some manufacturers and retailers are in it for a very quick return and have no interest in the long term. Hopefully, the more established players will look long-term, listen carefully to the consumer, and develop good quality products at sensible prices to ensure the sport’s future.

The past couple of years with COVID and Brexit has put strains on the supply chain, and stocks have been limited. It is going to take a while for things to settle and get back to some normality. Many importers have had a difficult time keeping up with demand and forecasting what is needed for the future. Availability of certain products could influence demands going forward. Distribution and container costs are still ridiculously high; COVID is also having an impact, with factories still having to close because of staff shortages, which will result in products being in short supply.

How do you see the company’s future? Do you have plans for growth?
We are still in our first year, so it’s too early to start planning too much, but we do have some objectives we would like to achieve going forward, so watch this space!

What about you, are you getting time on the water?
The honest answer is no! In the last 18 months, from the first lockdown, I have constantly been busy; the transition from the outdoor centre into retail has been absorbing. Getting the shop set up, organising suppliers and stock, putting in the infrastructure has left very little time! I have also suffered a few injuries; I have to say this ageing lark is definitely overrated! Just saying this sounds crazy, but that is the reality.

Now we are up and running; I hope to get out and play a bit more. We have all this eye candy around me in the shop. It would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?

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