He’s a surfer dude who’s set to shred the competition and catch the next wave in the export market, man.
But don’t ask 22-year-old Rene Gauthier – the most recent winner of the B.C. Export Excellence award – about a return to academic life.
“Nah,’ says the soon-to-be business grad at the University of Victoria. “An MBA is just a piece of paper you get to work for someone else. I like owning my own business.”
And Calgary-born Gauthier is making some smooth moves, both on the wave tops and in the business community. While he garnered more than a few business courses in his first year at UVic, he also picked up a love of surfing, hanging out at the beaches in and around the Saanich peninsula.
|Photo courtesy of the University of Victoria|
|UVic business student Rene Gauthier won B.C. export award.|
“I’ve been surfing for about five years,” he says. “After I’d been at it about a year a friend and I started making our own boards.”
The friend, Andrew Paine, is now Gauthier’s partner. From splashing in the surf, the two of them have gone on to develop a thriving business manufacturing surfboards and beachwear. They incorporated Sitka Surfboards in September of 2002 and have been hanging ten ever since.
Sitka Surfboards recently opened its first storefront operation in Victoria. The industrial park setting on Delta Street is ideal for the fledgling business, as Gauthier and Paine operate a small display area in the front of the space and do their surfboard manufacturing in the back.
The pair design and build the boards themselves, as well as generating original clothing designs that are produced by Boardroom Clothing and then sold by Sitka.
Their work has been recognized in the export award for Gauthier, who is the third student in five years from the University of Victoria to win the prestigious accolade, a $3,000 award for leadership and excellence in international studies while contributing to B.C.’s export economy.
The international component of the award came from his creative marketing while on an academic exchange in Japan. “I made a trip to Japan about three years ago, and then I got a chance to go back through an exchange program with U Vic. I knew some people there from my last trip and so I called them to see if they wanted boards. They did, so I made up some samples and brought them with me.”
Gauthier spent September to December of 2003 attending classes at Kanagawa University in Hiratsuka, studying the Japanese language and taking Japanese business courses.
About an hour and a half drive south of Tokyo, Hiratsuka had something else going for it as well.
“The surfing’s great in Japan,” Gauthier says. “I spent a lot of time there making contact with the surf shops. Brought my boards along with me and managed to get quite a few orders while I was there.”
During his stay, Gauthier hired a Japanese agent to work on a commission basis, and the agent continues to market the Sitka product in Japan now that Gauthier is back in Canada.
“I was pretty surprised to win, actually,” Gauthier says of the award.
“I mean, there are so many other people with good ideas out there.”
Several of those people seem to be coming out of the University of Victoria. UVic student Gordon Cherry won the award in 1999 followed by Cyril Elbers in 2002.
The B.C. Export Excellence award started five years ago as a co-operative project between the B.C. branch of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association (CME) and the provincial government.
“The idea was to offer a little incentive to young people entering the manufacturing sector,” says Werner Knittel, vice-president of CME.
Is there something in the water – other than Gauthier and his surfboards – at the University of Victoria?
Knittel laughs at the idea.
“We completely discount business school information when evaluating the candidates,” he says. “But the fact that UVic students have won three of the past five years reflects very well on the school, there’s no doubt about it.”
Knittel is a member of the award judicial selection committee, and has helped choose the recipient since the award’s inception.
“One thing that’s really important to the candidates is their participation in a strong co-op program. Successful award recipients know what it is to function in the workplace. They don’t just throw textbook information at us.”
Gauthier thinks it’s all about ingenuity. “The students at UVic are different than I’ve met anywhere else,” he says. “Maybe it’s something to do with the West Coast. They are a lot more creative here.”
Sitka Surfboards retail for between $600 and $1,500, depending on the size and weight of the board. It takes a week or so to produce a board, “though most of that time is spent waiting for something to dry,” Gauthier says.
“It’s probably 18 to 20 hours of actual work needed in total.”
Gauthier and Paine are now thinking of expanding their line to include surf/wake boards to capitalize on the latest craze sweeping the West Coast.
He’s not sure what life has in store for him after graduation this summer. “If the business is still doing well, I’ll probably keep working on that.”
Where’s the best surfing in Victoria? Gauthier grins.
“I can’t tell you that. I might get in trouble.”
Judging from his success so far, regardless of where he sets his sights, the surf’s sure to be up.