12: How a 27-year-old CEO utilises his passion for Surfing to serve his customers


Luke Madden is the CEO of Surfing NSW at just 27 years of age. His aim? To better the sport of surfing by simplifying event systems and promoting the healthy surf lifestyle. In this age of digital disruption, Luke is taking advantage of wave technology in order to bring surfing beyond the coast.

John: Well, I’m here at Sydney’s Maroubra beach with Luke Madden. Luke’s the CEO at just 27 years of age of Surfing NSW, the organisation that connects recreational surfing in our state to the World Championship Tour. Its mission is to promote the healthy surf lifestyle and culture for the benefit of all. And Luke’s a remarkable example of a contemporary leader – empathic, deeply customer-centric and also culture focussed. And he’s navigating a world, believe it or not, of disruption, taking a not-for-profit organisation from strength to strength. Luke, welcome to Customers Matter.

Luke: Appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

John: Luke, it’s remarkable enough that you’re leading your organisation at such a young stage. It’s even more remarkable how long you’ve been working for the business. Can you tell me how and when you got involved in surf administration?

Luke: Yes, so 2017 this year, I’ve been nine and a half years. I started with an internship, then flowed through to just a couple of days a week while I was at university. And then opportunities arose and I got into the office full-time, and then basically moved up from event management to general manager and now CEO. So yes, it’s been nine years now, which is pretty amazing, and I’ve been a learning a lot of the different traits of the business, and stoked to be able to run the whole show now and take surfing to the next level.

John: So you came in obviously off the back of a love for surfing. So when and how did you get into surfing in the first place? And how did that lead to starting to work in the business?

Luke: I’ve surfed my whole life, since I was about nine or ten, which these days is now a bit late. We’re running events now where there’s five and six year olds that have been surfing for four years! So if I go back, I started to do Learn to Surf. My father has always been an amazing surfer and I can put my whole career back to him because he got me into surfing, as well as doing soccer and cricket. But I got into boardriders clubs. I remember doing boardriders and soccer and having to try to work out the grand finals with the finals of the surfing. But then as I transitioned a bit older, I guess I loved the administration side of it. Straight out of school, I went to study and do an events diploma, sport management. I loved the events side of it. So then if I linked the events side of it to what I was already kind of competing in the events and I put two and two together, I ended up doing a commerce degree at uni. Throughout that whole time I started working on the admin side for Surfing, so I was at the events. There’s a massive passion there for surfing and it came easy, administrationally, because I was so passionate about it. It didn’t seem like a job at the start and then it really clicked after a while. It introduced me to some pretty massive mentors around surfing, which has elevated my career pretty early on.

John: Could you explain for people who might not be familiar with the world of surfing how the support works in Australia and what are the career opportunities that are open to people within it? A lot of people mix up surfing and Surf Life Saving, for instance!

Luke: What we do here at Surfing NSW, Surfing Australia and all the state bodies, we administration the sport of surfing. So that’s shortboarding, longboarding, bodyboard, stand-up paddleboard and kneeboard. So it’s a competitive pathway to the World Titles in that sport. We also help out the surf schools and the boardrider clubs, and which they run their own businesses and their volunteer organisations. We give them insurance and affiliate them, so they can work with different councils. So it’s a massive amateur sport that we’re running here and a lot of it is event based, but now we’re starting to work with different government agencies on education. We’re working actually with Surf Life Saving, so a lot of people kind of bring that up at the start. And now we’ve just formed a pretty solid partnership with Surf Life Saving because surfers are actually saving lives in the water as well. So now it’s not just the events side of things, it’s education, it’s accrediting surfers to become surf coaches, to become judges. But there’s a lot of different range of opportunities administrationally, as well as the kind of casual jobs as surf coaches in surf schools.

John: I think there’s even programs that help some of the disadvantaged and so forth?

Luke: Yes. There’s Disabled Surfers Association. There’s a program for mental health which happens, Fluoro Fridays, at all Sydney beaches and now it’s kind of taken it from Sydney – it started in Bondi – taken it globally to say how good the ocean and surfing is for you. It’s actually helping people’s mental stability and coming together in a group environment and then being able to share, to stoke for surfing and have amazing outcomes. So there’s a lot of different organisations now are getting involved in surfing.

John: And you’ve initiated an Indigenous program, I think, in 2017, 2018 as well?

Luke: Yes. So Surfing NSW has been running the Surfing NSW Indigenous program for a while now. Last year, we really ramped it up with a couple of small grants that we have. We’ve been running free Learn to Surf lessons, have a little barbecue after, they get a bit of merchandise and the kids are stoked. They come from out west and then join the coast, and we’ve linked them in with different surf schools. Now kind of take that to the next level, we’re looking at actually bringing on possibly some Indigenous trainees and teaching them about how we run events and bringing them internally into the office. I think there are some really good opportunities for us. We’re only just scratching the surface in these different departments.

John: Tell me about the array of brands and athletes that you work with. After you describe that, I’m also interested to know what brands are looking for in a partnership in this day and age, because it’s a radically fast-moving environment.

Luke: Yes. At Surfing NSW, we have a lot of assets, as in events, down to surf schools and we work with brands like Havaianas Thongs, all the way through to NRMA in the past, government agencies and driving tourism for regional councils and Destination NSW, new emerging surf brands like Vissla, but then Billabong, Rip Curl, Quicksilver. What do they all want? I guess it’s emerging to say content. Everyone wants authentic content, link that in with social media, bring in presence on beach. There’s only really Surf Life Saving and Surfing NSW, our team, that can really organically get brands on the beach and engage them with every demographic. Australian Skin Cancer Clinics is another brand that they’re an actual skin cancer clinic up and down Australia, and we’re actually physically doing doctor appointments on the beach for our surfers. We’ve actually detected some skin cancers. So there’s activations that are really genuine and then you’re linking that through to content and then the branding on the beaches. So it’s a full 360 degree partnership, rather than just a sponsorship. It’s a relationship with a brand.

John: It’s not just a local business these days, is it? It’s a global business. Tell me, how have you engaged with the world through Surfing NSW? And what does it mean to be part of something that’s gotten so big?

Luke: Obviously digital and through social channels, but then Facebook. Webcast is huge in surfing and we’re really lucky that our athletes have massive social platforms and followings. And they’re really spreading the word globally for us. From the tourism end, we’re bringing international surfers to Australia and little regional towns which have amazing waves. But then we’re broadcasting it to the world. What we’re doing, even though at a small amateur level with our sport, is putting it on the map for anyone to watch it globally, and then therefore obviously the brands love that, to digitalise it and get the word out there. So anyone can watch everything from live scores, to who’s got priority in the heat, to replays. That’s where the sport is at. Everyone loves the digitalised webcast and watching surfing.

John: You’ve just been to North America. What did you do up there? What did you see? And what did it tell you about where things are at?

Luke: Obviously our team went over to actually looking into wave pools. So the technology of surfing is really exciting. There’s a lot of different companies trying to launch wave pools. We actually flew to LA and then from there to Texas and actually surfed a wave in Texas. So we looked at the technologies and facilities, how they filtrate the water and worked with the American team to get our heads around what could be in Australia. It’s pretty exciting. It’s really important though that technology has room to move in regards to the future. They don’t want to get stuck in the same pattern after they’ve built it for your $20 million. So it’s interesting. We got a lot out of it, but it’s exciting for us to run events, night-time events. It’s going to probably engage surfing with your large news stations to be able to broadcast at a particular time. Right now, surfing is really hard to justify to large broadcast stations.

John: I think through Surfing NSW, we’re engaging directly with this big organisation called the World Surf League and also surfing is on its way to the Olympics. Can you explain what the World Surf League is and what’s happening with the Olympic Games as it relates to surfing?

Luke: Our job here in Surfing NSW is to manage everything that happens in the state. World Surf League do that on a global scale, so they’re the professional body that runs surfing. In NSW, we’re lucky to have a really close, amazing relationship there. We run their events, so we own some events and then they sanction them for us. But then in some other terms, they run the events and contract us then to run logistics. In other parts of the world, it’s totally different, where they just run everything. So we’ve built that over many years with the national body, Surfing Australia. They in a sense run the world professional side of it; we run the amateur side. But then we contract them in our state. I guess what we do, we run the regional, state and Australian titles and then they go through the World, which is ISA Games. At the top level, ISA and WSL have come together with the athletes and then the Olympic pathway. They have 120 nations now doing surfing with the ISA, where WSL just have the professional athletes, the top 32 male and top 16 female. Now they’ve come together and it’s amazing to see that surfing will be in the Olympics and it’s because of that relationship that it’s going to be in the Olympics.

John: So in 2020 in Tokyo, surfing will be contested for the first time as an Olympic sport. And you’ve just been, also in your trip to America, to Huntington Beach in California where the US Open of Surfing was on. Did you connect with the athletes and the brands up there? What’s the mood like? What’s the vibe?

Luke: It’s pretty exciting. I guess there still needs to be a bit sorted out in regards to the qualification, but the overall vibe is pretty amazing. To have the sport in the biggest sporting arena, for us from an administration point of view, it will just globalise the whole sport and get it into homes that wouldn’t even think of surfing. From an athlete’s point of view, they’re also stoked. We need to work out though if it’s going to be a wave pool or on the beach, which is still a bit of an unknown. Regardless, it’s going to be a pretty amazing opportunity for surfing.

John: Surfing NSW runs some events, as you’ve said, on a global scale, the Australian Open of Surfing at Manly and the World Junior Surfing Championships here for the foreseeable future. You personally I guess have built some close bonds with some of the superstars of the sport, and one in particular, a buddy of yours from down in Cronulla. I love this story. Can you tell us about Connor O’Leary, one of the World Champion Tour surfers? He’s got a pretty remarkable story, Luke, and you know it very well.

Luke: Yes. Connor, we both grew up at Cronulla. He’s a couple of years younger than me. We used to go up to the Grommet Fest up at Lennox Head. The fathers used to rotate different years they’d take us up there. He was pretty amazing as a child surfer, but there were other kids that were better. But he just kind of kept humble and kept at it and changed a few board shapers around, and then all of a sudden, skyrocketed. But it was pretty late in his life. So Connor is half Japanese, half Australian. His mother is also an Australian champion. His dad is an amazing surfer; my father actually just went on a boat trip with him the other day. But going back to Connor, he didn’t win the Pro Junior Series, which is Under 20s, which in this day and age actually gives you a leapfrog into the World Tour, as it gives you good seeding. So he had to go through the hard yards. Then a couple of years ago, Connor was still working at our events, pitching tents for not much money per day. The hourly rate isn’t amazing; I can guarantee you that. From sun up to sun down, he was pitching tents and working on the events that he was once winning. So we kind of got him on our journey and he really respected that, as well as did his family. He was working as a surf coach and in a surf shop, still while he was doing the qualifying series. Two years ago, he was one spot off making the World Tour. So ten people go through to the World Tour; he was the 11th. He didn’t get to go at all. So then the next year, which was last year, he just went and won the whole tour. Now this year, he’s actually on the World Tour, as last year he won the qualifying series, and he’s coming 10th in the world right now. And I really think it’s because of his humble attitude. I guess his pathway to success has been hard and he’s really had to earn his stripes. By him not getting on the tour a couple of years ago has really created the best time in his life for getting on the tour. He’s just so humble and it makes sense.

John: A lot of people would know from years gone by names like everyone from Midget Garrelly, through to Pete Townend, through to in more recent times, Occhi, Barton Lynch. But there’s a crop of incredible surfers in this day and age from the state of NSW that have come through your pathway. Who are some of the names that people might’ve heard that are currently competing, that have had the benefit of your organisation’s support?

Luke: Sally Fitzgibbons, Laura Enever, Matt Wilkinson, Mick Fanning even, Connor O’Leary, Stu Kennedy, Ethan Ewing, from the Queensland border. There’s some pretty amazing names.

John: The Wright family?

Luke: Owen Wright, Tyler Wright, Mikey Wright. They used to, as a group, travel up and down in a minibus, so they’d save some money on accommodation. Now we’re working with them on a couple of events in Culburra. So it’s really pretty amazing to see these guys are still in like their local boardrider clubs as well, they’re still competing for their clubs. So they’ve still got that grassroots edge to them, going down there and cooking a barbecue. So it’s really good to see how humble the guys are coming through our system, wanting to give back to the sport, and how many there are. One, two and three right now women rated surfers are from New South Wales – Sally Tyler and Steph Gilmore. It’s pretty amazing.

John: I think most people who know you would immediately see that you’re intuitively focused on getting outcomes that benefit not just the organisation of Surfing NSW, but also the organisations that you work with. I’m interested to know, how did that become part of your philosophy? In the past, a lot of people thought it was all about dog eat dog.

Luke: Yes. I guess I’ve come through the system. I know the club system, I know the surf school system, I know the sport and I talk to the parents a lot. I was in their case. I was surfing and I guess I just developed that trust. It isn’t easy. We still need partnerships and we still need to commercialise it. But at the same time, if you dumb it down and just simplify everything, in the end what is our end goal? That’s to better the sport of surfing. With things like the Olympics and wave pools, you can get kind of really caught up in it all. But in the end, it’s all about the parents and the kids and what’s their pathway and how do we help them, and how do we help the clubs and the system, the ecosystem. Simplification of creating a great event system and things in our backyard, pathways and road trips of events. How can we get this event to link in with that event, so then therefore they don’t have to travel twice? Simplification of certain things is what our goal in here has been, and it’s worked out really well.

John: Historically, business management courses have focused on organisational design. But I think you see culture as every bit important. What’s the culture that you’re aiming to build at Surfing NSW? Why do you see it as being so important?

Luke: 80 percent of our staff in here have come through internships, which is pretty amazing, including myself. And we’ll continue that rotation of embedding and acknowledging the work experience system and through university. I think that in itself engages the passionate people in the sport and it’s so, so important for a small organisation like us for everyone to get along and be a family. Essentially, we’ve all helped each other so much. It’s so important that everyone is basically a family. That is culture; family is culture. We run events. So with events, it’s hard yards, it’s long hours and it’s travelling, so that in a sense you’re on the road. We’ve brought that mentality into our office. We’re based here. We’re lucky enough to be based here on the beach at Maroubra, so everyone can beat the traffic and try and come to work early and go for a surf and beat the traffic, for example. Or how can we all go for a surf during lunch? We’re lucky enough to be right on the beach here and that in itself has built culture. We need to make sure we utilise what we [inaudible] out the front.

John: You mentioned before passion. How important is passion for what you do professionally, do you think?

Luke: I guess in any not-for-profit sport, passion is key because it makes you understand the sport and understand what the surfers want, as well as just put in the hard yards and go beyond. In the end, like I said, we’re a not-for-profit organisation and when you’re passionate, I guess that’s the way that we’re building this to the next level with our partnerships that are really authentic, right through to the events that we’re running and why we’re running them, because of the sport development side of things. So it’s pretty key.

John: Thinking about the world of surfing and the surf lifestyle, what excites you most about where the sport is today? And what does the future hold, do you think, as you look forward?

Luke: I think from a commercial level, it links in with a lot of non-surf brands now getting involved, and that’s going to reach millions more people because of their reach, I guess. That’s one thing. Where it’s at now is that there’s a lot more demand. We’re finding kids coming from other sports into surfing. So we need to make sure it’s really structured and there’s a lot of good volunteer base at the bottom, and how can they have good governance. So there’s all of that going on. But then from a global scale, we need to make sure that there is that pinnacle and that pathway in New South Wales, so they’re not spending mega dollars travelling over the world. But then how do we facilitate them going overseas at a young age and being able to travel with some coaches? So it’s exciting because there’s all these stems and different branches that kids are taking, and we’re trying to link them even into universities to make sure while they’re doing all of this, how can they study at the same time and have a backup strategy?

John: One of the things that you’re looking to do is to take the surf lifestyle beyond just the coast. Can you tell me what you’re looking at there and what’s prompted that?

Luke: Two things. Probably stand-up paddleboarding, mainly. So we’ve identified that we obviously run the sport of stand-up paddleboarding, which is much different to shortboarding in the traditional surfing. That in itself, we actually run the pathway of stand-up paddleboard racing. So that doesn’t need waves at all. It’s actually on a stand-up paddleboard, the SUP, that you go from A to B, and therefore we can look at lakes out west, we can work with the councils, we can take our stand-up paddleboard community east and take them west and then build a bigger community out at Western Sydney. There’s millions of different councils that would want to work with this. So we can now take the sport of surfing out west, not on the coast.

John: And you’ve opened a surf school at Wet ‘n’ Wild in Sydney’s west as well?

Luke: Yes. One of the brands that we work with called me one day and just said, you’ve got to come and check out this wave, we think it’s a good wave. When I went out there I said, we can run a surf school out here. So 18 months later, that’s what we did. We got the insurances and we got the staff. We work with Village Roadshows who own Wet ‘n’ Wild Western Sydney and we created Wet ‘n’ Wild Sydney Surf School. So we physically ran Indigenous lessons, ladies’ groups, after school, one on one adult lessons, big school groups, you name it. It’s a pretty amazing experience for us to press a button, have three different settings of an A frame peak, a flowing ride. It’s the start of what could be massive for surfing.

John: I think people can learn from other people regardless of their age and stage in life. I’m really interested to hear from you what you’d say to anyone in a leadership position, regardless of whether they’re a young person taking on a challenge for the first time, or they’re a seasoned leader. What do you think is the secret to success when you’re leading an organisation?

Luke: I guess it’s having a look at the people that you have around you and also the people underneath you, and how can they help you as well? You look at your mentors, how passionate they are to help you take that help as well as structure it out. How can you best get help for yourself? But then also then people underneath you are looking for your help as well, so how can you structure that and make sure you’re giving them enough time and delegating enough. Obviously from the event management side of things and managing whole big projects now to going up to that next level of CEO, delegation is key. It’s nothing to do with selfishness. It’s basically being able to give responsibility to people that need it and therefore they trust you, as well as just proving to yourself that you can do it and having confidence is really key.

John: Luke, thanks for your time today.

Luke: Appreciate it, thank you.