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Flagler alum forges his own waves at surf company

Oct 18, 2017
by Tom Iacuzio, ‘06

Rob McCarty was five years old when he picked up a surfboard in his hometown of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Thanks to his passion, and a degree from Flagler College, he’s yet to put one down.

McCarty grew up competing regionally and nationally in surf competitions, so it was no surprise that his love for the sport carried over to working in a local surf shop, learning how to build boards and discovering a knack for designing graphics that would land him in St. Augustine.

“Flagler College had a Graphic Design program which was pretty rare at the time,” said McCarty, who graduated in 1994. “And it was a beautiful, small college by the coast which was a plus.”

After graduating, McCarty first went to Rip Curl as a designer, and then to Billabong at a turbulent time in its existence. In 1998, its then president, Bob Hurley, had just resigned and gone on to start his own brand. Alongside new president Paul Naude, McCarty — a board short designer who rose to Senior Design Director — and a small group of others would take the brand from $40 million in annual sales to more than $700 million.

“It was a great time working on such a fast-growing company and designing for and with surfing’s great athletes like Andy Irons, Shane Dorian, Taj Burrow … man, the list goes on,” said McCarty.

But in 2013, it was clear that the new surf consumer wanted something all their own: a new modern surf brand.

“That same small group who lead Billabong USA for those 15 years joined together with Paul Naude to start Vissla,” said McCarty, who serves as the Vice President of Design for the surf company. “We wanted to focus on product and storytelling that was different than the old corporate surf brands.”

McCarty explained that the team at Vissla is much smaller and more focused on designing unique products, made of the most environmentally-friendly materials possible.

“We have our own point of view highlighting unique surfers, shapers, craftsmen and artists,” he said. “Vissla is not about winning a heat. It’s about going surfing with your friends.”

McCarty says that his family at Vissla reminds him a lot of his time at Flagler.

“I remember it as a small group of super creative people working hard and enjoying life,” he said. “Very different to a massive university or working in a large corporation like Billabong became.”

But no matter where he was, McCarty said the key to his success has always been following his passion and using it to create his own path.

If you’re interested in designing for a brand, have a tight, well-curated portfolio and send it out to brands you love for a possible internship,” McCarty advised. “Once in the door, if you are good you will find a position at the brand or they will help you find one at another.”

But despite all his hard work, McCarty still finds time to get out there to spend time with his family while being on the water.

“I currently live by trestles in San Clemente, Calif., and surf as much as possible with my family,” he said. “It has been so inspiring and rewarding watching my kids learn to surf and enjoy the ocean the way I did growing up on the east coast.”

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