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Clark, Gordon "Grubby"


Reclusive and all-powerful surf industrialist from Orange County, California; one of the innovators of the polyurethane foam blank; founder of Clark Foam, which dominated the blank-making business from the early 1960s until its implosion in late 2005.

Clark was born in 1931 in Los Angeles, raised in Whittier, and learned to surf while attending Pomona College in the late '40s and early '50s, where he earned a B.S. in engineering. In 1955, after spending two years in the army, Clark was working as a laminator for Hobie Surfboards, the soon-to-be world's largest board manufacturer. Clark began to develop polyurethane foam molds in the mid-'50s, looking for a replacement material for balsa wood, which was costly and often hard to find; in 1958 Hobie Surfboards switched entirely from balsa to foam. Clark made an amicable split from Hobie in 1961 to form Clark Foam in Laguna Canyon—later relocated to Laguna Niguel—and by the mid-'60s Clark had become the runaway leader in blank production. He later attributed his success to the fact that nobody else wanted to do the job. "There's nothing romantic about foam," he said in 1972. "It's dirty, messy and smelly, and nothing you'd dream of doing for a career."

Alter later said that Clark became the blank king because he's "unbelievably efficient." Others have described him as aggressive and ruthless, and Surfing magazine said he had put a "hammerlock" on the boardmaking industry. Clark constantly updated and refined his product, and remained in contact with the surf world in large part by sending out long, detailed, well-written memos (sometimes referred to as the Clark Foam Pamphlets), with titles like "Analysis of Future Trends in Surfboard Construction." Holding a near monopoly on blanks, he was the most powerful man in surfboard manufacturing, and feared as such. "Nobody has ever wanted to do anything to upset Clark," Surfing magazine noted in 1992. "They don't want to lose their shipping seniority or have their invoices start to get 'misplaced.'"

In a move that shocked and briefly paralyzed the surfboard industry, Clark, without warning, shuttered his business in December of 2005. Not long afterward, he faxed out a seven-page lengthy memo to his former buyers explaining the decision; Clark seemed to blame environmental regulation (while fully admitting to the toxicity of polyurethane foam production) and costs of workman's compensation claims; it was soon revealed, however, that Clark Foam was under no investigation by any regulatory agencies. With Clark's out of the picture, board prices spiked, new boardmaking materials were brought into play, and other foam-makers at last got an open shot in the market.

Surfer magazine named Clark as the 10th most influential surfer of the 20th century. In 2002 the magazine ranked him #2, behind Quiksilver CEO Bob McKnight, on their list of the "25 Most Powerful People in Surfing."

Clark was and business fortunes were the subject of "Blank Monday," a 2006 New Yorker feature, in which Clark is portrayed as a kind of surfy cross between Bill Gates and Howard Hughes.

Not long after his business closed, Clark moved to his 52,000-acre central Oregon ranch and began raising cattle and sheep; in 2010, his was named as his county's Livestockman of the Year.