From Big Waves To A Primo Job

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - April 09, 2008
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Keoni Watson credits Rell Sunn for changing his life with a surfboard
Keoni Watson credits Rell Sunn for changing his life with a surfboard

There are many different paths to corporate America. Keoni Watson’s started at world famous Makaha Beach.

“I was the skinny, blond-haired kid who grew up on the West Side of Oahu, who always was the last in line to get waves,” recalls Watson. “But when the surf got really big and the crowds thinned, I knew it was my chance to get waves and make a name for myself.”

Watson quickly gained the reputation as one of Hawaii’s finest young big-wave riders. He went on to enjoy a successful professional surfing career, which eventually led to a business opportunity with an industry giant.

Ten years ago at the age of 24, he took the leap to corporate America when officials at Billabong asked him to join its team as Hawaii’s sales and marketing representative.

“I didn’t go to school for it, but I dove in head-first anyway, knowing this was a huge opportunity,” says Watson. “Since then, I have learned a lot about marketing and branding, and now I’m using that knowledge to help get the word out about Primo Beer.”

Besides his responsibilities with Billabong, Watson is now the chief ambassador of newly reintroduced Primo Beer.

“I was approached by a group of guys getting it together, including professional surfers Chris Malloy and Brad Gerlach,” says Watson. “Gerlach knew the owners at Pabst Brewing Company and they needed somebody from Hawaii who could help bring Primo back to the Islands, someone who knew key athletes around the state and somebody who could get beers in the right refrigerators. I am really excited about the opportunity.”

The 34-year-old Watson believes the late Rell Sunn made this opportunity possible.

“Aunty Rell had a moment for everyone,” says Watson. “She was so outgoing and her people skills were like no other. It didn’t matter if you were a tourist, the media, a sponsor or a local from the West Side - she made everyone feel special.”

Watson recalls a fond memory of the woman many called the Queen of Makaha.

“Aunty Rell gave me my first surfboard,” says Watson. “I had a beat-up board that I had found in the dumpster, but I was so embarrassed about it I would skip events.

“She found out about that and gave me a new board and said, ‘Now you have no excuses.’”

Watson made the finals that day and it changed his life.

“That event gave me confidence that I could compete at a high level and eventually was a springboard to my professional career,” says Watson.

“Today I’m making a living in the corporate world while supporting my family. I credit Aunty Rell - she gave me hope and inspiration.”

These days, Watson doesn’t get as much ocean time, but he is still regarded as one of the world’s best big-wave riders, making the list of invitees to the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.

“Just being invited to surf in the Eddie on a big day at Waimea is the pinnacle of the sport,” he beams.

His top priorities now are his wife Shawna and their 22-month-old son Koa.

“I get more joy taking the little guy out to a catch a few waves then I do catching a perfect day at Pipeline,” says Watson.

“My life is going so well. I have a healthy family, I have a solid job and I’m having a great time promoting Primo. Hawaii loves getting behind a product and I love bringing a part of Hawaii history back to the Islands.”

And to think all of this started because a skinny, blond-haired kid wanted to catch a few waves at Makaha Beach.


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