March 15, 2006

Clark Foam Leaves Mark on Industry

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Have you ever heard of Clark Foam? For decades, this company in Orange County, Calif., had a near-monopoly on the supply of surfboard blanks. In December, Clark Foam mysteriously went out-of-business – suddenly closing its doors to the great dismay of countless surfboard shapers who have long depended on the company. In the weeks after, prices for Clark blanks skyrocketed – after all, supply of the blanks was now zero. Last week, Clark Foam auctioned off its remaining equipment to the highest bidder, in a sad, Citizen Kane kind of ending.

A foam blank is like a proto-surfboard – it’s the unshaped, unfinished core that eventually becomes a real board. More than 40 years ago, a surfer by the name Gordon Clark – known as “Grubby” – pioneered the use of a new kind of foam polyurethane blank. Over the years, this blank became – and remains – the gold standard. Surfers demanded it; shapers wouldn’t use anything else. Clark Foam probably had an 80 percent market share in the industry, as the company produced 250,000 blanks a year. The business was so strong that virtually no one even bothered to compete.

There was just one problem with the business – it takes some pretty dangerous chemicals to make the blanks. Clark Foam used a chemical called Toluene diisocyanate, or TDI. It doesn’t sound very good, and apparently, it’s something you don’t want to get into the environment. The chemical is not dangerous on the shelves or when you’re out surfing, but TDI is everywhere during the production process and can get into the ground and local water supply.

The EPA and California regulators demanded that Clark conform to environmental standards. Apparently, the costs to do this were too great for the company – or maybe Clark figured it wasn’t worth the energy at this stage of the game – and so the venerable firm went out of business.

Despite the multinational success of clothing companies like Quiksilver, certain parts of the surf industry are not exactly sophisticated. Maybe it’s the laid-back attitude of surf shop owners – who are perhaps the least greedy business owners in the world – or maybe it’s because the industry just hasn’t been open to change. But for whatever reason, most surfers and shapers basically assumed that the status quo of the industry – with Clark permanently established – would never change. Few people really thought about a contingency plan if Clark went out of business, an event which made the base material of an entire industry suddenly unavailable.

I remember when I first heard the news. It was hard to believe. Everybody used Clark Foam – how could anybody make boards without the company? And there was no real warning before the closure, which only made things worse.

So what’s happened since early December? All sorts of foam varieties have come onto the market, from all kinds of sources. The small number of US-based foam manufacturers dramatically increased their production after Clark shut down (capitalism in action). Australian foam producers saw an enormous opportunity and ramped up their production as well. Two weeks ago, some former Clark employees started something called US Blanks, noting in a press release that, “US Blanks will meet and exceed all Governmental & Environmental regulations and requirements.”

Researchers at a government laboratory even proposed that the industry use something called TufFoam, which is normally used to protect nuclear weapons and is environmentally-safe.

Another option for board shapers is not to use the common polyurethane foam, and instead use a composite, epoxy blank. Epoxy blanks have a pretty negative reputation in the surfing community. A common complaint is that epoxy boards don’t have the same kind of response as polyurethane boards. The average weekend warrior probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but every little detail counts to a surfer who cares about his sport. And epoxy boards also have a reputation for being mass-produced – another negative in an industry that has long-valued individualism and customization. But now epoxy manufacturers are trying to capitalize on this new era and perhaps win the business of some veteran surfers.

So what’s going to happen now? Prices of new boards will remain above normal. A lot of distributors and surf shops will continue to have financial difficulties. But new blank suppliers will continue to enter into the marketplace, and eventually supply will catch up with demand. It will take time for the quality of these new blanks to improve. The kind of uniform quality of the old Clark blanks may never really return.

Most of all, the end of Clark Foam might be a sign that the entire surf industry will become more competitive and maybe more modern. But let’s hope it doesn’t change too much and become too competitive. I’d hate to see the surf business become just like every other business around.

Ted Nyman is a Sun Staff Writer. Fast Times will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Ted Nyman