Article from the Virginia Pilot Online
Feb 4, 2017
Written by Stacy Parker, Photos by L.Todd Spencer
L.G. Shaw straightened up the corner of the framed painting on a wall upstairs in Wave Riding Vehicles' surf shop. It was a picture of WRV’s old retail shop, several blocks south, on Norfolk Avenue.
L.G., now 34, was just a kid when his parents ran the store there. But he remembers it. So does his younger sister.
The low shelf of the sticker case was the perfect height to play store.
“I would be the customer; he would be the salesman,” Carley Shaw, 32, said.
The Shaw family has been looking back at the old days lately – with the company celebrating 50 years. WRV has grown into an internationally known brand in the surfing community with strong local retail success.
In 1967, a group of Virginia Beach men started a surfboard-building business in a cinder block building on 19th Street. Several years later, they decided to sell.
Les Shaw and Bill Frierson, two locals who had been building surfboards for WRV, bought the business.
The WRV moniker has come a long way from that board-making shop in 1967. It’s now the largest surfboard manufacturer on the East Coast. With a flagship store and headquarter offices at the corner of 19th Street and Cypress Avenue, WRV pumps out its brand across multiple surf lifestyle platforms.
But in the early days, it was nothing more than a pipe dream.
“There was no guarantee it was going to work,” Shaw said.
Surfing gained a foothold in Virginia Beach in the early 1960s. The city hosted a surf carnival. Pete Smith and Bob Holland opened the beach’s first surf shop.
Les Shaw’s dad was a Navy officer. He was born in Virginia Beach, but they moved around a few times, before coming back. They landed in Hawaii when Les was a teenager. Shaw graduated from First Colonial High School.
Having learned to surf in Hawaii, Shaw could show the boys back home a thing or two.
“Surfing, it’s a great excuse to play hooky,” he said.
It actually positioned him for a successful career.
“That attraction led me to do work,” he said.
He got a job building, and ultimately selling, surfboards.
Some people brushed the idea off.
“ ‘Surfing’s a joke,’ ” he said they told him. “ ‘It’s a fad. Go get a real job.’ ”
Shaw and Frierson bought WRV from Andrew and Morris Fine several years later. They opened a surfboard store and board-shaping shop on Norfolk Avenue in a white-columned building near the train tracks.
One day, Bob McKnight of California visited the shop and asked them if they wanted to sell swim trunks. McKnight later co-founded Quiksilver. WRV started selling T-shirts, too. When girlfriends of surfers started hanging out in the shop, they started to sell bikinis.
The store didn’t have a register; they used calculators and hand-written receipts, said Joni Shaw, Les’ wife.
She remembers once loading her yellow Pinto with a booth’s worth of WRV gear to go to Florida for a trade show. And when she used to put their son, L.G., down for naps in the shaping room behind the store. And when her children played with the stickers.
Eventually, WRV expanded, opening a retail store in Kitty Hawk, N.C., offering windsurfing gear.
By the 1980s, the surf industry was exploding and WRV’s iconic porpoise emblem was getting around.
Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger sported a WRV T-shirt in Vanity Fair magazine. In a 1985 dealer catalog, WRV offered its muscle T-shirts for $4. Screen prints included the checkered porpoise and paint-splatter patterns. Corduroy and painter hats with back flaps were in.
In 1987, WRV built and moved to a new, bigger retail store on 19th Street, where it could line up surfboards like dominoes and create departments for men’s and women’s fashions and accessories.
Les Shaw bought out Frierson in the early 1990s. Shaw’s son, L.G., now helps run the family business. His sister, Carley, is a graphic designer for WRV.
L.G. Shaw, 34, som of WRV owner Les Shaw, talks about some of the new technology in surfboard materials.
The company has survived through the years because it didn’t sell out, said L.G.
It would have been easy to hawk sand buckets or bobbleheads or Chinese surfboards to make “the quick buck,” he said.
But the Shaws went a different route and stayed relevant in the surf conversation. For many years, the company sponsored the East Coast Surfing Championships held in Virginia Beach. Before the internet, surfing magazines were where you found out who won a surfing contest on one page, and could see world-ranked Virginia Beach surfer Wes Laine riding a wave in a WRV advertisement on another page.
WRV’s surf and skateboard teams of professional athletes continue to be ambassadors for the brand. Social media, though, changed the advertising landscape for businesses like WRV.
The audience is bigger than ever before, and the goal is clear:
“Get our surfboards under their feet,” L.G. said. “We have real people who are involved in surfing and skating. Their friends and followers, kids, are seeing them surf.”
Now, instead of “brands pushing” athletes, athletes are pushing the lifestyle.
“The power has shifted,” he said.
WRV is seeing gains beyond the brick-and-mortar retail store. In 2016, the store’s internet sales grew double-digit percentages from the previous year, L.G. said.
Consumers, he thinks, are paying more attention to detail:
“It’s been good for us because the WRV brand hasn’t wavered.”
Today, WRV operates a factory division called U.S. Fiberglass in North Carolina and supplies raw materials to dozens of local and East Coast board builders.
The company also produces a couple thousand surfboards a year sold in shops from Maine to Florida.
Jordan Brazie designs and shapes for WRV in a warehouse off Oceana Boulevard. He recently made a board for waves south of Virginia Beach.
“Bigger barrel days in the Outer Banks when it gets big and boxy,” Brazie said, running his hand down the board’s rail. “Fits in a barrel real well.”
WRV has a retail store in Puerto Rico. A WRV store in Oahu, Hawaii, recently closed, but it plans to open another one, L.G. said.
Still, the heart of the business is right where it all started.
“The Virginia Beach store is definitely the powerhouse,” he said. “It’s the most diverse thing we have.”