Technical advances help windsurfing company chase overseas sales.
Russia is not known internationally for its windsurfing culture. But the wind and water conditions at Anapa, a small resort on the Black Sea coast, are ideal for the sport and a windsurfing community is thriving.
Keen observers at Anapa will notice that among the plethora of boards cutting the Black Sea waters are state-of-the-art designs built in a small factory on the other side of the world.
"[Sales to] Russia has just started to move in the last six months," says James Dinnis, a windsurfer, designer and majority shareholder in Carbon Art International, a boutique board manufacturer based in Taranaki.
Russia is a big growth market and the sport is also booming in Japan, Dinnis says. But the major export markets are Sweden, Greece and France.
The company went global in 2004 and now more than 90 per cent of Carbon Art boards are exported. It has recorded year-on-year sales growth averaging 25 per cent a year for the past four years.
Even without proper marketing - a fault that Dinnis says the company is rectifying quickly - "we still managed to grow by 25 per cent in the year of the recession in 2009. I know for a fact the other brands were losing market share left, right and centre."
It helps that Carbon Art is the only production brand in the world that offers a precision-built board, including customer choice on construction options, colour and graphics.
"All the other brands are mass-produced," says Dinnis. "They outsource their manufacturing, predominantly to one large manufacturer in Thailand. They're cheaper but they're just not flexible enough [for the top-end market]."
Sales were also assisted by a string of riders setting speed and distance records on Carbon Art boards, including bragging rights as the first board to break the 50-knot barrier (as measured by GPS-speedsurfing.com), windsurfing's speed of sound mark. Dinnis says that record showed the sporting world that his boards were demonstrably faster than the competition.
Surfers use GPS devices to record their speeds, which they then upload to the website, which ranks their efforts. "Somebody can [windsurf and record their speed] in Australia and somebody else can do it in Holland - it's like an international competition."
Carbon Art boards twice cracked 50 knots about three years ago and Dinnis says he does not know if any other board has since achieved the feat.
The 41-year-old, raised in Britain by a Kiwi mum, has been windsurfing since 11. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1989 but then moved to Hawaii, where he built boards for professional windsurfers competing at Maui.
He moved back to New Zealand in 1994, where he was joined by his father and two brothers. Dinnis chose Taranaki as the site for his new "lifestyle" business venture.
"I wanted to go somewhere where there was good sailing and Taranaki was always the best place in New Zealand," he says.
With the assistance of Australian surfer Phil McGain, Dinnis developed a board that stood out aesthetically for its extra length, narrower width, clean lines and the absence of cut-outs.
Carbon Art boards are also exceptional for their strength-to-weight ratio and can easily handle the roughest conditions despite their lightness, Dinnis says.
The company initially used carbon, Kevlar, polystyrene, PVC foam, epoxy resin and glass fibre to build the boards. But Dinnis says he ditched the Kevlar in favour of a substance called Innegra, made in Australia from recycled plastic.
"It's a really green process and it's stronger, which is great," he says. His approach changed from a lifestyle business to one with a global focus when he met Paul Winton, a production engineering specialist and now director and 30 per cent shareholder in the company.
Winton retooled the production process and, with funding from Technology New Zealand, developed new materials to improve performance.
The company has gone from strength to strength, boosting output from fewer than 100 boards a year to about 500, retailing at $2000-$4000, depending on the buyer's requirements. The use of some automation and Winton's impact on the production process means Carbon Art still only employs three full-time workers.
Dinnis says the company can grow and hints at a big announcement this year. There is the distinct sense that Dinnis plans global domination of the windsurfing market, despite basing himself in Taranaki.
His horizon is as large as that viewed from his home in Okato, on the Surf Highway south of New Plymouth.