In March 2010, Matt Johnston called his wife, Deb, from China with a crazy idea. Matt was touring factories that make stand-up paddleboards in the hope that he might start making them himself. Matt and Deb were insurance investigators in Australia, but they had been thinking about jumping into the paddleboard manufacturing business for a few months since trying it for the first time.
"China is the kind of place you do business now," Matt recalls. "We had to either buy the factory right then or pass." So, during a 30-minute phone call, Matt and Deb became the owners of a Chinese manufacturing plant.
It's a story the couple tells now with pride, but as they recalled it today over lox and bagels at St. Bart's on Fort Lauderdale beach, they admit the whole thing could've ended in
financial ruin. Instead, they're now the owners of Suplove, a company that's spreading worldwide.
"We followed the motto of doing what you love, and somehow it'll all work out," Deb said. "We call it jumping off cliffs and growing wings on the way down."
The couple came to Fort Lauderdale to tour the city that served as their first foray into the international market. That began shortly after they bought the Chinese factory, when they got an email from South Florida asking about their new boards.
Josh Vajda, owner of Precision Paddleboards (winner of Best Paddleboards from New Times this year), wrote to Matt asking if he could be the first dealer of Suplove boards. It was perfect timing, because Matt knew the Australian market wasn't big enough to support his new factory.
Meanwhile, paddleboarding was just catching on in South Florida. Stand-up paddleboarding is said to be the fastest-growing sport in the world, spreading in the past decade in part because of Hawaiian surfer Laird Hamilton. Florida paddlers started showing up in numbers in the past year or so, about the time Matt got the email from Fort Lauderdale. Soon, Fort Lauderdale sales became proof that the couple needed to move the business to the States.
Matt and Deb moved to California last year so they could secure dealers throughout the country. In Florida alone, they now have five stores selling their boards. They're heading to Surf Expo in Orlando this week with the hope of picking up more.
Although they're planning a worldwide expansion, they also know that Florida is poised to become a mecca of the sport. Summers mean ocean paddling, while winters are perfect for inland waters.
They discovered that yesterday during a paddle from Colohatchee Park in Wilton Manors. They soon paddled into a pack of nine manatees.
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"The first time I flew into Orlando, I was like, this place is perforated like a paper towel," Deb says. "There's water everywhere, and you can paddle in all of it."