Clark Foam

From the early 1960s through 2005, Clark Foam was the world's leading producer of polyurethane foam blanks, the core material for a vast majority of surfboards. The company was founded in 1961 by Gordon "Grubby" Clark in Laguna Niguel, California; at its height, it produced an estimated 90% of blanks sold in America, and 60% of those sold worldwide.

Boardmakers had been experimenting with foam since the late '40s, but balsa remained the surfboard's core material until 1958, when leading Southern California manufacturer Hobie Surfboards switched out its entire stock from balsa to foam. Shop owner Hobie Alter had for the previous three years been partners with Clark (the Hobie Surfboards laminator) on a secret foam-manufacturing project in Laguna Canyon, hoping to get an edge on the competition. As their foam-making production grew, Clark bought Alter's share in 1961, split off amicably, and founded Clark Foam. The business moved to Laguna Niguel in 1964, and by the end of the decade Clark had the lion's share of the world surfboard blank market.

While the basic foam-making components and processes remained the same, Clark, an engineering major in college, made endless improvements to his line, and was always eager to listen to boardmakers who used Clark Foam blanks. He further added to his market share with aggressive, even strong-armed, business tactics. If you bought Clark blanks, but sampled a competitor's product, Clark, if he found out, would abruptly cut your supply off.

A Clark Foam production flaw in the early '90s resulted in blanks erupting in hundreds of tiny, board-ruining bubbles ("blowthrough") during the laminating process. The company sent out industry memos blaming a newly formulated resin (except the problem didn't occur when the resins were used on non-Clark blanks), and Clark himself later threatened to close his factory and quit the business altogether. It took more than three years to solve the blowthrough problem—no explanation was ever given as to how the problem started or how it was resolved—and board manufacturers were forced to absorb the cost of Clark's faulty blanks.

But this was just a hiccup compared to chaos that enveloped on the board industry on December 5, 2005, as Clark, without warning, ceased production and padlocked his business. He sent a cryptic industry-wide memo that mentioned fears of employee-lawsuits, governmental fines, and the difficulty of bringing his self-designed machinery up to safety standards, but in fact no regulatory agencies were investigating Clark Foam at the time. (William Finnegan, writing about the Clark debacle for The New Yorker in 2006, reported that Clark had visited a Chinese surfboard factory earlier that year; Finnegan hinted that the paranoid foam mogul was convinced that inexpensive Asian product was about to flood the market, and that it was more honorable to pull the plug on his business than put up what he figured would be an unwinnable fight.)

Because of Clark Foam's near monopoly on foam, and because the decision to close came without warning, and because Clark went the extra step of destroying his blank molds rather than sell them to the competition, the event threw the boardmaking industry into a panic. Board prices nearly doubled at some outlets. Surfboard companies hoarded their remaining stock of Clark Foam. Customers at some retail stores, fearing a surfboard drought, rushed off to their nearest retail outlet—and in many cases were only allowed to buy one or two boards. The blanks that remained were sold and even resold at ever-higher prices; in the summer of 2007, a single Clark longboard blank went for $1,000 at auction.

On the other hand, in the wake of Clark's departure, boardmakers began to experiment with alternative materials—a long overdue development. Furthermore, within a year or so, a number of small-market foam suppliers had stepped in to fill the polyurathane foam void.

By the time of its closing, there were about 70 blanks in the Clark Foam line, ranging in size from 5' 9" to 12' 8" along with seven different foam densities, a number of center-cut wood stringer choices, and thousands of rocker options. Many of the Clark Foam molds had been designed by the world's top surfboard shapers, including Rusty Preisendorfer, Dale Velzy, Pat Rawson, and Dick Brewer. Most blanks wholesaled for about $50 to $80 each. It was estimated that Clark sold about 300,000 blanks annually in the early 2000s, which were distributed through warehouses in Florida, Hawaii, England, and France. The Clark plant had three shifts, and was often open seven days a week.