012: Tom Kay/How I Built Finisterre

Tom Kay by Matt Smith

“There was no magic formula. I made it up as I went along”.

For episode 012 of the Looking Sideways podcast I welcomed Tom Kay, the founder of UK surf brand Finisterre, onto the show. Father, surfer, swimmer, lifeboatman, fisherman and entrepreneur, Tom founded Finisterre in 2002, famously selling their first fleece from a pile in his bedroom.

Tom casually setting one up. Photo by Al MacKinnon

Since then, Tom has overseen the brand’s evolution from bedroom start-up to perhaps the UK’s most beloved and influential surf brand, with a staff of 50 working from a workshop overlooking the cliffs of St Agnes in Cornwall.

Finisterre family

Tom and I spent the day in Brighton, and after a brisk sea swim we sat down among the pebbles on Brighton Beach to spend an hour discussing his life and career.

Highlights of our conversation include:

It’s a story about entrepreneurialism, and how with hard work and ‘blind optimism’, sometimes it is possible to create something unique and lasting. Thanks Tom, it was great to chat to you!

If you only have five minutes…

Listen to this section - Tom on why the new Finisterre wetsuit recycling initiative is his 'challenge to the surf industry'.

Connect with Tom

Show Notes

  • First sea swim of the year in Brighton
  • Sea temperatures
  • Tom’s upbringing on the water in North Norfolk
  • Getting into surfing and building his life around it
  • ‘Surfing became an obsession’
  • Earliest surfing memories
  • The romance of UK surfing, and in particular in scenes like Brighton
  • Early working years – Marine Biology at University, a year in London as a Chartered Surveyor
  • ‘I began to work out what it was I didn’t want to do’
  • Identifying the need for a new surf brand
  • The founding principles of Finisterre
  • The brand’s early years – and first product development
  • The virtues of passion, common sense – and blind optimism
  • Early victories – including winning the Observer Ethical Awards
  • Some of the early mistakes that helped Tom define his purpose
  • Expanding the line and the staff
  • The importance of creating a good working environment
  • The ‘story’ of Finisterre
  • Where the name comes from …
  • … and the quintessential Britishness of the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast, and how it inspired Tom from an early age
  • Tom’s role at Finisterre today
  • The character of a Finisterre product
  • Resurrecting a 100% British supply chain with the Bowmont Project
  • Finisterre’s new wetsuit recycling initiative – and their new role as Head of Wetsuit Recycling
  • Challenging the surf industry – and how the industry has reacted
  • ‘Put yourself out there in anything, and you’ll always get naysayers’
  • The launch of the Women’s Wetsuit Tester Programme in AW17/18
  • How a brand like Finisterre can keep its identity today and in the future
  • The importance of provenance
  • The one piece of advice Tom would give the Tom who started Finisterre 15 years ago
  • The importance of remembering and appreciating the high points
  • Difficulties in working with friends – and understanding when not to take things personally
  • The importance of Cornwall in the Finisterre story
  • Tom’s role as a helm on the St Agnes lifeboat in the RNLI
  • Loving being a new Dad
  • The importance of the sea to Tom now
  • ‘The sea is a source of energy’
  • The legacy of Finisterre

Places Mentioned

People mentioned