Shortages reign as icon shuts down

Published Dec. 9, 2005

Panic struck beaches from Malibu to Oahu's North Shore this week, but there wasn't a shark fin in sight. Instead, it was the real prospect of a sudden surfboard shortage that roiled the waters of the surf world.

The cause for concern was the sudden shuttering on Monday of the company that is the world's largest supplier of the polyurethane cores found inside most surfboards manufactured today. Clark Foam of Laguna Niguel, Calif., had been in business since 1961. Until this week, it provided an estimated 80 percent or more of the cores used to make surfboards in the United States and was a major supplier worldwide.

But without warning to its surfboard-maker clients from California to Japan, Clark Foam abruptly padlocked its doors this week. In a seven-page letter faxed to customers, Clark Foam's 72-year-old founder and owner, Gordon "Grubby" Clark, said he was folding his tent because the company is under scrutiny from the Environmental Protection Agency and California state and local agencies for pollution and fire code violations. Those agencies, however, dispute his assertion and say Clark's company was generally in compliance with laws and regulations. Clark didn't return calls seeking comment.

Either way, the move quickly sent the surf industry reeling, as manufacturers, retailers and surfers faced the sudden prospect of a severe near-term shortage of foam moldings, known as blanks, used in the crafting of surfboards. Manufacturers quickly mobilized to secure alternative materials from much smaller facilities as far away as Australia, South Africa, Spain and Brazil.

Clark Foam's wipeout was painful for surfers, as well. Some retail shops, anticipating a shortage, quickly increased the price of a new board by as much as $100. Retail prices of surfboards generally range from about $300 to $900.

"This is total chaos," said Dave Hollander, co-owner and president of Becker Surfboards of Torrance, Calif., a surfboard manufacturer. "The supply (of blanks) we have now is going to be gone in a week, and nobody's getting any for the next six months in California."

The turn of events is testament to the degree to which Clark has loomed over the industry for more than 40 years. Reclusive and independent, Clark has a reputation as a pioneer of modern surfing. At a time when most surfboards were made of balsa wood, Clark, along with legendary surfboard shaper Hobie Alter, created a way to mass-produce foam cores that could then be shaped into a surfboard.

A former chemist and engineer, Clark and Alter in 1958 began manufacturing the foam. Three years later, Clark went off on his own and revolutionized the process of making surfboards. He invented his own machines and processes to make the industry's most desirable foam blanks.

Industry observers estimate that before it closed, Clark Foam's 100 employees annually manufactured about 300,000 foam moldings. Prices of these blanks ranged from about $45 to $150 depending on the length of the board - a small fraction of a surfboard's retail price.

Clark's dominance was such that he periodically sent unsolicited state-of-the-industry reports to his customers, long letters that ran many pages. He used the dispatches to riff on everything from surfing's place in pop culture to competitive threats from foreign manufacturers - especially those in Asia, a pet concern. According to manufacturers, Clark was worried that mass-produced boards made by Chinese and Thai competitors would flood the market and make his customers, who hand-shape each board from Clark Foam cores, obsolete.

Now, the fear is that, with Clark Foam out of the picture, the storied handcrafting process will be caught in the undertow. The industry is hard-pressed by low profit margins and high labor costs to maintain its manufacturing customs.

"I've got grown people in tears," said Brian Lindsey, founder of Pro Cam Inc., a surfboard maker in Huntington Beach, Calif. Because of the short supply, his six-person team is out of a gig. "We're all standing around," he said. "If the foam stops coming in, we stop working."

The story is much the same at Surf Source Inc. of Atlantic Beach, a distributor of Clark Foam blanks. Owner Dale Christenson said his 10-employee operation will focus on selling surfboard-repair kits, given the prospect of hand-crafted boards going by the wayside.

"Gordon's had a diverse, excellent product line, his customer service was great and that's going to be a very tough act to follow," said Rusty Preisendorfer, founder of Rusty Surfboards, a San Diego manufacturer. "Unfortunately there isn't a real graceful transition for all of us."

Preisendorfer said the company used Clark Foam exclusively in its boards, and he has spent the past few days lining up alternative suppliers. "In general, the consumer public has taken for granted a steady and reliable source of good foam."

The trauma unfolded in an instant this week after Clark sent a detailed letter to his clients explaining his abrupt exit. Clark has long used a toxic chemical called Toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, which manufacturers say made Clark's foam core light yet sturdy. In the past 20 years, the use of TDI has declined significantly as federal and state agencies have placed increasingly stringent restrictions on its use.