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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 31, 2010

Class project grows into successful surf venture


By Alan Yonan Jr.
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Robert Stehlik, owner of Blue Planet Surf Shop, works on a board in his new shop and warehouse on Ward Avenue.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Blue Planet Surf Shop has expanded to a second location on Ward Avenue at Kawaiaha'o Street, in addition to its mainstay outlet in Kapahulu.

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When Robert Stehlik was in business school at the University of Hawai'i in the early 1990s he needed a name for the surf apparel and equipment brand he had created for a class project.

He thought about the vast ocean he saw looking out an airplane window while flying to Hawai'i and the name "Blue Planet" came to mind.

"The ocean is blue and the planet is mostly covered by water," said Stehlik, who also liked that the name embraced his commitment to environmental awareness.

He registered Blue Planet in 1993 and launched his career as an entrepreneur. Seventeen years later the company does more than $1 million in sales annually at its two locations in Honolulu.

Blue Planet's outlet on Kapahulu Avenue has been the company's mainstay for more than a decade, where customers walk on a layer of sand sprinkled on the store's floor to give it a beach feel. Stehlik said his vision to open a second store complete with a warehouse was realized last week when he opened a second location on Ward Avenue.

"What started out as a college project became a real business for me," Stehlik said. And 17 years later I'm still doing it. It's not always been easy, but it's got great perks, said Stehlik, who gets to "test" the stand-up paddleboards he sells.

Blue Planet started as a clothing brand distributed in Hawai'i and Japan. Stehlik's first foray into retail sales was at the the Aloha Stadium swap meet in 1994.

The first Blue Planet Surf Shop opened in Pā'ia, Maui, in 1995, followed by a kiosk at Aloha Tower Market Palace. Those stores were eventually closed and Stehlik moved to the Kapahulu location in 1998.

Stehlik, 42, recalls getting the urge to travel to Hawai'i while perusing a windsurfing magazine as a teenager in his native Berlin.

"I loved Germany, but the winters are very cold," he said. "I saw a picture of windsurfing in Hawai'i and I said that's what I want to do."

After graduating from high school in 1988 Stehlik went to Maui for "an extended visit." After about a year he returned to Berlin and enrolled in college where he completed two semesters before the lure of the Islands drew him back.

Stehlik attended Maui Community College from 1990 to 1991, then transferred to UH-Mānoa, where he graduated with a degree in international business in 1993.

For years Blue Planet's main sellers were traditional surfboards new and used as well as apparel. When stand-up paddleboards started gaining popularity he added them to his inventory. They now make up about 80 percent of his board sales, Stehlik estimates.

Blue Planet is the exclusive Hawai'i distributor for Boardworks stand-up paddleboards, a popular brand that works with top shapers to make boards, using epoxy sandwich construction.

He said his new 4,000-square-foot location formerly occupied by the Bamboo Barn furniture store has enough space to operate a retail store and warehouse under the same roof. That allowed Stehlik to close his warehouse in Kalihi.

He said that despite the slow economy, sales of stand-up paddle boards have remained fairly steady.

"It's something you pay for once. There's no membership fee. It's cheap compared to a lot of other sports."

Blue Planet offers an entry-level stand-up paddleboard and paddle set for $999. Prices go up to $2,000 for higher performance models.

The company also offers a 24-hour paddleboard and paddle rental for $29 that includes soft racks to transport the board on a car roof.

Stehlik says stand-up paddleboarding is "definitely the trend right now." But he believes it is one that will stick around because of its appeal to a broad cross section of the population.

"I've become a stand-up paddleboarder, and I don't see it ever going away, said Stehlik, who competed in his first race last year. He finished the 32-mile Molokai-to-Oahu solo race in 6 hours and 15 minutes, good enough to earn him second place in his age group and seventh place overall.