Surfer rides business wave

That's where stand-up paddling comes in. He first actively revived stand-up paddling in Hawaii eight years ago. Hamilton says he loved the challenge and immediately saw it as a great way to work out muscles that regular surfing missed. But, as is often the case when he tries new things, he was frustrated trying to find the right equipment. He'd ask local shapers to make boards of the right size and would experiment with different paddles.

Four years ago, Hamilton turned his quest for gear into a business. He teamed with Surftech, one of the world's largest makers of surfboards, to design a stand-up board for him. At first, Hamilton simply wanted to get his hands on a board that met his exacting standards.

Now, the board is one of the company's hottest sellers, and it ships them to customers almost as fast as they're made, says Duke Brouwer, promotion manager at Surftech, a private company that doesn't disclose financial results.

Hamilton, for his part, declines to put numbers on the extent of his success.

But that's just the beginning of Laird Inc. Hamilton this year joined the board of directors of San Diego-based H2O Audio, which makes products that waterproof digital audio players, such as iPods.

Hamilton's business efforts extend further yet. He's done motivational speeches for companies and is releasing a fitness manual, Force of Nature: Laird Hamilton's Handbook for Peak Living, in November. He also buys, develops and sells real estate in Hawaii and is developing property on Maui and Kauai.

But paddling out into the business world is a new thing for Hamilton, who has been more concerned with mastering the waves than profiting from them.

And it appears he could already be headed for a business wipeout. In spring, Laird launched a clothing line called Wonderwall sold at retailer Steve & Barry's, where most clothes sell for about $10. The retailer, though, filed for bankruptcy protection last week, and its future is murky.

Promotion for the sake of business might be relatively new to Hamilton, yet he shows up for an interview wearing a blue T-shirt emblazoned with the Wonderwall logo. Despite a laid-back surfer attitude, complete with greeting visitors with an "Aloha," his fierce competitive streak bubbles up when talking about business.

Hamilton says nothing would make him happier than to make some of the entrenched surf companies, which he says gouge consumers for products while shortchanging surfers, suffer.

Why the bad vibes? To date, the best way for surfers to make money is by tying up with a giant surf products company such as Quiksilver or Billabong and competing in contests they sponsor for money. But Hamilton, under the guidance of stepfather and pro surfer Bill Hamilton, scorned such contests.

He says he resents the pressure these companies put on their athletes to win, only so they can charge large premiums for the products they sponsor.

But not going along with the corporate game means Hamilton has had to find his own ways to earn money. He disdainfully talks about how surf companies have "squeezed" his friends and the difficulty he has had making money despite his skill.

"I'm doing this because I love it, but I'm not going to be stupid on the business side," he says. "You see guys on the street corner (who may have) created (an invention) but didn't know the business side."

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