Clean Up Set – Clark Foam Closes its Doors
In the pre-dawn blackness of December 5th, 2005, a small fleet of delivery trucks was locked and fully loaded with precious cargo at the Clark Foam factory in Laguna Niguel, California. Inside each were hundreds of fresh polyurethane surfboard blanks, the same foam cores that have served as lifeblood to the surfboard industry for more than 40 years. A constant flow of white foam cells leave the Clark Foam factory each morning on their way to surfboard factories and distribution centers up and down the East and West Coast, Hawaii, Europe and even Asia. By 11 a.m. some shops in San Diego had already been serviced, including Rusty Surfboards and the nearby Pacific Surf Glass factory. Another truck was already unloading at the port of Long Beach, where the blanks would be put in containers headed for Hawaii and beyond; another truck was headed for Santa Barbara. Just another day in the surfboard business…or so it seemed.
At 12:18 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, 10:18 in Hawaii, renowned shaper/designer Pat Rawson was on the line with Matt Stephens at Clark Foam placing his next order. With new containers arriving roughly every 10 days Rawson and his Hawaiian shaping peers were able to keep their cards close to their chests, forecasting precisely just how many foam cores they needed, as well as their specific size, shape, bottom contour, and density. But midway through his order Stephens interrupted him: “Hang on Pat—something going on here.” The conversation ceased for a brief time and Pat made nothing of the confusion on the other end of the line—it was normal for a busy place like Clark Foam. While holding, Rawson used the extra time to review his order and scan the enormous Clark Foam catalogue with its 70-plus molds and infinite rocker combinations. Finally, Stephens returned to the line. He sounded stressed. “Hey Pat, I’m going to have to call you back. I honestly don’t know what’s going on. Grubby says we’re shutting down.”
Ridiculous, Rawson figured.
But minutes later the fax machine over in the dusty corner of his office started chirping away, spitting out, ever so slowly, a multi-page letter from Grubby Clark. Of course lengthy faxes were nothing new for Clark, especially in December. For decades now he’s provided his clients with his unique insights into all things surfboard-related at year’s end. What began as informative opines on the business, albeit hopelessly dry and bogged down in scientific lingo, have turned into the most highly regarded and accurate reporting of the overall health and welfare of the board building industry. Today, in the increasingly competitive surfboard market, Grubby Clark’s devotees and detractors alike study his reports like gospel. Rawson was hardly the only one who kept a backlog.
But this year the message began differently…
“For owning and operating Clark Foam I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison. I will not be saying more than is in this letter so I hope you read it carefully. I do not want to be answering questions about my decisions for the next few years.
Effective immediately Clark Foam is ceasing production and sales of surfboard blanks…”
In the pages that followed Clark went on to explain how a deteriorating business climate in Orange County for manufacturers, as well as possible litigation and pending legislation all threatened his future, and so his new priority was to remove himself and others from any and all potential liabilities of his operation. The document gave a brief rundown of his long struggle to meet the ever-changing demands of local, state and federal environmental agencies, most notably the Orange County Fire Authority. It also pointed out the escalating costs and risks associated with mixing batches of toxic chemicals in the middle of a rapidly expanding posh OC neighborhood.
Ted Wilson was sitting in his Honolulu office when the fax came in. As owner of Fiberglass Hawaii, a resin and fiberglass supply store for boat builders, the military, and surfboard manufacturers, it got his immediate attention. He read as far as the second paragraph before picking up the phone to dial Clark’s private line. Aside from having a long-running relationship with Grubby Clark, Wilson owns and operates three of Clark’s distribution centers, one on Maui, one in Santa Cruz and another in Santa Barbara. The conversation was sobering.
“The first thing Grubby told me was, ‘We just poured our last blank an hour ago,’” Wilson explains. “I really don’t recall much of the conversation after that, because I was total shock, but he did tell me there was still a lot of work to be done, and he asked me to go over to the factory in Wahiwa to help close things down before a mad dash ensued.” What was especially interesting about that request was Wilson had nothing to do with the Wahiwa warehouse. He didn’t work there nor did he own it, but he did have the trust of many in the shaping community on Oahu, who rely on him for their resin and fiberglass needs, so he was Grubby’s perfect candidate to handle whatever limited allocation remained.
Meanwhile, back on the mainland, the same fax was arriving sooner for some than for others. Of the first to receive it was Channel Islands, unquestionably one of Clark’s biggest accounts. It took all of five minutes for the gist of its contents to spread through the streets of Santa Barbara. The nearby distribution center that Wilson owned was cleared of its inventory before the people working there even knew what hit them. By the time the fax reached other factories up and down the coast the rumor was two hours old. Through San Clemente, San Diego, Santa Cruz and across to Florida and North Carolina, various versions spread like wildfire as panic levels rose. In the confusion and chaos the distortion reached frantic levels.
“He got shut down by the EPA!”
“Marshals raided the plant!”
“There were cops all over the place.”
“Grubby shot an EPA agent.”
By 3 p.m. the phone lines back at the Clark Foam factory were ringing non-stop, but going unanswered. Retailers like Sean Mattison of SurfRide surf shop in Oceanside, which houses more than 900 boards at any one time, were fielding calls from dozens of panicked shapers desperate for details. “How could this be?” “What’s going to happen?” “What should I do?” The mere notion of Clark Foam not being around seemed absurd, even impossible. Imagine Microsoft pulling Windows off the shelves. It just didn’t make sense.
Those within striking distance of the factory in Laguna Niguel simply drove up to confirm the rumor, compelled to see firsthand what the hell was going on. They arrived to find the gates closed and the factory quiet. No buzz saws cutting spruce stringers. No fumes coming from the air stack. No forklifts moving pallets. No workers shouting orders. “When I got the call confirming it was all closed up,” says Mattison, “I just had this strange lonely feeling. All I could think was, ‘Wow, this changes everything.’”
Within hours SURFERMAG.com broke the news online, and the shockwave was instant and global. For the next 48 to 72 hours panic was widespread. Mainstream media outlets latched onto the story. CNN, BBC, ABC and Fox News sent news crews to surf shops and shaping rooms to get reaction. Up in Santa Cruz, police reported a sudden spike of surfboard thefts. Distributors of Clark Blanks, like Brad Nadell of Foam EZ in Westminister, went on lockdown, protecting their increasingly valuable stockpiles until they could get some sense of just how much they were worth. Meanwhile panicked consumers fearing massive board shortages raced to stores to buy up what remained. A few foolhardy speculators tried to take advantage by buying up inventories, forcing some shop owners to limit sales to one per customer. Blanks were showing up on eBay asking ridiculous prices. Meanwhile, shapers found themselves out in the cold, scrambling to track down alternative sources of foam from strangers on the other side of the world. They consoled each other and their glassers while pondering their odds of survival, canceling Christmas plans to round up last-minute orders. The picture wasn’t pretty. “I’ve got a couple hundred bucks in the bank and only a half-dozen blanks to shape,” said Chas Wickwire the day after the news broke. “I don’t know what I’m going to do right now.”
This was the worst-case scenario for the custom surfboard building community. They likened the impact of the shutdown to the H-bomb, tsunamis, or a giant hurricane, at least for them. After all, the entire shaping community in the U.S. set up shop along the banks of Clark’s river of foam. Shockingly, without warning, the river they built their lives around was dry.
As the world’s leader in surfboard blanks, Clark controlled anywhere from 70% to 90% of the world market over its 40-year history, maintaining a veritable monopoly in the States. But more recently their power was slowly, steadily declining as new technologies and competition from overseas imports began heating up. Clark’s moat was eroding. Still, they dominated the rest by spitting out an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 blanks per year—that’s roughly 1,000 to 1,500 per day. By comparison, Walker Foam, his closest domestic competitor, produced just 400 blanks per week when running full speed.
The instant shortage crippled the entire U.S. board building community.
“It would have been tough enough to adjust to this if we had six months,” said Brad Basham, owner/operator of Basham’s glass shop and Clark Foam distribution center in San Clemente’s industrial surf zone. “But to have this happen overnight, without so much as phone call, it’s pretty tough to take right now. I know I’ll be OK but a lot of small shapers I deal with won’t be.”
Timmy Patterson of Patterson Surfboards in San Clemente was at a loss. “Grubby’s given me all I have. My dad was a shaper, my uncle—I grew up in factories like this, and I loved working with him…not having him around is what hurts the most. He was part of the family, part of what made this fun, so adapting to something else is going to be tough. ”
By Friday, December 10th, the next chapter of the story was unfolding as numerous forces sought to capitalize on the huge 20-million-dollar void left in Clark’s wake. The new race for power was well underway, and the results are of the highest concern for the U.S. manufacturers of surfboards, who’re being increasingly threatened by forces from inside and out. The Clark shutdown only compounded this problem, because being starved of the materials needed to make boards has opened the door for overseas competitors to rush in and push them aside.
Even company insiders at Surftech, who have endured the bitter scorn of Grubby Clark’s faithful over the years for symbolizing the mammoth overseas factories, expressed their concern. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, they were far from dancing on Clark Foam’s grave. “It’s a huge, huge bummer,” says Marketing Director Duke Brouwer. “For us it’s personal—these [shapers] are people that we have personal relationships with, and we don’t want to see them suffer.” Because Surftech is a relatively new composite technology that takes the daily production out of the shapers’ hands, Surftech will always have its detractors, but even staunch hand-shapers have warmed up to their technology, many offering a handful of models, no longer viewing them as the greatest threat.
“Surftech markets to a specific customer more interested in durability than high performance,” says Mattison. “They’ve raised the prices to a fair market value that doesn’t pressure the domestic shapers the way some of these other boards coming from Asia do.” The larger concern to the U.S. shapers is the more recent phenomenon of cheaper traditional polyurethane boards being shaped and glassed in overseas factories in Thailand and China and shipped into surf shops and Costco stores at alarmingly low prices.
Some of those cheap imports have the backing of big name shapers, like Australian Greg Webber, who’s licensed part of his production to overseas labor in order to reach the U.S. market. Back here at home, Matt Biolas of …lost caused quite the stir back in September of 2005 when he announced he too was going to produce a generic “placebo” model overseas on the cheap, as a hedge against all other imports, composite or no. Shops owners can make twice the usual margin on the “Cheap Chinese” product. “Hey, I panicked when this whole thing went down ant got some of the Webbers sent over because I need to keep my racks full,” Mattison confessed. “They got here in two days, which was amazing, but I really can’t say much right now for the quality.” Nevertheless, here in the States many have identified those boards as the ones putting the biggest squeeze on the middle class board made in the U.S.A.
Combine foreign threats with symptoms of the Clark Foam shutdown and what you have is the perfect storm brewing, one that’s poised to do serious damage to the domestic manufacturing market. “Right now there’s a clear challenge for the U.S. guys I deal with to differentiate themselves,” says Mattison. “The only way they’re going to do that is by producing better, more unique product, because the best quality stuff will always be in demand.”
Of course, foreign blank companies are also stepping into the fray. South African foam suppliers, who compete well with Clark in Europe because of the cheapened value of the Rand, were fortunate enough to be sitting on large stockpiles of blanks when the news broke. Within days they had salesman on the ground in the U.S. making the rounds, taking 60% up-front deposits on 30- and 40-foot containers being diverted to the U.S. Brazilian suppliers were doing the same, taking orders with prices to be named later. Meanwhile, various domestic foam suppliers began a rapid ramp-up of their operations, including Harold Walker of Walker Foam, and Scott Saunders, who runs a tiny clandestine operation called Just Foam out in Riverside County. Both intend to keep the polyurethane blank at the forefront.
Coincidently, Walker Foam, based in Wilmington, California, was already six months into production of a new surfboard blank factory in China. By importing blanks cheaply he could compete with Clark on a larger scale. The day after the news broke Gary Linden, a well-known San Diego-based shaper who clashed with Grubby Clark on more than one occasion, went to work at Walker as operations manager. “It’s crazy how fast everything is happening,” he explained from his new desk. “We’re expecting to be able to make 700 blanks a day within two months.”
Saunders, meanwhile, has hired a handful of former Clark Foam technicians and employees as he prepares to move into a new 40,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in January of ’06. “I’m planning on having 16 molds done by late January early February, producing about 12,000 blanks per month. I have way more orders now but I refuse to ramp up to 30K a month until the dust settles…I choose to grow into a market, not go broke trying to head one off.”
Even with foreign and domestic sources of polyurethane on the horizon, many questions remained as to the quality of product and service any newcomer would provide. With time to kill before they get here, the savvy shapers were seizing the opportunity to explore what else is out there. Many have vowed to change the way they do business. As the dust was settling, panic and shock began giving way to opportunity and excitement.
“It’s sad, yeah, but on the other hand I think this is just the shot in the arm our industry needed,” says Jeff Johnston, a veteran shaper on the North Shore of Oahu who’s constantly experimenting with new technologies. “I’ve felt for a long time now that we have reached our limits with the polyurethane (blank) and polyester (resin) combination. Guys are much more willing to take a good hard look around right now to see what’s happening out there. And they should.”
“Given the environmental issues with polyurethane I really hope it doesn’t go back to business as usual with PU (polyurethane),” says Fletcher Chouinard of Patagonia. “But even more than that I hope it doesn’t go pop-out.”
Those who’ve had long-standing issues with polyurethane’s environmental issues say there’s no shortage of other materials that are more environmentally friendly and durable than the standard polyurethane blank. “We’ve known for a long time how to make stronger lighter boards,” says Pedro Vasquez, a shaper and designer who helped bring extruded foam to the market over a decade ago. “But the challenge is, whether you’re talking about extruded foams, EPS, Salomon, Surftech, you name it, we’re still trying to match the performance characteristics of the Clark Foam blank.”
“It really is the Ferrari of surf blanks,” says Pat Rawson. “Grubby was a chemical engineer, so people have to understand he knew what he was doing. He was working with smaller molecular structures that nobody else had, and that’s what separated his foam from the others out there.”
Many wondered why Grubby himself didn’t lead the charge into new areas of foam. In his famous final letter he made note of the fact that his last year of experimenting with new foams was 1993. Coincidentally, according to EPA records, that was also the year his factory belched out its highest levels of toxins into the air, 2,750 pounds of them, and the local pressure on him to clean up increased. Four years later, in 1997, after enduring a major blow through crisis, he’d successfully changed his recipe to meet new standards and cut the dangerous emissions down to 500 pounds. By 2003, it was just 157.7 pounds, and the blanks were as good as ever.
According to Vasquez, whose background is in engineering, the reason Clark Foam’s blanks perform better is simple. “The sandwich construction of a surfboard is such that the fiberglass shell acts as a spring, while the foam core acts as a dampener. Grubby’s foam wasn’t the easiest to shape, it didn’t last the longest life, and it’s not the strongest, but it was hands down the best dampener out there—that’s like having the best set of shocks in your car. It’s a smoother more seamless ride, especially as you add torque or deal with bumps.”
With Clark’s blanks gone, that means bumpier rides for everyone in the near term. The surfboard industry hasn’t taken a similar blow since 1969, when thousands upon thousands of longboards became worthless even while they were still sparkling in the surf shop racks. Because, in a matter of weeks, surfers en masse decided to grow their hair long and ride their boards short. In the wake of the shortboard revolution many brand names of the ’50s and ’60s were casualties. But out of the hysteria came a wonderful new era of experimentation and exploration in design, and many insiders say the Clark Foam crisis, while painful, could net similar effects.
Some see a renewed spirit of experimentation already on the rise. Both Greg Loehr of Resin Research and Ted Wilson of Fiberglass Hawaii market various types of epoxy resin, and have noticed a huge spike in interest in that arena among shapers they deal with. “A lot of guys don’t realize how far the epoxy resins have come in recent years, and there’s a much wider variety of EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam out there too,” says the 53-year-old Loehr, a longtime champion of materials friendlier to the environment. Both EPS foam and epoxy resins are nothing new. In fact, they’ve been around longer than the polyurethane/polyester combination made famous by Grubby Clark and Hobie Alter. EPS and epoxy are still oil-based thermo set polymers and plastics, but they don’t share the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) found in polyester resins or the dangerous isocyanates found in polyurethane blanks that caused many of Grubby Clark’s problems.
When Loehr and shapers like the late John Bradbury began their EPS/epoxy crusade back in the ’80s and ’90s they were greeted with widespread resistance by most of the board building community, who first and foremost, despised the extra labor involved. The beaded foam was more difficult to shape and the flip times for glassers was five times longer. But consumers were also complaining of the foam soaking up massive amounts of water within seconds of a crack, and repairing dings with the tricky resin translated into a long trip back to the glass factory. As far as performance, the heavier fiberglass protecting the fluffy 1.5 density foam prevented the boards from flexing. While that was actually fine for smaller surf where rigidity can be a positive, many considered it highly annoying in waves over waist-high.
“I’m the first to admit it was crap back then,” says Loehr. “But we’ve solved almost every one of those issues since, so it really is time people take another look at it.” As evidence, Loehr points to the fact that EPS foam comes in a wide array of densities now, including 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5 and 3 pound formulations that match many of the well known Clark Foam weights. The beads are also better fused in today’s EPS foam, which means water resistance has drastically improved. In addition, the flip times on laminating and hot coating with epoxy resin has been cut in half, and there are now quick-fix ding repair kits that work in minutes with epoxy, and shapers familiar with these advances have gained much more flex control of resin, fabric and foam as they zero in on the proper weight glass jobs for each density of foam.
The best part is, according to those who favor EPS foam, there’s no shortage of it out there. More than a million pounds of EPS foam is blown per year by literally hundreds of manufacturers across the country for every kind of use you could imagine. Even if the entire surfboard community switched over en masse tonight, Loehr explains, “They wouldn’t even know we’ve arrived.”
Jeff Johnston sees plenty of potential in this area, especially given a couple of his recent customers of EPS and epoxy. “My partner and I are blowing our own blanks out of EPS foam, working on a really tight fusion with the bubbles,” he explains. “Andy [Irons] just rode one of them in Brazil, and he loved it. Mick Fanning saw him ride it and wanted one too so I just made a small-wave board for him. Mick’s board came out at 3.5 pounds.”
With most small label shapers waiting not-so-patiently for their next shipment of polyurethane foam don’t be surprised to find many venturing into the realm of EPS and epoxy. “And when they do…” says Geoff Rashe, the man behind M10 surfboards in Santa Cruz. “They’ll be pleasantly surprised. I went fully EPS/epoxy six months ago when my old glass shop got taken over by the bakery next door. Now I don’t have to deal with permits. There are no solvents or fire hazards, and I use a dustless sander with a vacuum hose.” Rashe was so pleased with the results he got both in the water and out that he decided to become a supplier of the EPS blanks. Today he buys the huge 40″ X 40″ X 90″ blocks of foam, hot-wires them into plugs and cuts and glues the PVC stringers into place. “I’m hoping to get up to 100 blanks per day.”
Since none of the EPS foam out there was specifically designed for surfboards Johnston hopes to see more shapers tap into the engineering side of the job. “There’s so much more out there to play with. Perfect example, I think guys are going to see much better results with EPS and epoxy once they start post-curing their boards.” By post-curing, a.k.a. “cooking” epoxy resins, the resin achieves its intended cell structure. “Not only does it perform better, but the board can also handle the heat of your car too, up to 150 degrees. Guys making boards are the only ones not cooking epoxy; all other industries do it.”
Jim Richardson, a professor at the University of Hawaii, is also a shaper who owns Surflight Hawaii. He’s one of the many aspiring engineers Johnston has partnered up with on creative side. Together, they’re working on a new high-end composite blank that will be shapeable, like the Salomon blank, but will be coated with a softer urethane skin. “We always think of hard as being fast,” says Richardson. “But fish aren’t hard and they go upwards of 70 miles per hour.”
“The more we work with professors and engineers, the better results we’re going to get,” adds Johnston. “So my message to guys is, ‘Hey, let’s open up the mind a bit, guys.’”
“I’m looking forward to stepping up my game,” says Chas Wickwire, who shapes and glasses all of his own boards. “I think we all do. I’m sure I’ll be dabbling in a little bit of everything: expanded foam, extruded foam, some of the new polyurethane. Now that some time has passed and we’ve absorbed the initial shock, a lot of opportunities seem to be popping up.”
But even the biggest optimists out there have a warning for consumers. “A lot of the product out there is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Johnston. “There’s a whole new learning curve involved for the hundreds of guys who’ve done nothing but scrape foam off of Clark’s close-tolerance blanks and call themselves designers. Grubby made their jobs easy. But this next chapter is going to separate the craftsman from the hacks. That goes for blank makers, shapers, glassers, sanders, you name it.”
In the wake of the shutdown, board-building insiders quietly fear a return of surfboard diseases we all thought were licked. Delaminations, discolorations and potential melt-downs will be even tougher to take if consumers are paying higher prices. Best advice for now? Hang on to any board you love, and treat her right, while keeping your eyes on what’s coming down the pipeline.
As the final damage of the Clark Foam shutdown is being tallied and the new landscape of the surfboard industry continues to be surveyed, one thing is already clear to leaders in the board-building community. There will never be a single force that dominates the blank industry the way Clark Foam did. While certainly a painful loss, the blow just might be the industry’s saving grace, because for all the strengths of Clark’s technology and its stellar service, there’s no question it created a culture of dependency and comfort in the U.S. market that had become its biggest Achilles’ heel.
“Eventually, once we weather the winter I think we’re all going to be better off,” says Rusty Preisendorfer. “I was so dejected when I heard the news. I mean, they’re still up there breaking all the molds that took years to build. But to be honest, I’m super optimistic right now because I think we’re all going to have a lot more to choose from in the future. I know I won’t be putting all my eggs in one basket anymore and I think most of the other guys out there are thinking the same way. Right now I’m looking for the best physical properties in every category, and seeing who has the best act in each. Those are the people I’ll work with to recreate what I did with Grubby.”