stories from the new model: interview series from east london co-working
A journey to the ends of the earth: Finisterre’s mission to reconnect us with the ocean.
The first in our series of interviews with CEO’s and Founders of purpose-driven businesses, leading the charge towards better, more responsible, business. Meet Tom Kay, Founder of sustainable outdoor clothing brand, Finisterre.
There’s a quiet confidence with some brands. You’re not drawn to them because they’re pandering to you, but because they embody a lifestyle that you want to take part in. Finisterre is one of those brands. They’re not faking it, and you get the sense they know you know they’re not faking it either.
At its heart Finisterre is a company created by cold-weather surfers for cold-weather surfers. There’s always been something aspirational about the surfing lifestyle; outdoorsy without being provincial, healthy without reminding you of PE, and cool without trying. But the surfing Finisterre’s founder Tom Kay knew living in Cornwall, England - dark mornings, driving rain, shifting tides - was a world away from the bikinis and board shorts he was seeing in surf magazines and catalogues. But on its day, he claims, the surf is as good as anywhere. And like all the best things in life, it’s all the sweeter for having to work for it.
Tom founded Finisterre 15 years ago after he left his job in London and started working as a lifeguard in Cornwall. Back then the company only produced one product - a waterproof breathable fleece that helped raise money for Surfers Against Sewage and The Marine Conservation Society - handmade by Tom and his sister in Tom’s bedroom. Today the company is 60 people strong, has 7 stores across the UK and sells its products around the world.
Form, as the saying goes, follows function, and just as coats designed for trenches and shoes designed for tennis happen to lend themselves perfectly to modern everyday life, so have Finisterre’s clothes found a new audience outside of the cold-weather surf community; stylish, warm, waterproof jackets proving just as apt for studying bus apps on the kerb as they are for studying weather charts on the beach.
Lucy Siegle, author of To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?, and the fashion industry’s most outspoken critic, says Finisterre is that rarest of things in the modern world of fashion, a company who as “never dropped the ball” and “never deviated from their founding principles”. We had the chance to sit down with Tom and ask him the secret to building a successful company with such a clear sense of purpose. The key, he told us, is that all roads (and rivers) must lead back to the ocean.
Has the company’s focus changed at all over the 15 years?
Whenever anyone asks me why I started Finisterre I always say it started with my relationship with the sea. The name itself comes from the old Shipping Forecast region just west of northern Spain which always filled me with a sense of wonder when I’d hear it mentioned on the radio as a child. In the beginning, the brand was very surf-heavy, as that was my reality at the time and my relationship with the sea. As we’ve matured I’ve realised the bigger picture of what Finisterre can do.
We’ve always had the same purpose, it’s always been there, but today we can articulate it in a concise and exciting way. Our purpose as a company is to ‘rouse the human spirit for a deeper connection to the sea’
What does that mean in practice?
Everyone has a different relationship with the sea, so there’s no one way we make that connection happen. At the most basic level, our products might encourage people to the beach; to walk, to swim, to surf. But not all our customers are surfers or live by the sea, so even at a product level it needs to run deeper than that, and that’s down to the skill of our designers.
Look at the buttons on one of our shirts and you’ll see the coordinates for the Finisterre shipping forecast area. Our swimwear is made from Econyl® a high-performance Nylon made from discarded fishing nets and other waste materials. From our collaborations with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) or the designer Christopher Ræburn in every product, there is some story that wraps in the brand purpose and ethos in some shape or form, regardless of whether you’re surfing or not. We work hard at that. It’s not a done deal, but it’s a journey we’re on.
It’s clear that many of these ideas take inspiration from your own deep connection with the sea [when Tom moved to St Agnes to start the company one of the first things he did was join the RNLI]. After 10 years as crew, and now 5 years at the helm, I’ve heard meetings at Finisterre can be interrupted at any moment when your RNLI pager suddenly goes off and you have to drive down to the station and launch a boat. How do you ensure the rest of the team have the same emotional connection to the sea, and the company’s purpose, that you have?
You can see the sea out of our workshop door. We’re right by the cliff face in St Agnes. There’s an internal culture that we try and live and breathe to nurture this emotional connection with the sea. Having it on our doorstep helps of course - having the opportunity to take your dog for a walk on the beach in your lunch break is quite rare. We also have Sea Tuesdays, where the team don’t come in before 10am and instead spend the extra time on the beach; surfing, paddleboarding, walking with the kids or doing a clean up with our friends Surfers Against Sewage who are across the road.
But there’s still a job to get done. It can be stressful when you don’t meet targets or keep within budgets. Behind all the nice stuff we’re talking about there is the hardcore sides of a business which are always challenging. We’ve spent a lot of time, particularly recently, investing in our culture, our ways of working, and how we turn up to work every day. There will always be challenges, but it’s how we as a group of individuals overcome these challenges which will define us.
My love of surfing has always been about more than just the act of surfing itself. It’s been about the experience. The camaraderie. The sense of adventure. Driving all night to arrive at a spot. Hardship and reward. I think it’s been the same with Finisterre. It’s all about the adventure of it.
Do you have a final destination in mind for this adventure?
No. It’s just about doing something that’s never been done before. The driving belief from day one has been that there’s a better way to do things, and we can lead that charge. We’re at a stage now where we can’t just focus on ourselves, we have to say ‘these are our competitors, this is how much their jacket costs, and this where they sell it’. We have to be in that world.
But you have to remember, too, that 15 years ago, sustainability, recycled fabrics, purposeful business, weren’t on people’s radars. People thought we were crazy trying to get recycled polyester into our jackets. They thought we were just a bunch of guys on the side of a cliff in St Agnes, smoking who knows what. But that was a vision I had back then about what was important, and I wanted to affect change in any way I could, and I realised that’s how I could do it. By starting a brand, and putting all my passions into it. And since then, the world has moved in our direction and these things have become more mainstream, which is a good thing.
As we’ve grown, and employed more people, we’ve had to learn to have one eye on our competitors and what I’d call the hardcore side of running a business, and one eye on continuing our adventure. If I’d had a clear business plan from the start maybe we could have gone a bit faster, quicker, but it was always a learning process and evolution for me and the team. Good things take a long time to build.
What do you see as the relationship between profits and purpose?
For us, it’s definitely purpose first. Purpose before profits.
When you’re building a company you have to get the purpose set, and that will make your business exciting to be a part of. That could be from a customer point of view or employee. They become emotionally committed. We get people still wearing our jackets from 12 years ago. They come into our stores and tell us their story. Our approach to business is that we are on a journey with our customers. We need their feedback, we need their help. We host events and build community in our stores. That’s the process I have and I suppose that pervades the business. I hope they feel a part of what we do.
For me, it’s all about that emotive reaction. I see so many companies talking about their purpose, and it leaves me fundamentally unexcited because you can tell they’re still fundamentally driven by something else, by making money.
So we made sure our purpose was exciting, and then profit comes after that. Then hopefully they go hand-in-hand. The bigger you are the more you can effect change, so we definitely need to be profitable.
Finisterre was founded on 3 commitments: to product, environment and people. 10 years ago buying the most sustainable product and buying a product based on price and performance might have looked quite different. But today the best product is one which is competitively priced, is fit for purpose, has a strong aesthetic, and with amazing closed-loop, sustainable, regenerative textiles.
In times gone by people were like “I’m not going to buy a crap product because it’s sustainable”. Innovation has played a key role, not just in clothing, to make sustainable products competitive.
Are you measure how well you’re achieving your purpose?
It’s hugely important that we’re able to do this. Customers value our transparency and the sustainability of our supply chain, so we have to be able to measure and prove what we do.
We became a B Corp in 2018 and we altered our articles of association so that we have a legal responsibility to our stakeholders, our environment, our people, culture and our communities. The certification has flagged up a lot of things we can get better at.
We’ll be single-use plastic free by the end of the year. There are about 7 or 8 key stories which we put in our B Corp manifesto every year. In addition to B Corp, every material we use now has it’s own unique goal that we’ve created. It’s a never-ending quest to get better at what we do. In terms of sustainability, design, spaces and communities it feels like we’re just getting started.
Do you find putting constraints on yourself is what keeps you innovative?
We’ve always been quite inquisitive and challenging as a brand. For example, early on we decided to have direct relationships with suppliers rather than using off the shelf fabrics, which was definitely not the easy option but has helped us created the highest quality, most sustainable products possible.
Some things don’t warrant so much inquisition. The same way you can’t measure absolutely everything. Sometimes you need to have that emotive feeling and act when it feels like the right thing to do. For example, we now employ the world’s only full-time wetsuit recycler after we felt compelled to do something about the fact that wetsuits are not biodegradable and are only used for about 2 years on average. She’s on a mission to work out how to make wetsuits from wetsuits.
It’s an investment in the unknown. We say “this is what we think we need to solve” with no idea of how we’re going to get there. You then bring in partners who share your vision and can help. With the help of government research funding, we’re working with the University of Exeter’s Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing (CALMARE) to explore what’s possible. We're determined to find a solution.
The most powerful feeling I’ve had that change is possible - that we can tackle the huge challenges we face as a society - is when I’ve been at conferences and you have scientists, nonprofits, businesses and government all talking together. They all bring something to the table.
I’m a huge believer in using business as a force for good, but on its own, it will only go so far. But if business can collaborate with others, then we can all go a lot further.
This interview is part of a series of interviews Richard Johnson has conducted for a new guidebook for entrepreneurs exploring how to build sustainable, purpose-driven companies which outcompete the competition. The guide will be published by x+why and Volans in October 2019.