Case Study

Ethical Surf Clothing Company Owner

Tom Kay of Finisterre
Information about Tom Kay
Name Tom Kay
Location Cornwall
Company Finisterre

"You can take the conventional route to appear successful, but I’d say follow your passions."

Tom Kay

Overview

I’m Tom Kay, founder of Finisterre, an ethical surf clothing company based in St Agnes, Cornwall. I started the business 7 years ago - I began in my attic bedroom with my laptop and desk at one end, bed at the other.
When I started thinking about Finisterre, I realised there were lots of companies making rubbish products and using unethical processes – so, instead, we make things that have longevity and are in recyclable fabrics.  All our products are top quality and last for a very long time, so we are trying to combat the disposability of clothing - once you’ve got one of our products, you won’t want to part with it.
I built the business up myself, road tested the products in the back yard, and used my experience as a part-time lifeguard and surfing teacher to pay the bills while I developed my designs.  I love my job; it represents everything I am passionate about in life - surfing, environmental and ethical initiatives, and top quality technical products. 

Tell us about your job – where do you work and what do you do?

I’m Tom Kay, founder of Finisterre, an ethical surf clothing company based in St Agnes, Cornwall. I started the business 7 years ago, with the help of a loan from the Prince’s Trust.  I began in my attic bedroom with my laptop and desk at one end, bed at the other.  The clothing brand we’ve created represents all my passions: surfing, environmental and ethical initiatives, and top quality technical products.

What inspired you to do what you do?  How did you get into it, did you have a plan?

After finishing my degree in Marine Biology at Bristol University, I went to London and worked for a corporate in commercial property investment.  I felt deeply unfulfilled, and realised after a while that it was up to me to change things.  I needed to create something that would fulfil my passions, enable me to live where I choose, and work for myself.
When I started thinking about Finisterre, I realised there were lots of companies making rubbish products and using unethical processes – so, instead, we make things that have longevity and are in recyclable fabrics.  My first product was a fleece that people could put on after surfing to warm themselves back up.  It's very well made, so lasts a long time - it was written up as the best fleece in the world!
I built the business up myself, road tested the products in the back yard, and used my experience as a part-time lifeguard and surfing teacher to pay the bills while I developed my designs.

Why is your job meaningful?  Both to you personally, and in how it benefits the wider world in terms of climate change and other environmental challenges.

I love it, it represents everything I am passionate about in life.  There’s a real sense of fulfilment when you’re happy with your own business, you can do anything, it’s not like you go to work, it’s just what we do...
We try to locally or ethically source our materials wherever possible.  Our clothes are made in Devon, the fabrics come from all over, and we’re working with a local farmer to start using British wool. We are facing challenges in trying to find UK manufacturers, but we always try to keep our business in the UK.  All our products are top quality and last for a very long time, so we are trying to combat the disposability of clothing - once you’ve got one of our products, you won’t want to part with it.

Tom is working with a local farmer to start using British wool

Many jobs in this sector are very new, how long has your job existed?

The job didn’t exist until I started it.  At the beginning I was doing everything - the orders, the PR, the book-keeping – but, as it’s grown, I’ve been able to hand stuff over.  The business has evolved slowly and organically, which is how I always wanted it to. 

What personal qualities do you think have got you where you are today?

The ability to overcome problems and keep on going.  If you believe you can make it happen, you will. I feel lucky to have an amazing team, and everyone is very much involved in living and breathing the business.  Being organised, but being unconventional about how we do things, helps too.

What are the essential skills for your job?

I think you need to be organised, focused and motivated, and have an ability to make people happy.  Be aware of the desires and ambitions of other people around you.  Good team work, good leadership and staff management are important too.

What qualifications do you have? Are these typical for people in your role?

GCSEs, A-levels, and a degree in Marine Biology.
It’s more about who you are and the passion you have, but some of my staff do have design degrees.

What do you think most helped you get where you are now?

We’ve just made this up as we’ve gone along.  We’ve used gut feeling and creativity to create what we do, we never knew what the journey was going to entail really.
You’ve got to have a point of difference, a unique selling point.  You’ve got to believe in it, then it’s a question of just going for it.  It’s about who you are as a person, that’s what makes things happen.

Please describe a typical working day

Get in at 8-ish, write a surf forecast, type emails, the phone rings.  I never really know what’s going to happen; it’s kind of by the seat of our pants!  Everything from product design meetings to product schedules.
We try to be flexible - if someone wants to go for a surf, that’s fine.  My team take responsibility to get it done but when we work we work hard, 8am – 6pm.

Life at Finisterre; 'if someone wants to go for a surf, that's fine'...

What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?

It’s great getting recognition for what we do - we’ve won some awards.  It doesn’t change what we do, but it’s great to get a pat on the back - especially when 7 years ago what we were doing was new, and now it’s being recognised.
In terms of what I enjoy least, it varies - there are always worries, cash flow can be pretty stressful.

What kind of people do you meet through your work or do you work alone?

Designers and all kinds of surfers.  Carlos Burle, a top big wave surfer, is our ambassador.  BBC underwater crews come in to buy kit, and we provide kit for people doing amazing stuff for charity and help them out.  We’ve also done work with schools and we work with students, educational stuff, talking to young people... we really get out and about.

Do you feel well paid for what you do, or is it not about the money?

We don’t get well paid at all, it’s not about the money.  People work with me for fulfilment more than anything, it’s pretty hand to mouth, we make enough to get by, that’s not why we do it.

Finally, what do you know now about jobs, careers and the future that you wish you’d known when you were at school?

It took me time to realise what I was about.  When you realise, it fires you up to go for it, but you might not know that until later in life.  You can take the conventional route to appear successful, but I’d say follow your passions. If your heart’s not in it, don’t waste your time.

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