HB Surfing Walk of Fame: Kelly Gibson Leads in the Surf Industry
Rip Curl USA CEO and Surf Industry Manufacturers Association President Kelly Gibson has become part of Hermosa Beach’s broadening surf culture legacy.
The Class of ‘83 Mira Costa graduate will be inducted into the Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame on August 20. Fittingly, he will join fellow ‘80s pro surfer Ted Robinson, former Hermosa councilman and pioneer surfer Chip Post, and longtime former Becker Surf manager John Leininger.
Gibson was born and raised in Hermosa Beach. He was attending Hermosa Valley Elementary when he began surfing 1st Street, which was then called Neptune Avenue. He credits his father, Bruce, and brother, as his biggest influences and the reason he started surfing.
“My dad surfed Malibu when he was young, and grew up in LA. He moved to the South Bay in the early ‘60s to raise his family. The first board I saw of his was a Greg Noll. He supported all local guys like Pat Reardon,” Gibson said. “My brother is three-and-a-half years older than I am, so when he started surfing I had to do it.”
As a kid, his family trips weren’t the typical station wagon land-bound excursions to Wallyworld. His dad took Gibson, his brother, his mom, Donna, and his sister, Bridgette to Hawaii each year to surf the South Shore in the summer and the North Shore in the winter.
“We are a surfing family. Unfortunately, my dad lost his battle with cancer last year in 2015. My dad was a really good/stylish surfer,” he said. “My dad, my brother and I enjoyed surfing together and traveling to Oahu every year.“
With a strong family surfing background Gibson progressed to other line-ups north of 1st st. His next step, 4th street. He admired the surfing of 4th street locals and fellow Hermosa Beach Surfing Walk of Fame Members Mark and Derek Levy. Next, the Hermosa Beach Pier, then the gathering place since the 60s of the hottest surfers in the area.
“As a grom surfing the pier I’d look up to Mike Purpus and his Hot Lips team,” he said. “Terry Stevens, Mike Benavidez, and Chris Barela.”
While competing in the Western Surfing Association, Gibson rode for Unity Surfboards shaped by Mark Huff. Unity Surfboards had a storefront located at 422 PCH (previous site of the Jacobs Surf Shop). Gibson was a part of a South Bay new wave of surfers tearing up the contest scene.
“Ted Robinson, Chris Frohoff, Jeff Novak and I surfed the WSA,” Gibson said. “We all jumped into competing on the newly formed NSSA [National Scholastic Surfing Association].”
The biggest victory of Gibson’s amateur career happened in 1982 when he won the NSSA Nationals at the Huntington Beach Pier against the best under-18 surfers in the United States and Hawaii.
“The feat of winning the nationals is a very difficult task,” said fellow South Bay ‘80s pro and Surfline co-founder Nick Christensen. “Other past winners include Tom Curren, Andy Irons, Shane Beschen, Rob Machado, Bobby Martinez, Nat Young, and Conner Coffin.”
Gibson turned pro in 1984 and earned a spot on the World Championship Tour or WCT, an elite contest circuit of 44 of the world’s best surfers. The WCT continues today known as the World Surf League or WSL.
“We lived out of a suitcase for six months a year traveling the world,” he said. “South Africa, England, Japan with two stops, France, it was a great experience.”
As a pro surfer, Gibson frequently appeared in Surfer and Surfing Magazine and made the cover of Breakout Magazine. In the mid-’80s, Gibson got the call from his sponsor, Offshore, to model for their latest ad.
“I drove down to Offshore’s office in Newport. I was just told to throw on a pair of trunks and stand in the middle of a group of people,” he said.
Gibson was positioned in between an ensemble of gothic characters, an immediately identifiable contrast between Gibson’s tanned and toned surfing exterior. The ad became one of the emblems of 80s surf culture.
“I had no idea how iconic it would become,” he said.
Gibson ended his WCT run in 1987. He continued competing in the Professional Surfing Association of America or the PSAA tour (later referred to as the Bud Surf Tour in the 90s) in the late 80s. His best finish was 16th in 1988. Staying stateside after years of travel, Gibson had the time and opportunity to help the family business.
“My dad and mom started a company in 1984 called BA Surf Stuff,” he said. “They sold T-shirts and stickers, and that was my first job. We did the trade shows both in Long Beach and Florida. It was sold to all the local Surf Shops.”
Gibson’s involvement in the family business set the blueprint for his life — a career in the surf industry centered around his family.
“I started a family at a young age in 1989,” he said. “Me and my wife Linda, also a Costa grad, have been together for 28 years. We have three children, Ariel, Hannah, and Ian, and two grandchildren, who are twins.”
He started in the surf industry as a Body Glove sales rep. In the ‘90s, he worked as a regional Sales Director for Quicksilver USA. He was subsequently hired by Santa Cruz’s O’Neil, a brand that has been around since the early 50s.
“In 1999, I took a desk job for O’Neil getting off the road to spend more time with my family,” he said. “In 2001, we moved out of Hermosa Beach to Laguna Beach so I could be closer to work.”
Gibson rose through the ranks. In 2002, he was promoted to Chief Sales Executive and then to Chief Executive Officer in 2004.
“For an entire career, Kelly has risen up the stiff competition ladder above the fray,” said Dennis Jarvis, owner of Spyder Surf. “He’s now an outright surf industry leader.”
In 2008 rival Surf Brand Rip Curl sought out Gibson’s talents to rejuvenate its American division’s sales, hiring him as their CEO and president. His first action was to create the Rip Curl Planet Website to highlight the company’s environmental initiatives. He has expanded the company from 100 employees and 29 stores to over 250 employees and 200 stores with over $600 million in annual sales. In 2015, Gibson was elected president of the Surf Manufacturers Association.
“No one in the South Bay has ever attained such a high post in the surf industry,” said Christensen. ER