This month marks the tenth anniversary of Grubby Clark faxing a seven-page letter to all of his customers announcing that, effective immediately, he was shuttering his foam blank manufacturing business. Had the sun failed to rise on the morning of December 5 2005, when fax machines all over the world beeped to life and spit out the dreadful news of Clark’s closure, it would have been less shocking.
Clark Foam supplied 90 percent of the blanks in the U.S., and something close to 60 percent worldwide. His product was reliable, inexpensive, and of impeccable quality. Clark Foam had also shrewdly cornered the blank market, by, among other things, undercutting prices on blanks to stifle upstarts, and threatening to withhold blank shipments to shops that dared flirt with any other blank manufacturers.
Complicating things further, Clark’s manufacturing process and equipment were jerry-rigged affairs, built according to the whims of a backyard inventor. Nothing about his operation was easily repeatable to the outsider. Even worse, for reasons known only to Clark, he went richter just after he decided to take his ball and go home, and directed his employees to smash molds and take apart equipment so that no other blank company could buy it at auction to use it themselves. Shapers rushed to the Clark facility to try to preserve fragments of concrete blank molds and wooden rocker templates, though most returned empty-handed and shellshocked.
Why did Clark blow up the surfboard industry? Only he knows. He was angry at environmental regulators, he said, though there was nothing in the works by any regulatory agency to shut him down, or to levy giant fines. It also seemed that he was wary of overseas manufacturers who threatened to undercut his business model.
This being America after all, Clark was free to close up shop however he saw fit. But this was a strangely ill-conceived mic drop. A gigantic, misdirected middle finger to the surf world who’d done nothing but happily line up to purchase Clark Foam’s product. San Diego shaper Tim Bessell: “My gripe isn’t Grubby quitting, but how he did it. All he needed to do to be a hero was give three months notice.”
This was a strangely ill-conceived mic drop. A gigantic, misdirected middle finger to the surf world who’d done nothing but happily line up to purchase Clark Foam’s product.
It was also the best thing that’s happened to the surf industry since the invention of the polyurethane blank that made Clark a wealthy man.
That statement would have seemed insane ten years ago. Shops, shapers, and customers alike had no idea what to do once Clark’s bomb exploded, so, lacking a better immediate option, everybody panicked. Prices for boards skyrocketed, sales were rationed, and smaller scale blank manufacturers were inundated with orders they couldn’t hope to fill. Clark foam was the industry standard partly because he’d monopolized the process, but also because his blanks were so damn good. Replacements, by and large, weren’t trusted by shapers, or just generally sucked.
But the dark days didn’t last particularly long. Just a year later, two former Clark executives, Kim Thress and Jeff Holtby launched US Blanks, a company that now headlines the market, and which produces better blanks than Clark ever did. “We have better blanks than before,” cherished Oahu shaper John Carper told Surfing Magazine a few years later. “Boards are stronger and lighter.”
Better polyurethane blanks, however, are the least interesting good part of the story. With the blank supply interrupted in early 2006, boards made from “alternative” materials like EPS foam--which had been around for years and years, but which had struggled to loosen Clark’s stranglehold on the market--were viable options all of a sudden. Blank makers sprouted up overnight to take advantage. With more EPS blanks out there, shapers became more accustomed to working with the material. As the market for EPS grew, competition entered the fray, and quality and prices of EPS blanks gradually improved.
Even better, experimentation was finally unfettered. In the years since Clark’s closure, a kaleidoscope of weird foams have been developed. Reclaimed foams, mushrooms, algae, and even agricultural feed stock refuse are finding their way into the blank manufacturer’s recipe book. Nothing is off the table. Blanks can be made in far less toxic a manner, and that last for far longer than anything Clark ever produced.
Of course, there was a downside. Clark’s monopoly was the biggest bulwark against the forces of globalization that had already penetrated pretty much every other market in the U.S. With shaping remaining a backyard industry, and with cheap Clark blanks available, there was little demand for inexpensive overseas-made surfboards. Once Clark closed up shop, that wall came down, and Asian imports began to flood the market. PBS, of all things, produced a story a couple years back about the potential of globalization to wreck the domestic surfboard industry.
It’s depressing to imagine a future of nothing but poorly-made, mass-produced import boards on the racks of your local shop. But is that the likely future? Hard to say. I doubt it.
The surfboard market now is basically a two-tiered system. Shops are often stocked with rows of relatively inexpensive crappy boards made overseas (though those boards are getting better and better), next to a smaller selection of locally-made high-end boards, built for retail sale in shops, and which are available by custom order, same as always. Those high-end boards are better than they’ve ever been, and your selection, both in terms of board shapes and sizes, as well as construction technique is more varied than at any point in history. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
It’s telling that Clark used a fax to announce his closure, in the year 2005, considering that email had supplanted the fax long before then. The closure of Clark dragged the American surfboard industry from the mid-20th century to the late 20th century, and set the stage for the leaps forward we’ve made to the 21st. In many ways, the industry has changed more in the ten years that Clark Foam has been gone, than it did throughout the 40 years it was in business. And we’re not looking back.