The surf world began reeling Monday afternoon, December 5, 2005 on the news that the premiere surfboard blank supplier on the planet, Clark Foam, is shutting down operations effective immediately. Repeated phone calls to Clark Foam and its distribution plants went unanswered Monday afternoon, and the gates were locked at its Mission Viejo California headquarters. Details remain sketchy at this point, but sources at Channel Islands, Clark’s biggest account, say they received a fax today that stated Monday, December 5, 2005 would be Clark’s last day of business.
Clark Foam, like many other foam suppliers in California who deal in furniture, bedding and even aerospace have been facing increasing pressure from stringent California State and federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. Rumors are running rampant as to the reason for the shut down, but none have yet been confirmed. Some are hearing the company voluntarily shut things down after being slapped one too many times by the EPA. Other versions are that federal agents actually came in and mandated it shut down. Sources closest to Clark Foam insiders say a letter came to Clark Foam headquarters from a government agency that triggered the shocking move. What the letter stated remains a mystery.
Grubby Clark, founder of Clark Foam and unquestionably the single biggest mogul on the surfboard industry has repeatedly complained to sources close to him about the deteriorating business climate in California for manufacturers. “I’ve always sensed if he decided to go out he might do it in a rash way,” says one California shaper, who asked to be unnamed until all the facts came out. “It’s weird though, because I just got my Christmas card from Clark Foam.”
Nobody knows for certain at this time if Clark will come to his senses and start back up, or sell his business to a would-be entrepreneur. But chances are nobody will be able to simply pick up where Clark has left off. Without the luxury of grandfather laws any likely replacement would face even tougher business conditions. This means the surfboard business in California will be going into instant crisis mode.
“This could be the surfboard industry’s H-Bomb,” says Randy Adler, owner and operator of Moondoggies Beach Club in San Luis Obispo, who has no fewer than 60 boards in his shop at all times. “I can’t even imagine how many people this will affect.”
“The best I’ve heard is this is Hurricane Clark,” said Sean Mattison, who manages the sale of hundreds of boards stocked at Surf Ride surf shop in Oceanside. Mattison had been fielding calls from stunned shapers all afternoon once news broke. After assessing the situation Mattison determined his first response. “We’re raising the price on all our polyester blank boards by $100 tonight, plus I’ve already bought the last bit of Al Merrick models I can get my hands on. We’re cleaning him out.”
“This is going to affect everyone,” says a stunned Bob Hurley, of Hurley International, who got his start in the industry as a shaper. “It’s pretty darn hard to make a surfboard without a blank, and these big labels are doing over a thousand boards a month. I can’t even believe this news. Are you sure it’s real? You’re not joking?”
So far, this is no joke.
Grubby Clark has long been one of the most elusive and enigmatic figures in the surf industry. He’s constantly shunned the press, and closely guarded some of the most sought after numbers in the surfing industry, those being the exact number of boards being made in the United States each year. For decades, Clark went nearly unchallenged in the U.S. market. New competitors were quickly squashed during the late ‘80s by a lowering of prices, and when he experienced a brief period of technical problems with his blanks during the ‘90s some of the Australian blank companies made inroads into the U.S. market, but when Clark fixed the problem they quickly went away.
More recently however there’s been increased pressure from foreign imports of new composite molded technologies. These imports have had a significant negative impact on Clark’s business, but hardly enough to put him on the ropes. Hundreds and hundreds of shapers, from backyard hobbyist to full-blown major labels like Al Merrick and Rusty have still prided themselves on the custom surfboard ethos.
With Clark closing its doors, every one of those board makers faces a huge dilemma. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” says the unnamed Californian shaper.
“Most of the shapers I’ve talked to are just shocked that it happened without warning,” says Mattison. “That’s what leads me to believe the federal agent rumor actually being true, but who knows? You never know with that guy [Clark].”
According to sources at Channel Islands, the soonest they’ll be able to get a decent amount of blanks from Australian suppliers will be February. Which means for others, especially the smaller labels, it could be much longer. But one thing is for sure, board quality will suffer in the meantime, because all renowned surfboard shapers agree Clark’s close tolerance blanks are far superior to anything else out there in terms of ease of use. The extruded foam blanks on the market require much more shaping knowledge, and simply don’t stand up as well to the machine blades of computer shaping machines.
Even those more apt to look for silver linings are having a tough time with this one. Overnight, the careers of hundreds of shapers and glassers across the globe are effectively over. Clark Foam allegedly supplied more than 90% of the world’s foam, and their factory was putting out blanks 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. Companies like Patagonia, who specialize in extruded foam blanks, and smaller operations like Walker foam will do little to fill the huge void. The Australian blank companies will undoubtedly benefit, but aren’t nearly equipped to deal with the load either. In the meantime, the fallout will be felt through the industry for weeks, months, even years.
“This is our 9-11,” says the unnamed California shaper. “Even if somebody did try to come in and start a new company, let alone buy Clark Foam and move it out of state or over the border, unless they can keep the same team intact, that means it will be years of learning the hard way. Getting the plugs you need, making molds, pouring foam…the learning curve is a slow painful one.”
Stay tuned to SURFERMAG.com for more on this story as it evolves.