The Name Windsurfers Trust?
An in-depth, investigative look into the questionable business practices of a well-known board sports retail outlet.
It’s right at the top of his website, under the brand logo: “The Name Windsurfers Trust.”
To most consumers, it’s merely a brand slogan — it may not even register as they focus on finding the cheapest price on a close-out windsurfing gear sale out there. To anybody who works in the industry, that slogan evokes, at best, an “I-know-better-than-that” chuckle — but for most, the reaction is a little more … angry.
In high school, Mike McGinnis had a nickname. They called him “the Rat.” He hated it — he still does. We imagine he would like to think of himself as Robin Hood — stealing from the rich windsurfing industry to support the poor windsurfing consumer. McGinnis started Windsurfing Direct as Wind Addiction in 1994. Since then, he’s been pretty good at one thing — getting windsurfers cheap deals on windsurfing gear — wherever they are. Bic’s Chris Decerbo thinks that the service Mike provides is valuable to potential windsurfing consumers. “Where is someone who is learning to windsurf in Idaho or Montana going to go? The only way they can get gear is through someone like Mike.” But in his time in the business, he’s had a falling out with almost every brand in the industry. Based on everything we’ve heard, there are many manufacturers and distributors who simply refuse to work with him. There are some who go so far as to say he’s largely responsible for destroying local windsurfing shops all over the United States and Canada. You wouldn’t know it from talking to him. Those who have met him in person report that he’s a meek, mild-mannered guy. Those who have done business with him say otherwise. Was Mike given a chance to respond to these accusations? Yes. Unsurprisingly, he declined to comment. Is that an admission of guilt? No — but it’s not very reassuring.
On the annoying rather than unethical side, he runs the kind of operation that many blame for the disappearance of brick-and-mortar windsurfing shops. When windsurfers started purchasing online, the shops that stood as cornerstones in local windsurfing communities — running windsurfing schools that incubated new sailors, organizing events that got people on the water and provided local knowledge — slowly started to go out of business. And while the advent of online retailing was almost certainly inevitable — he’s far from the only person running an online retail operation — it’s his consistent practice of price-slashing product that’s drawn heavy criticism.
“You can take that policy and shove it up your ass.” That’s a direct quote from Mike. It comes from an e-mail to a major board distributor. Distributors have policies regarding pricing. They maintain the value of the product and keep dealers from stepping on each other’s toes. The same person continues: “He was my number-one account at the time, and I shut him off. As soon as we cut him off, other dealers stepped forward to say they wanted to carry our product. They just couldn’t justify it before, knowing full well they would be battling against McGinnis’ price-slashing policy.” Another major distributor puts it in no uncertain terms: “If he shut down, not many tears would be shed within the industry, except for the vendors that would surely be left unpaid in the process. In the end, though, the windsurfing industry would be better off and healthier without him and his business practices.”
Not all windsurfing retailers have their horror stories. Jim Ballantyne, whose Sailworld store carries at least one brand that Windsurfing Direct also carries, doesn’t fault him. “He’s trying to get people to buy from him. I understand.” And in a sport where the cost of equipment is a big barrier to entry, maybe Mike’s doing us a favor. Maybe his price-slashing policy is keeping the soaring prices of windsurfing gear in check. Right now, Windsurfing Direct is essentially relegated to dealing with one board brand — Bic. And unlike any of the previous brand partners, Bic is pretty happy with the relationship. “We have a mutual working relationship totally within the bounds of what we expect of our clients. It’s been healthy since we started working with him, since 2005,” says Bic’s Chris Decerbo. “We’ve been in the business for 30 years and have very strict guidelines about pricing — and Windsurfing Direct has never violated those.” Part of what has kept the Windsurfing Direct/Bic relationship healthy is that both are focused on selling entry-level gear at a good value — and since Bic is already creating product at a lower price, it negates Mike’s need to slash his prices. Do Bic’s other dealers complain about Windsurfing Direct? Nope. “You can get the same board at the same price from any of my other dealers,” he says. Lastly, Chris is quick to point out that Mike’s right-hand man, Glenn Morton, who handles about 90 percent of the customer interaction part of the business, is fantastic — helpful and straightforward about getting windsurfers the gear that will work for them. (After calling Glenn ourselves, we agree — see below.)
It’s easy to see Mike as a hero of capitalism — keeping market prices in check, battling for the consumer, providing a needed service. But price-slashing isn’t the only thing he’s been accused of. From another anonymous manufacturer: “We were one of the first to shut him down. It had nothing to do with pricing, but rather that doing business with him was impossible, due to his slowness to pay. Time after time, we agreed to payment plans that he would generally fail to abide by. At the time, we thought it best to cut our losses and focus on better partners.” Another major distributor backs up that claim — and passes along a story of its own. “Mike’s known around the industry for making a payment plan, sending a check — and then canceling it as leverage to get the terms or discounts that he feels he deserves.” In McGinnis’ defense, while many distributors are quick to relate their frustrations with Windsurfing Direct, few are willing to specify just how much money he owed them, and some have admitted that after long delays and threatening him with lawsuits, they did eventually receive all or part of their money. In the interest of full disclosure, that doesn’t include this magazine — McGinnis owes WindSurfing $17,487. We’ve long given up on trying to recover that money. We have heard of only one instance where a windsurfing distributor took him to court. Many distributors have stressed that when their employees tried to reach Mike to collect money legitimately owed, he would respond with verbal tirades, foul language and vicious e-mails. It’s this that has kept the industry from speaking on the record. McGinnis has a reputation for being litigious; the distributors who no longer do business with McGinnis have cut their losses — and they’re not interested in incurring more by needing a defense lawyer.
Even after cutting him off, companies find McGinnis a thorn in their sides. It appears he may be engaging in domain-name squatting — which can in some cases constitute trademark infringement. Starboard-sup.com, Naish-windsurfing.com, mistraldirect.com (trademarked brand names of companies that won’t work with Mike) belong to Mike McGinnis and redirect to his site, rather than the sites of the actual trademark owners. According to a WhoIs lookup, he has over 450 domain names registered, many of which contain other companies’ trademarks. Is this simply entrepreneurialism, or just one more example of someone who is willing to test the limits of the law and people’s patience to make a buck?
You’re probably asking yourself why this magazine ran this story. It’s industry-insider. Dirty laundry. You might even think, like Mike seemed to when I contacted him, that it reeks of tabloid journalism. Perhaps Mike has done you well as a consumer — research indicates that that is most often the case. Should you feel guilty about having purchased boards or sails from Windsurfing Direct in the past? Absolutely not. But when you’re saving $50 or $100, you may want to ask yourself if you’re helping yourself at the expense of the traditional windsurfing retailers.
It’s on the first page when you Google “Windsurfing Direct + Mike McGinnis”: a lawsuit from a stand-up paddle board company named “SUP ATX.” Word is getting around: McGinnis, having nearly exhausted every avenue and burned every bridge, is moving to the SUP business, where all signs indicate he’ll continue the practices that many windsurfing distributors have found inexcusable. A name windsurfers trust? For people buying gear from him — maybe. For his past vendors? He’ll always be the rat.