@Work: Caribbean Surf Company

Oct. 20, 2008, — Some people might call it karma. If you work at Caribbean Surf Company it is known as luck equity.
Now with three locations, the retail company that sells the surfing look to tourists and sets the tone for relaxed local fashion is an unlikely success, until the observer looks closer at all the hard work and perseverance that Janelle Zachman and Jose Belcher have put into the operation.
Hard work aside, it is hard to overlook the company's good fortune. It has overcome big hurdles and come through with flying colors, but maybe the good fortune — or luck equity — has something to do with being true to your vision. After all, the Caribbean Surf Company came about because its owners just wanted to spend more time — surfing.
"The whole reason I live here is to surf," Belcher said. "I am very lucky that my wife loves Hull Bay and the lifestyle and that she is my partner in everything."
Belcher and Zachman don't have MBAs from Harvard — they don't have business degrees at all. But the company they run operates like a textbook example of good marketing and excellent management.
"My background is surfing, surfing, surfing — no business degree," Belcher said.
Working for the now defunct Chart House in the '80s, the company's management took note of Belcher's potential leadership skills at their stateside locations and sent him to work at their St. Thomas location to await his 21st birthday — old enough to enter their in-house management program. Belcher said that he just never left St. Thomas.
Soon Belcher owned his own place, The East Coast Bar and Grill, in Red Hook.
"It was a great place with great food and it was open until 4 am — but when are you going to get to surf?" Belcher asked. "Working all night and surfing all day — you can do that only so long."
Around this time he and Zachman started looking for business and a lifestyle more conducive to surfing and being healthy.
"I knew I wanted to do a surf business," Belcher said. "I thought we could sell it to the tourists, but back then good locations were hard to come by. You couldn’t get a space without $100,000 – $200,000."
In 1990, Belcher, his brother Vaughan and Zachman got involved with Players, a sports retailer in Havensight owned by Mike Williams.
Belcher credits Williams' assistance in getting off to a good start and his faith that the team could work to pay off the business. The group had no prior retail experience.
"At first, we had to wing it," Belcher said. "The business was rolling and there was a model. We had probably a two-week transition. Every day was by the seat of your pants. It just kind of worked out: the bills got paid and we managed to order the right stuff. I didn't know what tennis shoes to buy, I was wearing rainbow sandals and sold people Michael Jordan shoes."
Soon after, the Belcher brothers and Zachman opened Players Too, a second location in a walkup second-story space on Main Street.
Many people discouraged Zachman and Belcher from trying to operate a retail store from a second story location.
"She proved everybody wrong, who said that it couldn't be done," Belcher said.
Then, in 1995, Hurricane Marilyn hit, and a whole year's worth of work and investment literally went out the window.
"We lost everything we had," Belcher said. "But Janelle said she wasn't going to give up and so that was another building block for us."
Janelle found a new waterfront location and in 1996, she and the Belcher brothers opened Going Seanile — another sports retail outfit.
Although profitable, Going Seanile was getting considerable competition from stateside chains Champs and Footlocker.
"We couldn't compete with them, but we were hesitant to take the final step to give up the whole athletic whole side of the business," Belcher said. "Janelle's success with Going Seanile gave us the motivation for the name change and focus on the Caribbean Surf Company."
The competition made the trio want their stores to specialize more in surfing and the lifestyle that accompanies the sport, but they initially held back on their inclinations.
"There is not enough of a surf community, but people like to dress the beach look," Belcher said. "Tourist-wise we fit — it is a perfect formula. But it was actually a scary decision to specialize on one part of our business."
It turned out to be the right decision and in 2003 the Waterfront and Havensight locations were operating under one name: Caribbean Surf Company.
"I guess it was… what do you call it? A natural progression?" Belcher said.
The natural progression and good luck continued with the addition of a third store in Red Hook, which appears to be the newest shopping hot spot on the island.
"No one could have figured out that [success] would happen," Belcher said. "We needed to have a place on the East End."
Over the years, other things have changed: Belcher's brother Vaughan left the business, Belcher and Zachman married and now have two children, are involved in local conservation efforts.
"I am becoming more conservation-oriented and our business is going in that direction," Belcher said. "I think that conservation and environmentalism should be a part of everybody's everyday."
Belcher recently helped to spearhead a successful movement to prevent development on Inner Brass Island and in the Hull Bay area.
Belcher says he recognizes the kind of commitment that it will take to protect the environment.
"All I wanted to do was work and, sure, be in the ocean and now you realize that these things are not just there for the taking," Belcher said. "We have a second job protecting that lifestyle — and it is not going to be a job that is going away."
He is quick to credit his wife and good luck with the successes in his life and in the business.
"I think I've got to be humble and just say that things don't happen by accident," Belcher said. "But I believe that maybe we have been blessed by an angel here or there. No one lives in the islands for 25 years without being helped out by somebody. There is no question that we work for everything that we have, and, no, there is no Harvard business degree.
"There is some luck equity somewhere in there and given the times, I sure hope that the luck equity sticks around."
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