Interview mit Fanatic Brand Manager Craig Gertenbach

Craig Gertenbach is the brand manager for Fanatic and has forged a career in windsurfing by starting as a top PWA pro, then moving into R&D, working with some of the world’s top designers before finally moving into management. He is respected in the sport for a no-nonsense approach and being able to sail at a high level while balancing family life and a hectic work schedule at one of the windsurfing industry’s top companies. Finn Mullen from Wundsurf UK magazine sits down with Craig to discuss windsurfing, life and the future of our sport.

As a windsurfer, Craig knows the importance of being on the water; as a brand manager, he considers it vital. Every few weeks he breaks up periods behind the desk with travelling to test boards, meet team riders, dealers and engage in the windsurfing lifestyle that is central to the Fanatic brand. Having left his native South Africa at 22 to travel extensively, he has a well-rounded view of our sport, the world and life yet retains a businessman’s desire for success in his chosen field. A global citizen, he is at ease in his adopted homeland of Germany. His wife Karin also works at Fanatic as marketing manager and together they have kept Fanatic as one of the industry’s leading brands, noted for their successful board designs and ability to nurture world championship talent in their team riders. Amongst the team in their office, there’s an air of calm confidence and excitement as their new range begins to take shape!

FM – The last year has seen major political upheavals in Europe and around the world. It feels like uncertain times for many sectors yet windsurfing is going strong, how do you see the year ahead for the brand.
CG – Hi Finn, well certainly challenging times both economically and politically, however our customers still want to enjoy their leisure time / invest in windsurfing as much possible, so I expect we´ll see this period through as we have done in the past. Perhaps we might see something good develop out of all of this, who knows, stay positive. We had a good year in 2016, despite economical challenges, so we´ll just keep on working hard, being as innovative as possible with the most efficient use of resources!

FM – What are the predictors you use to judge the market – are you being lead by your customers or leading your customers.
CG – Generally we like to collect as much feedback as possible from our customers, our forum, ION Club and other centres, all giving us invaluable feedback on existing products and needs. So on one hand we are lead by customers actual needs, on the other hand we have to think ahead of what they might need in the future – the Stubby/Blast being great examples of that, especially with the super feedback from average customers on the FreeWaveand Blast models usi tha concept.

FM – The ‘Stubby’ board has been a game changer in your range, how has it been received commercially and what feedback have you been given?
CG – It´s really refreshing to see the excitement when something “brand new” is introduced into the market, the momentum and the image it brings to the brand is huge. And it gets people excited about the sport again. Especially in the Wave / FreeWave and Freeride performance categories, things have been a bit quiet these last few years, the Stubby concept has brought new life to these segments and made these products exciting again. Commercially great successes all-round, but even more important is the boards sell through at the shops and customers are stoked. With all the travelling that myself, Dani (Aeberli, Product Manager), Klaas (Voget, Marketing Manager/Head of Wave R&D) do, we get to meet some very happy customers and share their stoke about these new products / see them motivated to windsurf even more!

FM – Windsurf board construction has been relatively unchanged in recent years, do you see or are you looking for any new technology to change the manufacture process?

CG – On the outside yes, not a major difference the last few years but there´s quite a bit more going on under the surface with our exclusive Carbon Innegra Biax material for example, or our LTD Freeride series offering stiffness and light weight at a reasonable price – so I think it´s not massive steps we are looking at, rather making progressive gains so when a customer buys a new product every 3-5 years, he can see the difference in optics, shape and materials.

FM – Your high end products have a great reputation, how do you transfer these designs to the average user.
CG – With such a small and compact R&D team of Sebastian, Klaas, Daniel, myself and various riders, no input gets lost or wasted. So it was easy for us to use Klaas´s experiences with the Stubby project to transfer right over to the FreeWave or Blast concepts. Similarly our Falcon boards often give insights for our Gecko range etc. So as long as the information remains in a fairly compact group and is regularly shared, then it can be put to good use. We might enjoy wavesailing / slalom sailing ourselves, but we have been developing Freeride / beginner gear, in co-operation with ION Club and regular average Joe testers, for more than 20 years, so feel confident that we know what our average customer needs.

FM – Where is the market at right now?

CG – The market is pretty similar to what it has been. Slalom has made a nice comeback, which is positive. Our range sells actually very well across the board, which is a nice compliment to our design and shaping team, showing competency and consistency. The biggest markets are still Germany and France, followed by similar market sizes in UK, Italy, Benelux, USA etc.; we are seeing some of the smaller markets making a nice comeback too.

FM – You juggle a lot of roles – father, manager, tester, and windsurfer – what are your time management tips.
CG – Well, when I´m in Germany, we do start fairly early at 730 am, which is quite a good time to get a lot of the mails and other stuff done, before the B&M office gets too crazy. I try to replicate that on the many trips I do too, so that part of the job is already at least under control for a few hours. And I´m quite flexible with holidays/working trips, generally I´ll only not answer mails over a few days at Xmas. The rest of the year including weekends and evenings, I’m online and answering ASAP. This is the most efficient way for me to work, to avoid reminders or missing opportunities. On test trips or photoshoots we just try to work continuously, if there´s any breaks then it’s straight to the computer or taking care of other business. Holidays are quite good for us as everyone in the family windsurfs, so many test trips can also be combined as holidays, my kids are even in our photoshoots! Time management tips, phew, rather do it now than later, but set priorities obviously and delegate / share the responsibilities within the team, according to their individual strengths and skill sets. I´m really lucky in that I do not need to spend a lot of time managing my team, they all know exactly what they need to do and I simply assist in each department and of course focus too on sales / brand management.

FM – For many a job in windsurfing would seem like a dream come true, what is the reality?
CG – Indeed, but there is plenty of office time, trips which are less fun than you can imagine or time away from family which is not always that great. But in general I´m very happy with my lifestyle and cannot complain, if anything would be nice to spend a bit less time in Germany in winter and more in Cape Town, my home.

FM – You had a very unique path into your job, transitioning from top pro to tester to management. Given not everyone can be a top pro, what advice would you give to someone wishing to work in the industry.
CG – Not that unique though, Svein / Starboard, Roberto / RRD, Patrice / Exocet and a few others have also managed to make the step across. There are obviously different ways to get into the business, but having experience in some part of the sport is very useful, if that is on a retail, product development or design side. And being realistic about the size of the sport and what you are able to achieve in a career within the industry is quite important too!

FM – Success is something that the brand strives for in board design or competition results – is there a management science or motivational techniques, mantras or culture that you apply?
CG – We do get some regular management coaching in fact, but I can´t say that this has changed anything in the way we do things – we are all very competitive people in our brand, if you look at myself, Sebastian, Daniel, Klaas or Karin – everyone is really passionate about the brand and being the best, regardless of products, marketing or sales. And I suppose that is then the natural culture, because everyone lives the sport 100%, in both work and leisure time.

FM – You are noted for identifying and nurturing talent, when you recruit a team rider what are you looking for?
CG – Nowadays it´s quite nice to have Klaas and Daniel doing a lot of the recruiting on the front end in wave and slalom, they also look for real team players – we like top performers with modest / low ego attitudes who are comfortable within themselves. Easy to approach guys whom you can send anywhere and they´ll make a great impression on every person they meet. This is easily as important as the results, if not more.

FM – A young rider approaches you saying they want to be a professional windsurfer, what do you tell them?
CG – Usually I would say set yourself realistic goals, starting from local to national and then to international levels, in both contests and media work. Make sure you spend at least 50% of your time marketing yourself, not just going windsurfing all day. That is far easier nowadays at least in terms of social media, Videos, online mags, Instagram etc., than trying to get into classic print magazines. And most importantly, look for out-of-industry sponsors, who you can work with to make a difference for their brand, to have sustainable long-term sponsors. And my favourite advice, don´t forget to enjoy it, these will be the best years of your life, regardless of results, income or fame!

FM – You’ve retained some of the best riders in the world for long standing relationships with the brand – how do you keep them and how do you manage losing a rider.
CG – We try to treat each of our riders with a similar amount of respect and support, to make sure they feel part of the family. Obviously, some might earn more, but we try not to have a big difference between support levels and certainly do our best to show as many of the riders in our media channels where possible. I think this is well appreciated and the first thing new riders comment on when joining our team / requesting to get onboard. Losing riders is never good, especially if they have been with the brand for a longer time, take Matteo for example, we took him from a top 20 rider and put him on the podium, narrowly missing a World Title, within 2 years. Similar with Brawzinho, but you have to accept that sometimes the guys simply have better chances at other brands to fully exploit their financial rewards and move on. No point in being negative and I try to stay on good terms with all our ex riders wherever possible, congratulating them on their successes / careers – the Windsurf industry is very small, I travel to a lot of events, I hate having negative energy around me, life´s too short for that.

FM – Fanatic has a very noticeable ‘team’ culture, almost like an extended family – is that natural or deliberate.
CG – It is deliberate to create, but to be honest, comes naturally also if you choose the right people to work with. For example in our office team, I will also be there unpacking boards and testing with Dani, Klaas etc., not delegating and creating a them vs. us culture. Same goes at our photoshoots, Victor is the World Champ but he´s right there unpacking 50 boards in 35° with us, next to Adam, myself, Dani etc., no complaints. That´s the type of attitude that helps us bind as a group for sure. Plus of course the fact that we can all sail together in similar conditions at a fairly high level, helps the respect factor amongst all and leads to a lot of great memories to share.

FM – How important is windsurfing competition in your view.
CG – Without competitions, there would be very little for our Windsurfing media to report about and low chances of seeing our heroes on the water at the various World Cups. But also national and local competitions are super important to keep the communities alive in our sport, which has been the biggest problem over the last 20 years – people ended up going windsurfing alone and sooner or later doing a sport alone becomes boring and people lose interest. So I think it´s a very, very important part of our sport, on both the lower and top levels.

FM – Do we need to change anything in the formats of windsurfing competition?
CG – In Freestyle I think they should try a more simple format perhaps, to make it more spectator friendly, on the other hand I have no clue what the names of the moves in snowboarding or skateboarding are but I still really enjoy watching it, same as I do in freestyle windsurfing where I am clueless to 50% of the moves at least? Slalom is great right now, I would just like to see a few different shorter courses which favour also tactics and gybing, that is getting better now on the PWA too. Wave, well to be honest, the only thing we need there is more events. Same old story, you want quality judges, media, free accommodation, proper prize money, but all this costs money. If you just want cool locations and are prepared to sacrifice all the rest and not really be sustainable, then go to the smaller events format. I think people badly underestimate how good the current PWA format is / how strong the Tour is – just because there are sometimes a few less events (8 or 9 slalom this year alone!) – check out the mess in the SUP and Kite pro tours vs. the much smaller sport of windsurfing. The PWA can be really proud of the job they do and what they offer the athletes. Good conditions / locations do not help you if you are only spending money at events and not creating something sustainable, that´s fine for the IWT, where the general concept is different to the PWA, but it´s not professional windsurfing. 

FM – Do you miss competing?
CG – I did in the first years a lot, but managed to put that competitive streak to better use in my career and the last 2 years I competed at our South African Slalom Nationals in Langebaan, SA, just great fun and I won the SA Slalom title in 2016/17, nearly 20 years after retiring! We have a nice scene going on in SA right now with plenty of people getting back into windsurfing and some fun slalom events; this is what we need to see more of everywhere.

FM – You sail in slalom and waves to a very high level, how do you maintain your windsurf fitness when you are working long hours in the office.
CG – High level for my age would be a more accurate description I think! I try to do a mix of running, cycling and a bit of gym in winter, I´m not too good at sitting still although I need to motivate myself sometimes after a long day in the office, just like anyone else. I try to mix it up with different activities, throw in some snowboarding, paddling etc., otherwise sport becomes too routine. As you age, you notice how exhausting windsurfing is, so it´s definitely better to prepare physically whenever possible.

FM – The slalom world title has been very close to Fanatic’s grasp the last few years – what advice have you given Pierre and is there anything you have been working on for the 2017 season.
CG – In 2015 both Pierre and Matteo were extremely unlucky not to get the Overall World Title, each winning 2 out of 6 events. Last year Pierre was also a bit unfortunate at a few events, but Matteo most certainly put it together on Sylt and deservedly won the title. I never put too much pressure on our team in terms of results, but I do watch as many of the events live or on streaming, where I sometimes have some smaller tips or advice to give. Nothing special, but for Pierre for example he was relying a bit too much on his speed at some events, being a touch too conservative on starts – he knows that anyway and I think if anything he will perhaps put a bit more risk on the line this year in that department. Other than that, the boys have been training hard and I think it´s going to be a very exciting year in all the disciplines, the level is through the roof!

FM – Victor and Gollito had an incredible year, they say retaining your title is always the hardest part – what advice have you given them for 2017.
CG – Both Victor and Gollito are really mega competitors, real pros, so it´s hard to give them any advice, they both know what they need to train on and how to put heats together. Again, here it is going to be super interesting to see who can knock them off their thrones in 2017, with both wave and freestyle having less events this year, there will be no room for errors. Consistency and fitness will be key. With the level so close in both disciplines between the top guys, the guys who are ready to risk a bit more than classic routines will win.

FM – Every year you travel the world and every year you return to your birthplace, South Africa, how do you view your country when you return home.
CG – Tricky question, I love my home country and love being there. On the other hand, if you pick up a newspaper or follow the political and social problems that actual residents face each day, then it´s a completely different world to what the European windsurfing guys see when they are there. It´s just such a shame that the opportunity to unite and rebuild the country is not being used, instead it is becoming even more divided and 90% of the people are not getting the uplift they hoped for, for so many years. Still hoping that somehow this works out, as I would love to settle back / spend more time there in the future.

FM – As an ex-pat, living in Europe, what do you make of European life and European windsurfing?
CG – I’ve been in Europe since 1991, living in France, Spain and now Germany since 2000, such a great opportunity to get to know different cultures and traditions. I really enjoy being able to sample the best of all the places I live / visit and still retain my own identity somehow. Europe has some great windsurfing spots – Greece, France, Canaries, Denmark, Spain and not forgetting the UK of course!

FM – Family is a huge part of your life; does windsurfing make you a better husband or father?
CG – As your kids get older, you need to find activities that you can do together, like skiing, SUP or windsurfing, otherwise they are off skateboarding / horse riding with their friends all day! So whilst it really was a big challenge over the last 10 years to get their windsurfing levels up to the point where we can all go out and plane around together, it was most certainly worth it. To see how much fun they have and also realizing that they are part of a very, very small group of people who can enjoy the sport, makes them feel special. I´m always surprised by how few of my friends bother to teach their kids to windsurf, especially knowing themselves how much fun it is. If every windsurfer would encourage family and friends into the sport and devote a bit of time to it, then the sport would be considerably bigger today. Better husband?, is that a trick question? – I rig my wife´s sails, does that count? Ha ha!

FM – Where is the best place you have been for a family windsurfing holiday?
CG – We have been fortunate to visit so many places, I would say the ideal spot is still Mauritius, where everything is rigged in front of your hotel room, buffet twice a day, no cars for weeks on end, SUP if there is no wind. I really enjoy those types of trips vs. Cape Town, which can be quite stressy with all the driving, but you also then have other attractions. But I try not to compare locations, we have been to Lake Garda for the last 3 summer holidays and had a great time too, it´s like a second home to us being so close.

FM – With windsurfing being both your work and play, do you ever feel a need to switch off from it?
CG – I´m into a few other sports like snowboarding, road cycling and SUP, so sometimes it´s fun to just do something else. But as we are based in Munich, when I am here I am working, so when I go on a trip for windsurfing, I am more than eager to get back onto the water, even after 38 years of windsurfing.

FM – What do we need to do to make windsurfing bigger?
CG – Windsurfing schools are generally still very well booked nowadays, the figures from the VDWS and I believe also the RYA show growth every year for a number of years now, so the sport is interesting enough for people to want to learn it. The equipment nowadays is leaps and bounds better than in the 70s and 80s. What I think is a problem is that some schools / centres are far too focused on teaching the basics in windsurfing as quickly as possible and with as many students as possible, to maximize their efficiency. So most schools teach with quite large boards / small sails and generally avoid sending students out when it´s windy, as that means more boats, smaller classes, i.e. less efficiency / profits. This means that most people doing a basic windsurfing course will probably never ever experience planing windsurfing in their first session. My first windsurfing experience in 1982 was in a gusty 5-20 knot day, where I got catapulted every 50 metres shortly after planing, but that feeling of planing is what drove me to near madness to keep on trying to master the sport. This is missing in many lessons you´ll see today for beginners, which is a major reason why 95% of people who take a beginners course do not continue the sport.

Another reason is that 30-40 years ago, a lot of people learnt windsurfing by trying their friend’s gear, or shops were closely associated with centres, creating an atmosphere where each new student was potentially also a new long term client. Some shops nowadays have their own centres, so they are motivated to run beginner classes and benefit financially long term with those customers. But many centres are unfortunately far too focused on just getting as many beginners through their door, with no regard to whether they continue the sport, as there is no financial gain for them? Obviously this is a very general statement and there are many schools who do a great job on promoting the sport and keeping people involved, so hopefully others will follow their example!

All the excuses about being too expensive, complicated etc., all of that would be less of a barrier if these beginners would have felt that planing / excitement experience. Kitesurfing is exactly the opposite, it´s exactly the danger / radical image which attracts people, and generally you can experience this (often negatively) right from the moment the kite drags you up the beach / through the water or car park etc. – you do a kite course and generally they give you equipment which allows you to plane within the first few days of the course. Despite the many dangers of the courses, a much higher % of people who learn kiting, stick with it afterwards, regardless of similar costs to windsurfing, time needed, potential injuries etc. etc. So I would really recommend schooling that is focused on getting people planing as quickly as possible, even if it means falling off here and there.

Another thing is, why is everyone always pushing the brands to show less radical images and focus on the beginners / freeride imagery. Do you really think that attracts people to a sport? Dan Kaseler (designer of Avanti Sails) was recently reported as saying something similar. We need to compete with snowboarding, mountain biking, skateboarding and a ton of other action sports. Kiting is the perfect example, it´s a dangerous sport, they mainly promote the most radical part of the sport and this attracts people in droves who want to learn. They want to learn because it´s edgy, new, radical. Not because it´s “easy to learn”. Yes we need those beginner and freeride images and products, yes we already have them and use them extensively. But many of today´s potential windsurfers are looking for action, excitement, adventure; they need the ‘extreme’ imagery to motivate them to try our sport.

FM – Windsurfing is very good at retaining its customers, some having done the sport for 30+ years, why do you think that is.
CG – Very good point, how many other sports can keep their users locked into such a physically and mentally challenging activity for so many years! Why do they keep on doing it, fairly simple – if it was easy, everyone could do it. Being a windsurfer means you are choosing to do something different to the mainstream. Yes it´s frustrating, yes it´s expensive, yes there are 20 other sports which are easier, less reliant on conditions, easier to travel with etc. etc. But when you first pop up onto the plane, or cruise across a stretch of water, that sense of freedom is unlike any bike ride, boat trip or gym workout you´ll ever do. Whilst I kite occasionally and really appreciate the low workout factor, size of the gear etc., I am usually bored within 20 minutes and cannot wait to get back to the physical challenge that windsurfing presents.

It´s natural that people move onto other sports, especially as they get older or perhaps find other sports “cooler”. What irritates me is when some of these people who were either bored with windsurfing / never had the level / follow every new trend (take your pick), continuously have to harp on about how great kiting is vs. windsurfing. It´s fine to change sports, enjoy it, just stop telling people about all the so-called reasons why you switched and be honest with yourself – the main reason is often – windsurfing is harder physically, takes more time, but does not necessarily cost more. It´s far safer and will keep you fitter by far. And like anything in life, if you want to have something special, you need to work for it. The reward is worth it in my opinion.

FM – Finally, 5 years from now, where do you see Fanatic – what goals are you working to as a company and where do you see windsurfing in 5 years time.
CG – Currently we are the number 1 windsurfing brand globally (at least this is what our supplier tells us), so I hope we can continue to hold that position and together with our competitors try and grow the market step by step. Hopefully we can all keep innovating and keep the sport interesting, with a good focus obviously on more sustainable products for our future generations. There is a good growth segment at the moment of young windsurfing kids everywhere, plenty of people also coming back to the sport after trying kiting / having family or career time restraints. So I see windsurfing remaining as a “niche” sport due to the costs / time / conditions needed factor, however there are still plenty of people attracted to learn the sport as we see from overbooked schools and centres everywhere. We just need to make sure they keep on trying until they get to the level where it really starts being fun!

Words by Finn Mullen/Windsurf Magazine UK

Pics by Maleen Hoekstra, John Carter, Klaas Voget, Fish Bowl Diaries