Hong Kong’s Industrial History, Part XI: Neil Pryde and the Windsurfing Boom

When Lee Lai-shan won Hong Kong’s first-ever Olympic medal — a gold for windsurfing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics — the founder of Hong Kong’s leading windsurfing company hadn’t seen it coming. “I was as surprised as everybody else,” says Neil Pryde. 

If that name sounds familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen it emblazoned on sails, rigs and wetsuits around the world. It’s a global brand that has supplied Olympic windsurfers on many occasions – just not in 1996, which was one of the rare occasions when the company did not win the bid to supply the games’ athletes. Pryde was focused on developing his international business and simply hadn’t been paying attention to the local windsurfing team. 

Because, when it comes down to it, Pryde’s long career in Hong Kong was just that: a business. His passion was yacht racing, for which he represented Hong Kong at the 1968 Olympics, and which was — in a somewhat roundabout way — the reason he ended up here in the first place. But windsurfing? “I’ve never windsurfed in my place,” says Pryde. “The biggest mistake is to make the sport your business.”

The story of that business is of course a personal one; Pryde devoted nearly five decades of his life to building up his brand. He met his wife of 57 years, Nina, in the factory he first worked in when he arrived in Hong Kong in 1963. But it’s also a story that reflects the evolution of industrial Hong Kong, from its early days as a manufacturer of mass-produced products for the export market to its emergence as a commercial hub with its own unique brands and designs. 

“This was a Hong Kong story that became a world story,” says Pryde, sitting at home with Nina, in the living room of their Wu Kai Sha flat. The balcony door is open to reveal a glorious view of Tolo Harbour. Pryde doesn’t get onto the water anymore — he stopped racing when he retired in 2015 — but he still enjoys the sight of it. “This is why we bought the place!” he exclaims.

The sea has been a constant presence in Pryde’s life. Born in New Zealand in 1938, his older brother was a champion yacht racer, and Pryde followed in his footsteps. He kept sailing even after earning a degree in accounting and going to work for a manufacturing company “I’m an accountant but all I lived for was yacht racing,” he says. He and his brother built their own boats. That was partly out of necessity: “New Zealand was a poor country then,” he explains, and the government at the time restricted imports. “The only thing we couldn’t do well was make the sails, so we smuggled them from Australia.”

Their source was Rolly Tasker, an Australian yacht racer who had won a silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When he wasn’t racing, Tasker manufactured sails. He was planning to open a factory in Hong Kong, where companies like Cheong Lee had begun making sails after World War II, and where labour was more affordable than in Australia. Tasker offered Pryde a job. “I didn’t know anything about sailmaking – but I knew about sails,” says Pryde. “Besides, New Zealand was so depressed in those days, basically every young New Zealander left the country.”

The factory was located near Junk Bay in present-day Tseung Kwan O, not far from the ill-fated flour mill set up by Alfred Herbert Rennie in 1907. “Sailmaking in those days was more of an art than a science,” says Pryde. “It was really primitive. You crawled around on your hands and knees and cut materials.” The factory employed 13 workers, including Nina, who was a sewing and cutting supervisor. (The two married in 1967.) 

Just a few months after Pryde arrived in Hong Kong, Tasker returned to Australia, leaving the factory in the hands of the young, inexperienced New Zealander. He turned out to have a knack for running a business. Within a year, Pryde had bought out the factory’s minority investor, a company called American Marine, and become Tasker’s partner. New fibreglass technology was making it easy to mass-produce yachts, and Hong Kong had earned a reputation as the best place to source good-value sails. The factory soon grew to around 200 employees. 

In 1967, Pryde met a Swedish entrepreneur named Hans Dreifaldt who was interested in importing sails for Swedish boat builders. It turned out to be a lucrative relationship: sailing is a popular pastime along Sweden’s rocky coast, where many Swedes maintain summer houses. Business boomed to the point where the Tasker factory was overwhelmed by orders. 

These were the days before container shipping, which meant that each sail had to be packed into wooden crates and taken down to the docks at Junk Bay, where Pryde often had to personally negotiate with boat captains to take his cargo. Communication with overseas clients relied on letters and telexes. Pryde wanted to scale up the operation and make it as efficient as possible, but as he recalls, Tasker didn’t seem interested. Faced with mounting delays in receiving his orders, Dreifaldt suggested that Pryde strike out on his own. 

Neil Pryde arrived in Hong Kong in 1963 – “NeilPryde” first factory was built in Fanling, 1970 – Photos courtesy of Neil Pryde, May James for Zolima CityMag

And so he did. In 1970, Pryde resigned from Tasker’s company, took some time off to compete in a yacht race in England, and returned to Hong Kong to set up his own business: Neil Pryde Limited. On his way to England, Pryde had passed through New York to meet one of Tasker’s key American clients and convince him to leave Tasker for Pryde’s new operation. Between that and Dreifaldt’s business, Pryde was off to a head start. “It was basically the same business, but hopefully bigger and better,” he says.

Tasker wasn’t happy when he found out what was happening. He sued Pryde for breach of contract, but they soon reached a settlement and Tasker agreed to buy Pryde’s shares in the company. With cash in hand, Pryde bought a piece of inexpensive farmland in Fanling in order to build a factory. But the orders were coming in so quickly that Pryde needed an interim space, so he rented two cheap apartments in Kowloon, knocked down the wall between them and set up a sewing workshop with room for 20 workers. His office was in a converted toilet. 

That temporary arrangement allowed Pryde to start quickly making sails for export. “We had one client in Sweden who was building a thousand boats a year – that’s a lot of sails,” says Pryde. “These were high volume, inexpensive sails. There was no branding, which was typical of Hong Kong. Hong Kong companies didn’t have brands at the time, they made things for people who did have brands.” 

One of those brands was Kool cigarettes. In 1971, marketing executives at the American Brown and Williamson company dreamed up a campaign in which smokers who bought a carton of Kool could get their own sailboat for just US$88 – equivalent to US$660 or HK$5,100 today. That kind of deal was possible because of the Sea Snark, a polystyrene boat with sails made out of the same synthetic material used to create windbreakers. “We ended up making 100,000 sails,” says Pryde. Each one was screen printed by hand with the Kool logo and laid out to dry overnight. “The cash flow from that launched the business,” says Pryde. 

His fledgling factory received another windfall in 1977 when Bic — the French company best known for making pencils, pens and plastic lighters — began making affordable windsurfing boards. By then, the oil crisis had made it too expensive to make new fibreglass yachts, which had put a damper on the pleasurecraft sails that formed a big part of Pryde’s business. But windsurfing was ascendant. It emerged from California’s surfing culture in the late 1960s and gradually became a popular sport over the course of the 1970s. Mass-produced windsurfing boards like those made by Bic moved the industry into overdrive.

Pryde bought a computer cutting machine, which at the time was just being introduced to Hong Kong’s large garment industry, in order to speed up production. There were enough orders from Bic and other clients that he set up an entirely new factory in Tuen Mun that specialised exclusively in windsurf sails. By the early 1980s, his company was producing 340,000 windsurf sails per year. “Demand was so strong we had to open another factory – this time in Ireland,” he says. It was a strategy to get around import controls imposed by France, the world’s largest market for windsurfing. Pryde built a modular factory in Hong Kong that he shipped to the small Irish town of Mallow, along with 27 of his Hong Kong employees, who set up the factory and trained Irish workers. 

It turned out to be a slow-motion disaster. The factory opened in 1979 and went bankrupt in 1984. “We never made money in Ireland,” says Pryde. That’s because, not long after the factory opened, Bic began making its own sails through a new subsidiary, Bic Sport. Pryde went from making 100,000 sails per year for the French company to almost nothing. 

On top of that, windsurfing was evolving from a leisure activity into a top-tier competitive sport, led by windsurfers in Hawaii who were determined to tackle the islands’ big waves and strong winds. That required an entirely new type of kit — lightweight boards and high-performance sails — that Pryde wasn’t able to manufacture. “The sport went high-tech very quickly and we couldn’t do that at the time, because we were at the low end.”

Pryde says the loss of volume customers like Bic and the rise of more technical windsurfing boards was a “near-death experience” for the company. Changing circumstances required a change in strategy. Pryde realised that if it was going to succeed in the new windsurfing world, it needed a strong brand presence: NeilPryde, as it is still known today. And, in the words of a longtime business associate, David Wilson, the brand needed to be “number one on the water.” Pryde says “it was a pivotal day” when he received that advice from Wilson. 

The company began working with a pair of Hawaii-based sail designers, Barry Spanier and Geoff Bourne, who presented a radical new design for sails made from plastic, which doesn’t stretch or absorb water. “The sail became more like an aeroplane wing – rigid,” says Pryde. And the company began sponsoring windsurfers like Bjorn Dunkerbeck, then 16 years old, who became the windsurfing world champion just a few years after NeilPryde began working with him. In 1992, the company won a bid to supply windsurfing boards for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – and nearly every edition of the games since, with the notable exception of 1996.

The launch of the NeilPryde brand in the 1980s mirrored Hong Kong’s shift towards a service economy. And like many local companies that had been manufacturing their goods in the city, rising costs pushed Pryde’s business towards mainland China. “We were a holdout,” he says. “We were still trying to manufacture in Hong Kong, but we were struggling.” In 1987, the company began subcontracting in Guangzhou, and in 1989, it moved all of its windsurfing operations to a factory on Bao’an, on the outskirts of Shenzhen.

Pryde recalls how, when he built his first factory in Fanling, it felt like it was in the middle of nowhere; getting there required a long trip down narrow roads, often interrupted by animal crossings. The factory in Shenzhen was similar. First, a ride on the KCR to the border, then a taxi down rough roads, past what was known as the “second border” that divided the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone from the rest of the mainland, in order to control — and tax — the flow of goods and people. “It took you half the day to get there,” says Pryde. 

But it was a smart financial move. Despite moving its manufacturing to mainland China, NeilPryde is still a Hong Kong brand. On a personal level, Pryde has often said that he feels more connected to Hong Kong than to New Zealand; the transition must have taken place fairly soon after his arrival, because he chose to represent Hong Kong rather than his home country in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. But business is business, and the trajectory of Neil Pryde Limited, from low-cost manufacturing to original designs made in China, is as typically Hong Kong as you can get.

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