As part of our latest Microadventure exploring #WhereItTakesYou, we joined Finisterre founder Tom Kay on solo strike mission to hunt down some uncrowded waves just down the road from the workshop.
Once back in the office, we caught up with Tom for an in depth conversation; covering the challenges of starting a sustainable business, how his relationship with surfing has evolved, and the future he sees for both Finisterre and the wider clothing industry.
For you as a founder working in a high pressured environment, what does it mean to you to be able to get away from the office and go for a surf on your own?
I think it’s quite interesting, because my relationship with surfing and my work has definitely changed over the years. When I first started Finisterre we used to do a lot of surfing, getting in the sea as much as possible. Then, in the middle years of the business, it became a lot more high pressure; in terms of making the product, running out of money, all these things you have with a small growing business.
Suddenly you’ve got employees and it’s not just you, so there’s more responsibility. I definitely felt that as a founder, and I took quite a lot of that on personally, so my relationship with getting in the sea at that point took a bit of a backseat.
But then, in the last four or five years, I’ve realised that I am better as a person – hopefully better as a boss, better as a colleague and even better as a dad – if I’ve been in the sea, so it is very much part of my daily life.
So, you’ve gone from the frothing kid who wants to surf all the time to now realising that it’s actually a big part of your self-care?
Oh, totally. I still love surfing on a really good day, you know when it’s ‘perfect’. But for me now, I’d rather go and surf on my own where there are as few people as possible, even when the waves are not amazing, and just enjoy the experience.
I surfed this morning. It was probably about 2-3ft and really fun. It was supposed to be raining but the sun came out, Otis was on the beach, and it turned into this really beautiful morning out of nowhere. Then I saw loads of gannets, fishing quite a long way out to sea, seeing them diving like arrows into the water… For me, it’s those experiences that nature shares with you – all around the act of surfing. I get more from those than I actually do from surfing. The way the wind whips across the surface of the water, the light through a wave, a glimpse of the sun through a gap in the clouds, the wild seabirds… that makes it for me. It’s totally unpredictable and often you’re the only one who has seen it.
"I wasn’t a businessman, I wasn’t a designer, I’d actually never built or sold a product before! It was basically just me going, 'I believe there is room in the world for a brand like Finisterre and what we stand for.'"
That attitude of ‘going your own way’ is very evident in the way you’ve build Finisterre; a sustainable business since the very beginning, before sustainability was really mainstream. Have you always had that confidence and conviction?
I think I’ve always done my own thing. If I see an opportunity, I think of the things I can do to take those opportunities and beliefs and make them into something. I think that belief and conviction is huge. I speak to a lot of people about this and I’ve always said, “7/10 is enough to make a decision on”. After that you just need to get on with it.
I wasn’t a businessman, I wasn’t a designer, I’d actually never built or sold a product before! It was basically just me going, ‘I believe there is room in the world for a brand like Finisterre and what we stand for. We should be this sort of business, growing in this sort of way, and making this sort of product’ – which are all the things you see now in the business. Sure, you’ll make decisions that aren’t right, but you have to just accept that and appreciate they’re all stepping stones down the path. If you don’t get going you’ve got nothing to work from.
The industry has changed a lot in the time Finisterre has been around, and the brand has played its part in that change by pushing for more sustainable materials and practices for years. What are your thoughts on that progression?
When we started out, trying to get hold of recycled fabrics and natural fibres was nearly impossible. You’d have to buy about 2000m, which is a lot! There’s definitely more of those types of products available, which is great to see. Some of that, maybe it’s down to us, but it’s a lot about other people too. It’s been a collective effort from a few businesses, loyal customers and pioneering brands setting out their stalls differently and really committing to that. It’s always a collective force that leads to change.
You know, 5-10 years ago you’d try to do this stuff and you would be at a serious commercial disadvantage because of it. But we stuck to our guns and I’m incredibly proud of where the brand is now. Having said that, there’s still so much more work to do. We’re only just getting going really, and we want to be a positive impact business by 2030 – being a B Corp certified business is a big part of this. In fact, this narrative is never really ‘done’. It’s just an ongoing drive and a passion for us to get better as a business; in our products, as individuals and as a team. All the while inspiring a love of the sea.
So as part of that, what does the future hold for the industry and Finisterre?
Becoming a positive impact business, one with a fully circular business model. Using waste as a resource and incorporating end of life product into new ones. If we can make products that are truly circular in their design, make up, how they’re used and we can help the customer to repair and extend that life as much as possible – if we can do that, that’s a huge achievement.
Ultimately, every business causes damage. We do now, that’s a reality. So, it’s about moving from being a negative impact business to a neutral impact business, to eventually being a positive impact business. That’s what we’ve set out in our 2020 impact report, with the ambition to be having an overall positive impact as a company by 2030.
Part of that impact is not just about the products Finisterre makes, but also the social impact the brand is making by connecting people to the sea. How big a factor is that for you?
That’s something that, on a personal level, is huge for me. A love of the sea was given to me by my parents, and if we can do that as a brand, I think that’s amazing. We use the product, the storytelling, our ambassadors, events and community to really leverage that connection.
The environmental side of things; the product side, our re-certification as a B Corp, all those kind of data points are fantastic, but for me it’s about this really emotional connection to the sea and inspiring social change around that.
The ‘people’ element of our work is really exciting. We meet so many amazing people doing great things. If we can help to bring their stories to life as a brand then that’s something I’m incredibly proud of and will always do. For me, that is the most powerful thing that Finisterre is doing.