The day that three-time world surfing champion Mick Fanning punched a great white shark is forever seared into the memory of anyone who watched the attack unfold live on TV, or in the subsequent blanket news coverage across the globe.
It was 19 July 2015 and the iconic Australian was competing in the final of the J-Bay Open in South Africa when the three-meter predator became entangled in his surfboard cord before biting right through it. As it thrashed wildly, Fanning unleashed a right hook, catching it square on the nose and clearly making it think twice about chomping down in a more lethal fashion.
Luckily, Fanning escaped uninjured, but the terrifying incident has had a more profound effect on him than many people realize.
In a wide-ranging interview with The CEO Magazine, the surfing great, 42, reveals how the encounter was one of the major reasons he stepped back from the tour that year, making him reassess his priorities and contemplate how his life might pan out after he’d ridden his last competitive wave.
Those contemplations were clearly time well spent because, eight years on, his business acumen has helped him amass a US$13 million fortune from a string of lucrative – and, on occasion, surprising – investments ranging from craft beer, apartment blocks and eco surfboards to a seaweed supplement for cattle, a sustainable dog food and a Pilates workout.
Learning business skills
“Being a professional athlete taught me a lot of skills that are useful in the business world,” Fanning says, shortly after speaking at the recent Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Melbourne, an annual four-day gathering of startup founders, investors, policy makers and business leaders.
“It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and you need to be humble enough to know where you’ve got to improve,” he says. “A lot of the greatest sports people are actually brands, so they’re doing the business side of things without realizing.”
“Being a professional athlete taught me a lot of skills that are useful in the business world. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, and you need to be humble enough to know where you’ve got to improve.”
Fanning realized the strength of his own brand from an early age. The youngest of five boys raised by a single mother, he learned to surf at just three years old in the waters off Brown Bay, South Australia, where sightings of great whites are not uncommon. His obvious surfing talent secured him a Quiksilver sponsorship before his 13th birthday.
“When I was young, I just wanted to surf, so it took me a bit of time to understand that all the sponsorship stuff was part of my job,” he reflects. “It was never my favorite part, but I worked out how to fit in all the meet and greets, and dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. That’s how you build your profile.”
An all-time great
And the brands that coughed up for him to endorse their wares certainly got their money’s worth.
He won his first competition in 2001 aged 20 and joined the Association of Surfing Professionals World Tour a year later. He was crowned world champion in 2007, 2009 and 2013, and won a total of 22 World Surfing League events, frequently being dubbed one of the greatest surfers of all time. He even maintained a winning record in his head-to-heads with 11-time world champion Kelly Slater.
But then came the 12 months that he describes as by far the worst of his life, and not just because of the shark scare.
He narrowly lost the world title by a single heat, split from wife Karissa and lost his brother, Peter, who died due to an enlarged heart. Seventeen years earlier, another brother, Sean, himself a talented surfer set to join the world tour, had died in a car crash.
With his morale and confidence at rock bottom, Fanning took a break from the tour, initially spending most of his time lying in bed and refusing to leave his house. He stopped going to the gym and was certain his career was over.
“By the end of that year, I felt like I had nothing left to give, but had no idea what I was going to do. My fun barrel was empty so I had to figure out ways to fill it back up,” he recalls.
“I tried some things that were outside my comfort zone, and hoped I’d find myself again. That feeling of being uncomfortable helped me learn a lot about who I was and what I could pour into my fun tank.”
The first thing he poured in was craft beer. Co-founding a brewery with some fellow surfers and launching a beer he christened ‘Balter’, Fanning was hands-on from the start, advising on taste, conceiving the design of the cans and even mopping the floor around the fermenting equipment and barrels.
It was an instant hit, and within two years Balter was being served in 700 venues across Australia.
By that time, Fanning had attempted a surfing comeback, but found that he no longer had the motivation that had propelled him to such great heights. So, in 2018, he announced his retirement.
His new-found business success, however, had opened his eyes to a wave of possibilities.
“It helped me think about my ‘afterlife’, when I’d no longer be competing. It wasn’t easy because surfing was everything, and the ocean had always been my healing place. But stepping back for those few months had let me think about the fact I was getting older, and realize that I wouldn’t lose my entire identity when I was no longer on the tour,” he says.
“It also made it easier to finally quit because I could see there were still fun things to do in the corporate world and lots for me to learn.”
And he was a fast learner. Just three years after its launch, Balter attracted the attention of Carlton & United Breweries, who snapped it up for an astonishing US$128 million, landing Fanning a tidy US$2.5 million return on his investment.
A powerful brand
Fanning’s status as a surf legend meant a range of blue-chip sponsors, including Red Bull and Mercedes-Benz, retained his services as an ambassador. He was also an in-demand corporate speaker, earning six-figure sums for each engagement. Meanwhile, Rip Curl showed its confidence in ‘Brand Fanning’ by signing him to a multi-million-dollar 10-year deal in 2019.
The business venture closest to his heart, however, has always been Mick Fanning Softboards, a collaboration with fellow surfer Mark Mathews around a revolutionary new foam and carbon fiber board. But unlike most celebrity figureheads, his involvement wasn’t about inking a megabucks deal and then only turning up to gladhand investors.
“My advice to an entrepreneur starting out is to find people you really trust and admire, and ask them a million questions.”
He’d cared enough about his beer to mop floors, but he was now even more involved in day-to-day operations. “My name’s on the boards so I probably devote more time to them than anything else. I speak to the guys all the time and act as a sounding board, as the products are genuinely revolutionary and evolve constantly,” he says.
“In fact, we’ve just come up with the first-ever surfboard to be certified as eco-friendly, which is really exciting for us as they aren’t usually the best for the environment. It’s constructed with a different resin and reused plastics, and is going to be really big.”
That passion for planet-friendly ventures inspired him to back ethical dog food brand Scratch and biotech company Sea Forest, a seaweed farm using green technology to produce animal feed. He also bought into a chain of burger restaurants, a protein powder sourced from the Andes and a network of fitness studios, not to mention amassing a sizable property portfolio.
“I guess I like a bit of diversity,” he says. “But I only invest in things I’d use myself. Or, in the case of Scratch, that my dog likes. For me, business is intuitive. I don’t get bogged down in the nitty gritty or study the numbers, I look at the people involved and whether I gel with them.”
Closing a business deal, he says, gives him the same rush as riding a 10-meter wave once did. “It’s very different, but I get the same nerves and anxiety beforehand. And I feel real excitement when I see talented people working hard to be the best version of themselves,” he says.
“My advice to an entrepreneur starting out is to find people you really trust and admire, and ask them a million questions. Then just go for it and believe in yourself. There’s always going to be someone saying you can’t do it, that it won’t work, but if you have belief you can make things happen.”
Respect for The Fed Express
Despite retiring just over 12 months ago, Federer still earns more than twice as much as any of his former rivals, making US$95 million this year alone from more than 12 brands, including Rolex.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of how Roger Federer has conducted himself both on a tennis court and in his business dealings,” Fanning says.
“I really admire how he collaborated on everything to do with his RF logo and always carries himself in a very human way, treating people with respect. It’s OK to show your feelings – no-one has to act like a robot.”
Maybe so, but parts of the business world contain more sharks than a typical surf break. Has he ever been tempted to punch one?
“Well, let’s just say there are some people that you don’t want to keep doing business with,” he says with a grin. “But you know what, that’s part of it and that’s how you learn what you like. I’m fairly new to it, so I’m still learning how to remove the personal side of things and concentrate on what makes a brand grow and how I can help people succeed.”
Fanning says he’s not actively looking for any new ventures. Or, more accurately, he’s actively not looking, determined that corporate commitments will never wipeout what he values most – spending time with his fiancee, Breanna, and their three-year-old son, Xander.
“Over the next 20 years, I want to take my family on surfing trips and do as little work as possible,” he says. “I’d love to show them the world that I was lucky enough to explore as a professional surfer.”
But will Fanning Junior follow in his dad’s tracks? Could a Rip Curl sponsorship be imminent?
“No, that will be up to him. But you know what? He’s not interested in surfing right now. He just loves going to the beach and jumping in the waves,” he says.
Top 10 richest retired sports stars 2023:
1. Michael Jordan (basketball): net worth US$2.6 billion
2. Vince McMahon (wrestling): US$1.6 billion
3. Ion Țiriac (tennis and ice hockey): US$1.2 billion
4. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson (wrestling): US$800 million
5. Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (basketball): US$620 million
6. Junior Bridgeman (basketball): US$600 million
7. Michael Schumacher (Formula One): US$600 million
8. Roger Staubach (NFL): US$600 million
9. Roger Federer (tennis): US$550 million
10. David Beckham (soccer): US$450 million