Pull into Tom Smithers' busy office on the Tapuae Hill, between New Plymouth and Ōākura, and you'll find people coming in and out, phones ringing and much construction work going on outside where a new workshop- showroom is slowly taking shape.

Tom, who says he was one of the first surfers to arrive in Taranaki from Christchurch, listens with one ear as wife Suzanne sorts out a new internet connection on the phone. Relaxed and comfortable in a cane chair pulled up to a smouldering firebox, he's happy to talk.

"I was brought up in Christchurch" he says, explaining how he came to leave home at 15 and be living in Taranaki a year later. "My mum died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage when I was six. She went to bed with a headache and died that night. Dad brought up five of us, aged three months to nine years - until my younger sister was adopted out to another family - and at that time there was no widower's pension.

"We grew up in the well-to-do area of Mt Pleasant, but really, my dad had nothing. He was a builder but ended up pretty much broke, in this tiny house, the size of this office. By the time I was 15, it was time to move out of home because there was no room. I guess that's what motivated me to move around."

A surfer since the age of 12, Tom began hitchhiking round the country in search of the best surf. It's hardly surprising that when he reached Taranaki he stayed. Famous for its surf, Stent Road is still his favourite big wave break.

A Taranaki life

Ask Tom if coming to Taranaki was a good move and his answer comes flying back. "I've had a great life. I've been married 27 years, have three awesome kids, my wife Suzanne and I run a successful business and home church." It sounds almost too good to be true, being able to combine family, leisure, beliefs and income, yet for Tom it's not.

His first foray into business began a kilometre south of Ōākura, making surfboards in what he says was “a reasonably profitable way”. "I was there four years and then I went to Australia for 18 months, courted and married Suzanne, came back in 1980 and moved onto this property."

For years, he made more than 1000 surfboards annually - around 25 a week - with Nigel Dwyer of Del Free ‘n Easy his main local competitor. Tom estimates he produced around 10,000 boards in total. After a trip to Auckland to buy a wide belt sander worth about $5000, he came back with a CNC Router wearing a price tag of $100,000. "It was a big bite to take" he says, "but it paid for itself."

An innovative thinker

Tom was innovative. Not quite in the league of cousin John Britten, the legendary motor bike designer, but close. By 1990 his surfboards were sought after in New Zealand, with his specially designed fins being exported all around the world. "The process of making fins using a router, I think, was the first in the world. My brother and I also developed a way of putting an outer high-density foam skin around a low-density foam. "It turned out to be too expensive for surfing, but it worked well for wind-surfing." World-renowned brother/sister duo Barbara and Bruce Kendall were among his best customers.

Tom no longer shapes blanks himself and factory production has dropped to around 250 boards a year. These days he designs and builds skate parks nationwide.

Skating on

Skateboard culture is alive and well and living in New Zealand. "See all those dots?" Smithers points to a map on the wall. "We've done about 70 in the six years."

He believes that seeing a job from the drawing board right through to completion gives him an edge over competitors. He prefers to work for small councils, offering “twice the bang for their buck”. While his last finished job was a skate park in Tauranga, he's currently fixing up a dodgy job in Picton. "It was done wrong, but not by me. I think councils are starting to realise some jobs are best done by someone who designs and builds. A direct market approach works best for everybody."

New moves

Smithers is in the process of building a new factory, which will incorporate a retail outlet for two new projects he's in the process of developing, as well as a mezzanine floor dedicated to the youth work. Once a week, he and Suzanne host around 50 young people in their home.

He explains his faith in a couple of long sentences. "When I was 19, I looked at my hand one day and thought how incredible it was, and that someone, God, must have made it. I didn't care who God was - Mohammed, Buddha, Jehovah, or Jesus Christ. Three months later, I truly believe I was touched by God and I became a Christian. It changed my perspective on life.

"Essentially, we run a house church. It's a funny thing. Surfers are an unusual bunch, they're incredibly selfish but the thing is, I guess, there's one thing that connects them to God in one form or another, they're so aware of nature and the forces around them."

But he admits they are selfish. "They will break all commitments, including work, social life, girlfriends and family if the surf is pumping. But if that dedication is switched to something good, like Christianity, it can become something powerful."

A different kind of businessman

Smithers' business principles are just as personal. "The extreme baby boomers grew up as hippies, well, the earliest ones did. With us older ones it was long hair, give peace a chance… But we've become the most materialistic generation ever. What about contributing to the next generation? You see so many businesses that only care about 'me, myself, now.' But for me, my real heart's desire is to pass something on to young people, not only materially, but spiritually. Something more."

For this reason, Tom often employs at risk young people, to give them an opportunity to become contributors to his business and society. Yet, despite his humanity, or perhaps because of it, Smithers is political motivated. Having three times stood for Member of Parliament for United Future, he might have made it to the Beehive if he hadn't taken his name from the party list during the 2002 election.

The past and politics

And it's perhaps his political mandate that's the most uniquely personal of all. He relates the story of Norm Kirk, Member of Parliament for Lyttleton, who later became Prime Minister. "Norm Kirk used to come up to our place. He would bring my Dad groceries. He saw my Dad in desperate need after my Mum died. Dad was self-employed but unable to go to work. There was no support for him. It was incredibly hard.

"We grew up selling bottles for cash and Dad turned our whole backyard into a vegetable garden. Norm used my Dad as a case study for bringing in the Widower's pension. That made an impression on me. It gave me a passion for social justice. I thought maybe I could contribute something.

People probably wonder why I didn't take the opportunity, but by then, I'd realised legislation is not what changes hearts and minds of the future generation. I think there are points that actually hinder, do the opposite of what they're meant to do. I still totally support United Future, but not directly."

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