Plastic fantastic – a surfer’s shattered dream

The author (right) with Nev Hyman (centre) at Lavan Legal in Perth.

By Phil Jarratt

One balmy night in July 2017, in front of a packed house in the penthouse conference room of Lavan Legal in downtown Perth, overlooking the beautiful Swan River, I was stoked to share guest speaking duties with surfboard builder turned philanthropist Nev Hyman at a cocktail event called The Business of Surfing. And indeed, I’ve never seen so many suits turn out for a fairly salty evening.

One of the West’s leading legal firms, Lavan is also a great supporter of West Australian surfing and a number of philanthropic causes, which they managed to tie together neatly that night, with me giving a potted history of the surf industry and Nev explaining how he morphed from boardbuilder to a leader in the field of recycling plastics into wood replacement products to build emergency Third World housing.

Nev’s story is a fascinating one, and he held the room spellbound while he told it. Briefly, born in Perth, he got his start in surfboards with a brand called Odyssey back at the start of the ‘70s, and later changed the name to Nev’s Future Shapes and moved it back east to the Gold Coast. In more recent times, Nev’s creation Firewire Surfboards was at the forefront of creating high performance surfboards with minimal environmental impact. His ultimate sale of the company to Kelly Slater enabled him to create Nev House, which quickly became his abiding passion.

Listening to Nev explain the philosophy behind Nev House was nothing less than inspiring, during our gig at Lavan and over coffee during the Whalebone Surf Classic weekend at Cottesloe. The need for safe, affordable housing in the developing world is staggering. That Nev had discovered a way to deliver it using recyclables astounded me.At that point Nev House had been funded by a philanthropist to trial 15 of the recycled plastic houses in Vanuatu where emergency housing was needed in the wake of a cyclone. To me back then a few years ago, it seemed this was only just beginning a long road to helping solve a major world problem while building a stable, sustainable company. I resolved then and there to do what I could to help Nev Hyman promote his dream, and back in Noosa I began the long and arduous steps toward having a Nev House built at First Point to serve as a meeting house and a promotional drawcard for the duration of the 2018 Noosa Festival of Surfing.

You can imagine the obstacles we encountered, but it helped that people of goodwill saw the possibilities, and made allowances for us, and that included Mayor Tony Wellington, who bent over backwards to make it happen.

Meanwhile, Nev had created his own global exposure by winning the Duke of York’s Pitch At Palace competition for eco-friendly product ideas, just before the Duke’s friendship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein made headlines and took a bit of the gloss off.Three things happened that worried me during the short life of the Nev House at First Point. The first was that I discovered that our Nev House was a fraud. The recycled plastic bricks hadn’t arrived from China in time and most of our display building was surfboard foam in disguise. The second was that I learned from some disgruntled investors attending the festival that they had seen no financial reports for three years. The third was that the Nev House CFO had moved to the Spanish resort island of Ibiza to live because it was closer to the financial markets of Luxembourg. As you would.

I put these things to the back of my mind while we promoted the hell out of the Nev House and raised considerable money for it at a charity dinner that week. Then the Nev House was dismantled and everything went very quiet.

Three weeks ago the Australian Financial Review launched a full-scale campaign to out Nev House for having nothing to show for $8 million of investor funds it had received since 2013. Reporter Carrie LaFrenz systematically and brutally took the operation apart over several articles with the help of a gathering army of disgruntled investors. It wasn’t pretty, and Nev had no answers for much of it, other than the fact that he should have paid more attention to how the money was being spent. And perhaps even more tellingly, not a single Nev House had been built anywhere since the March 2018 fake at First Point.

And yet, while many true believers had finally fled, some remained and refused to give up on a man whose judgement may be – must be – flawed, but has always, since early surf industry days, tried to help people. Last week I spoke to friends who had invested and they were in that latter camp – perhaps not yet forgiving, but understanding, and hopeful that somehow Nev’s great idea could survive.

I hope so too.