Richie Fitzgerald was born and raised in Bundoran, County Donegal, which has become known as a world-class surfing destination largely due to Richie’s exploits as the undisputed face of Irish surfing.
Richie represented Ireland at both World and European Championships but now concentrates on big wave surfing and owning and managing Ireland’s leading surf shop and surf school. Outside of surfing Richie is a family man, a huge football fan, enjoys SUP, spear fishing and is reputed to own one of Ireland’s finest Star Wars memorabilia.
Tell us about your business
Our business ‘SurfWorld’ is one of Ireland’s original surf shops. We opened in 1990 as a small family run surf shop, we have developed the business into Ireland’s leading surf retailer. with expanding the shop size and stock and also our online business over the years. In addition to that we offer the whole range of surf services like a year round surf school catering to all levels from complete beginners to expert, surf rental, boards and wetsuit repair and all local daily surf reports and info available in store, online or on our social media.
What were you doing when you decided to create your own business?
Surfing is in my blood and our family have a great surfing heritage here. When we opened Surfworld back in 1990 I was only 16 and worked in summer time in the shop, by 2000 I was involved full time in the business. I spent the 90’s finishing school and college, traveling and competing all over the globe at World and European level for Ireland as well as building a career as a professional big wave surfer so taking over the family business was a natural progression from me on a personal, career and business level.
When did you start your business and what inspired you to do this?
What inspired us to set up the business was necessity, I come from a family of surfers and although people have been surfing in Bundoran since the early 1960’s there was no surf shop until we opened in summer 1990. It was mostly so my family and friends had a place to buy the essentials like wax, boards and wetsuits, I don’t think back then that we thought it would grow into the business we have now.
What were your start-up costs?
My sister Annamarie and I borrowed 500 punts (back then that was a lot of money) from my Mum and we contacted a UK surf distributer and ordered wax, leashes, booties, a few boards and 6 wetsuits. This was before the internet or email so it was all over the phone and bit of a shot in the dark, we really weren’t sure what to order, what it would look like? and would any of it would sell?, We set up a small corner in our Mum’s shop and thankfully the stuff sold and we are still here today.
What was the biggest obstacle?
The biggest obstacle at the beginning was getting stock, educating customers on the product and of course finance as the surfing industry back then was very small nationwide and almost existent outside surfing hotspots like Bundoran, Strandhill, Rossnowlagh, Portrush and Lahinch.
Who supported you?
My Mum was huge support to us and all our family chipped in, I can’t answer this question without thanking the local Bundoran surfing population and indeed the wider area of north Sligo too as they supported us right from the start and kept the wheels turning in that first 10 years especially.
How long did it take you to get everything your business off the ground?
I reckon it really took 5 years, the first boom year we had was our 5th year 1995, it was helped by a hot summer with good waves but I feel it was one of the first years that surfing and its accessibility spread outside of the hotspots and we started getting customers from all over Ireland especially the Dublin and the east coast.
How do you promote your business?
We are very active on social media and online as it is an ever changing market now, on an almost weekly basis if not daily basis. You have to keep you finger on the pulse and be pro-active not re-active with everything to do with your business from social media to changing stock. We have built our business on customer service and we try to put our customers first at all times. We have a huge amount of goodwill and word of mouth built around the business and that is something you can’t buy but also something you can’t be arrogant about as we all know you are only as good as your last sale.
What do you love most about being your own boss?
I love being my own boss as I am in control of every aspect of the business and its future depends on my decisions, which of course brings its own stress and pressure. The biggest drawback is that we are open 7 days a week year round and only close Christmas Day and Boxing Day so it is relentless and sometimes I dream of working for some company where you get weekends and evenings off, I find Friday evenings and early Sunday mornings particularly hard.
Where do you work from and do you have employees?
We have 2 surf shops in Bundoran, one in Strandhill Co.Sligo and we also have a surf school in Brittas Bay Co. Wicklow, I am based in Bundoran and off season we have 5-6 staff between all our businesses in summer season that goes up to 16 staff.
Do you have entrepreneurial role models?
Not really but I do admire Micheal O’Leary from Ryanair in Irish business context, he doesn’t suffer fools, sticks to his guns and bucks the trends so love him or hate him he is a great business man. I read a book years ago called ‘Accidental Billionaires’ which was turned into the ‘Social Network movie’ about the creation of ‘Facebook’ I find those kind of rags to riches stories fascinating. Entrepreneurs like Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg who risked it all in pursuit of their goal, thats very, very brave in my mind.
How did you learn and acquire the skills you use to make your business successful?
I learned a lot about business from family and traveling as I feel it opens your mind to how things are done overseas. I stay well read. Listening to your customers and facing up to challenges: like the demise of high street in favour of online, that could have sank our business but we fought back with better offers and deals and in store services. We have a competitive online store which is growing week on week. We still do the vast majority of business in store and you have to make yourself a destination store to attract people from all over. We succeed in this by specialising in our products and services and making our business a ‘must-see’ in the area.
If you had it to do over again, what, if anything, would you do differently?
Hindsight is great and there are several small things I’d go back and do differently, not really with the store business as it’s grown steadily year-on-year since the beginning. I do feel in the early days I let a few good opportunities, relationships with people and business connections with folks slip by, so I would like to go back and have a few of those opportunities over again, but you live and learn and I have never met a perfect business person and everybody has a few small regrets.
Why did you decide to move home or relocate to the West?
North West born and bred. Born in Sligo and I grew up in Bundoran so that’s about as local as it gets.
What advice would you give to anybody Looking West?
I think the west of Ireland is the real Ireland we have a fabulous outdoors environment with stunning coastline, beaches, surf, mountains, lakes and rivers its a outdoor adventure playground paradise.