We're standing in an air-conditioned room in an industrial complex deep in inland Los Angeles, next to a man with a long, scraggly beard and dark hair pulled back into a bun. He's pointing to a picture of a blonde kid in neon-pink shorts in a 1991 issue of SURFER Magazine. "Check this out," he says. "This is one of my first shots in a surf mag." The caption reads, "Conan Hayes, sophomore--Konawaena High School."
Apparently this man disguised as a hippy-lumberjack-businessman is Conan Hayes. It hadn't been easy to find him. We'd met a series of dead ends before finally tracking him down. Most of his friends from his World Tour days had lost touch. Rumors of his fate abounded--full-time yogi, Singapore-transplant, a squanderer of recently acquired riches. Google search returned exactly three results: an interview from 2000, a bio on a site that hasn't been updated since 1998, and a press release from 2010 announcing the sale of RVCA, the company Hayes and Pat Tenore founded in 2001. The rest is off the public record.
And that's the way Hayes likes it. He'd agreed to meet us for an interview, but wouldn't tell us where until we were on the road. We took the 405 North toward Los Angeles, and waited for him to text us directions. He led us inland along a series of freeways, before directing us to get off on Crenshaw Blvd., a street that silently urges you to roll up your windows and lock your doors.
We pulled into an industrial complex and parked in front of an unmarked building in an empty parking lot. Conan stepped outside and squinted into the afternoon light. Inside, he led us down a hallway lined with colorful kids' helmets and bikes with roaring T-Rex heads on the handlebars and backpacks embellished with ladybugs and unicorns and kittens. "Quite a departure from the surf world," I remarked.
"I figured I couldn't make a cool guy any cooler," he said with a smile. "The V-necks couldn't get any deeper."
We walked through a warehouse full of cardboard boxes bound for Wal-Marts and Targets across the country, and sat down at a table in a conference room where orange-mohawk helmets outnumbered desk chairs.
"No one knows what I'm doing now," he laughs. "I've always had a busy mind, and I just kind of fell into this. Going outside of surf was cool. It was starting from scratch. It wasn't like, 'I'm a pro surfer, I did this or that.' I didn't leverage any relationships, and I like that."
Conan now finds himself quietly growing his empire in the children's toy market, inland, away from the beach and his former life and lifelong friends. But the obscurity that surrounds him isn't anything new. Even in his RVCA days, Conan was far from being the industry front man; he wasn't the guy exchanging high-fives and business cards at every corporate-card-funded bro-down. He's always been slightly off the radar, always on a less-trodden path. A Big Island kid, Conan grew up with Shane Dorian and the other Kona groms. He lived a small-town life that instilled in him a sense of humility.
"You build relationships over time, and that doesn't change who we are as people," he says. "I think that's important to remember. That's just what I try to do, try to be that kid from the Big Island. It didn't matter there how rich or how poor you were. You still had a rusty truck and a pair of boardshorts."
As a teenager, Conan worked his way into the national spotlight, and eventually onto the World Tour. He collected event wins, starred in films, graced the pages of surf mags, and then, at the turn of the millennium, he re-routed.
"All my friends thought I was crazy, because everybody was still on Tour and traveling," he says. "I admire that and I would have done the same, but at that point it was getting repetitive. I saw some of the older guys that were pushed out, and I was like, 'I need to get on the other side of this thing. I don't want to end up like that.' Once you leave surfing, it's like, now what? I just figured out my 'now what' before I was forced out."
His "now what" was making the transition from 26-year-old pro surfer to founder of a surf brand that would eventually be worth $30 million.
"The early days at RVCA were pretty special," he recalls. "Then it grew, and that was a whole different experience. Its culture changed a little bit, and it got to a point where it was beyond me, and my partner really. It would continue on with or without us. It was kind of like sending your kid off to college. My priorities shifted too. I was just kind of more focused on family. I wanted to free myself up and just explore the world around me a little more."
But it wasn't long until his "busy mind" found a new focus in a domain he never expected to find himself. He moved to LA and began spending his days talking about how to make the best shark scooters and helmets and pool toys. He surfed less, and for a while, not at all.
"I went to Tahiti in 2010 for the first time in seven years and that was pretty cool," he recalls. "I broke four boards and hit my ribs on the reef, but I got some really, really good waves. I had to take off late a few times because I just didn't have it in me. It came back a few days in, but those first couple days were brutal. I was spinning, falling out of the sky on a few of them."
Surfing has continued to be low on his list of priorities. Complaints of parking and crowds and mediocre surf were cited as the reasons. Venice, after all, is not the kind of place where a surf life easily flourishes. But he's got his kids and his new career, and claims that he's genuinely happy moving on to the next chapter.
"I've actually grown to enjoy California--Venice especially," he says. "It's pretty eclectic. Every day driving home I see a bunch of dudes getting tackled and arrested. I'm like, there is some culture there: there are bums, there's crime. Orange County was weird. It was like this made-up world. I like having some of the gritty, raw culture."
He looked across the table at us, the wrinkles emblematic of a former life, the paleness indicative of the present. "I have something else to show you," he said, motioning for us to follow him. "It'll blow your mind."
He led us down the hall toward a staircase. "Leave your camera here," he instructed. As we walked up the stairs he told us how a neighbor of a friend had recently offered him a storage unit that the owner couldn't afford to pay for anymore. He'd been told that it had some surf stuff in it and that for $1,500 he could have it all. Just then he swung open the door. Fluorescent lights overhead illuminated a surf-memorabilia goldmine. Surfboards stacked against the wall and on the floor--mint-condition '60s logs, Tom Curren's boards from the '90s that had never been picked up, order cards still attached--treasures that spanned five decades, all bubble-wrapped in perfect condition. The rest of the room was filled with piles of surf collectibles--movie posters, trophies, bins full of VHS tapes. And in the center of it all, a stack of surf magazines that traces the career of a neon-emblazoned teenage star from the Big Island.