During the late 60’s and early 70’s, the surfing lifestyle meant getting in your kombi van packed to the rafters with surfboards, surfmaps, tents and sleeping bags and heading to the coast for classic surfing safari.
Where one ended up depended entirely on the waves. One day you could be riding the hollow lefthand reef-break at Summercloud Bay on Sydney’s south coast, the next morning you could wake up at Angourie on NSW’s far north coast.
The weather map dictated which direction these free-spirited wave hunters would point their kombi, and nobody knew how to read weather map better than ex-Maroubra surfer Gordon Merchant. He had an uncanny ability to turn up at the right beach exactly when it was ‘going off’ (that translated means when the wind, tide and surf combine to produce perfect waves).
It was after one such magic surf-run up the coast, in search of that inevitable Pot of Gold, that invariably punctuated his surf safaris, that meant Gordon simply did not return to Maroubra. He had found his surfing Utopia, a 20 miles stretch of golden beach and perfect point breaks.
As far as Gordon was concerned this was Meca- averaging 300 days per year of good quality surf, where one could wear boardshorts or baggies for 9 months of the year. He settled in quickly and it was not long before Gordon was making a significant contribution to the Gold Coast’s infant surfing industry.
As a shaper, Gordon made a huge breakthrough when he introduced a surfboard with a tucked-under edge, a development that aided Joe Larkin’s team-riders Michael Petersen and Rabbit Bartholomew in their ascension to the top world surfing.
As a surfer, Gordon saved many a wiped-out surfer from grief when he developed the first leg-rope. Sure, it was a primitive device by today’s standards, but anybody who has had to scramble over the rocks at Burleigh Heads on a big day owes Gordon a schooner.
In 1973 Gordon and Rena Merchant began producing handmade boardshorts under their flat overlooking his beloved Burleigh. They were tough as teak, able to withstand not only the elements, but also able to absorb the sort of punishment that local juniors Guy Omerod and Rabbit Bartholomew would put those first issued
From those humble beginnings, Billabong was born.
Gordon buried himself in his North Burleigh factory for the next few years and Billabong gradually made ground on the more established labels. His no frills, practical approach to boardshort manufacturing paid dividends, as Billabong grew steadily until his little homespun factory literally burst at the seams.
It was out to West Burleigh, a modern factory and warehouse and much more work for Gordon and Rena. Sure a lot of low pressure systems, plus the waves they generated, passed by the coast during those years, but Gordon’s Kombi stayed put.
It became obvious to the Australian Surfing Industry that here was a man, driven by the desire to produce the highest quality, best cut boardshort on the market, and by the early 80’s Billabong had achieved it’s primary objective.
During the 80’s Billabong went International, firstly exporting to California, Japan, New Zealand and Europe and then finally licensing, but only after each international licensee had achieved Gordon’s benchmark of dedication, honesty and prudent business savvy.
Gordon surrounded himself with some of the finest minds in the industry, both in Australia and abroad, who helped steer the good ship Billabong on a course which would take Billabong to the helm of the world surfing.
In the water, surfers of the calibre of Joe Engel, Mark Occhilupo, Luke Egan, Wayne Bartholomew, Munga Barry, Shane Dorian, Taj Burrows, Sunny Garcia and the late Ronnie Burns have given Billabong international credibility, not to mention Worldwide exposure.
As we entered the 90’s, Billabong had well and truly assumed #1 status in Australian waters and had further consolidated on the International scene. Of course, very few people even realised that Gordon Merchant had such a hands-on role in designing, marketing and sales, but having an intimate understanding of the fickle nature of the garments industry, Gordon knows that every label lives and dies by each seasons range.
On it’s 25th Anniversary in 1998, Billabong moved into the new premises at 1 Billabong Place, Burleigh Heads, featuring a state of the art new factory. One feature of the new complex is the Polynesian style Retail Showroom, that stands proudly at the forefront of the factory, displaying the largest range of Billabong product anywhere in the world.
Billabong is involved in many promotions, but one thing that underpins the respect the company enjoys in the marketplace, is Billabong’s commitment to pro boardsports and its team riders. Billabong sponsors many events around the world, with a heavy emphasis on Junior athlete development, but the Jewels in the Crown are The Billabong Pro contests held in Teahupoo - Tahiti, Jeffreys Bay - South Africa, Mundaka - Spain and the Pipeline Masters in Hawaii.