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Foaming at the Mouth

Just across the Orange Curtain in Westminster, Brad Nadell’s Foam E-Z was the main distributor of Clark Foam for Orange and L.A. counties, selling as many as 1,500 Clark blanks a week. Clark Foam blanks are the basic core materials from which a vast majority of the world’s surfboards are shaped and built. On Monday, December 5, Nadell and others throughout the industry received a stern faxed letter from Clark Foam owner Gordon “Grubby” Clark, which began: “For owning and operating Clark Foam, I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits and even time in prison. I will not be saying more than is in this letter, so I hope you read it carefully. I do not want to be answering questions about my decisions for the next few years. Effective immediately, Clark Foam is ceasing production and sales of surfboard blanks.”

Nadell read it carefully, and it was immediately effective: “I locked my doors right away, changed the locks, talked to the police about night patrols, and I haven’t sold a blank since.”

Clark’s dispatch sent shock waves to all corners of the surfing world. On the retail end of the surfboard chain, someone at Zuma Jay’s Surf Shop in Malibu answered the phone with a tinge of hysteria: “Can’t talk right now. There’s a news crew here. People are buying surfboards in twos and threes. All hell is breaking loose.”

Reached four days after Clark’s missive, Mark Richards, owner of the original Val Surf in Valley Village, described the situation there: “We have heard stories of coastal shops to the north and south of us raising their Channel Islands board prices by $300 to $400. We have experienced the opportunists coming in, trying to buy a lot of boards to sell on eBay or hoard or whatever. Now, knowing that our board supply may become seriously depleted and also being informed that future wholesale prices will be going up substantially, we have decided to marginally increase the retail price on our boards, from $50 to no more than $100, because we want to respect the legitimate buyers coming in.”

At ZJ’s Boarding House, owner Spencer Robins said, “We have about 50 boards in stock at any one time. And on Tuesday there was some panic buying, so we put a two-boards-per-customer limit. We also increased board prices $100, which is minor compared to what we’re hearing. We aren’t that worried about the future because we also sell surfboards made with other materials: Salomon S Core and Aviso boards are carbon-fiber composites, and XTR boards use an epoxy blank. So it got a little weird there for a few days, but the panic seems to be smoothing out.”

On December 5, Clark Foam closed its gates and began destroying equipment, abruptly cutting off the supply of polyurethane foam “blanks” that are at the core of most of the surfboards made in the last 60 years. Clark and surf-industry pioneer Hobie Alter invented the blank process, which enabled surfboards to go from custom built to mass produced. Clark’s announcement that he was closing came in a seven-page, 3,000-word faxifesto, which blamed his decision to quit on heat from a variety of regulatory agencies: “The short version of my explanation is that the state of California and especially Orange County, where Clark Foam is located, have made it very clear they no longer want manufacturers like Clark Foam in their area. The main concern of the state and county government is a toxic chemical we use called Toluene Di Isocynate — commonly called TDI.”

“I may be looking at very large fines, civil lawsuits and even time in prison,” Clark said in the announcement. Environmental agencies denied targeting Clark. The manufacturer noted that he had three ex-employees on full disability “evidently for life.” The widow of another former employee has a claim against Clark Foam, saying that chemicals used at the plant caused his death from cancer.

To most of the surfing world, Clark Foam is the chocolate factory, and Gordon “Grubby” Clark is Willy Wonka. Clark Foam is a thoroughly modern facility capable of delivering custom blanks in hundreds of flavors in a week. Surfboard shapers depend on all the flavors that come from the Clark factory and consume them like Wonka Bars. But what goes on beyond those locked gates is a Wonka-like mystery: The number of blanks a year is as closely guarded as the recipe for Ever-Lasting Gobstoppers, and guesses range from a 1,000 to 2,000 blanks a day. Multiplying that conservative estimate by $100 a blank, that is still, as Jeff Spicoli would say: “Righteous bucks!”

Surfboards are the low-profit foundation of a much larger surf-industrial complex lead by Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl, Volcom and O’Neill that has morphed into the multibillons over the last 10 years. Clark’s announcement shook the surf-industrial empire from the executives at the top of the pyramid down to the thousands and even tens of thousands of people in the production line for surfboards. Distributors, shapers, glassers, sanders and ding-repair people would all be affected and no one knew how long or how deep the impacts would be.

If Clark is Willy Wonka, then Harold Walker is his Slugworth. Walker Foam is a Wilmington-based producer of polyurethane foam surfboard blanks that has long been in the shadow of Clark Foam, always struggling under a competitive pressure from Clark that would shame even Bill Gates!

Walker Foam is in Los Angeles County, in an industrial park in Wilmington surrounded by the petroleum-industrial complex, a heavy-metal neighborhood where toxic chemicals like TDI don’t raise eyebrows. Gary Linden answered the phone there on December 7 and sounded harassed: “Well, I’m here answering phones, but I’m not sure if I am answering for Walker Foam or a suicide prevention line. People just can’t get foam, and they are really panicking. Their livelihoods are threatened. It’s like Hurricane Katrina.”

Fifteen years ago, Clark Foam stopped supplying Linden Surfboards when the shaper dared to use Walker Foam. Linden has been with Walker ever since and jumped into service for the ailing Walker when the Clark bomb dropped, taking over as general manager. Now it appears that loyalty is about to turn him into an industry leader.

“I have been ordering 25 blanks a week from Walker, and that has been about a fourth of their capacity,” Linden said. “It’s time to ramp up, and I am here with a pile of orders as thick as Bill Clinton’s biography and I can’t get through them, either. We have a skeleton crew here now, but as soon as the phone stops ringing I am going to hire a second crew and then a third shift and do a weekend run. Our first goal is to reach 700 blanks a week and keep everyone supplied until the first containers get here in a month.”

Fortuitously, Harold Walker started a joint venture to manufacture and ship quality foam blanks with a Chinese company six months ago, and after many years and decades of suffering under Clark Foam, Walker is poised to become top dog. “This was all in motion when the crisis hit, and our Chinese partner immediately took the building next door and if need be he’ll take the building next to that,” Linden said. “We have unlimited funds and almost unlimited labor and space.”

The foam cavalry is on its way in giant ships from China, but in the short term, thousands will suffer. Clark delivered his Blank Monday manifesto three weeks before Christmas, when retailers are already stressing to keep boards in stock, and surfboard makers are adding Christmas stress to everything else. So is Grubby Clark also Scrooge?

Clark is 72-years-old and is said to be the largest private landowner in Oregon. He has made more than enough money, and some say Clark is using the environmental pressure to get out of a toxic business.

David Puu is a Ventura County surf photographer who sees an upside to the current turmoil. “Grubby decided to go out of the industry at the single most beneficial moment for surfing since the company was founded. That is what just happened. You miss this fact and you have missed the story,” Puu said. “The infrastructure is there to fill that vacuum. Not overnight, but soon. Months.”

And he has a point. Clark timed his exit dramatically, but the effect is that blank production may return to the custom, cottage industry it was when Grubby and others began formulating blanks in the late ’50s. There are rumors that two major suppliers of surfboards — Rusty and Lost — had switched to less-toxic but harder-to-produce epoxy blanks two weeks before Clark’s announcement. Surftech, a major supplier of sandwich epoxy boards made in Thailand, is already producing thousands of boards in over a hundred flavors and is at full capacity. And there are plenty of other small manufacturers working with epoxy and carbon-fiber composites — like XTR, Aviso, Salomon S, M10 — who will rush to fill the vacuum now that Clark’s stranglehold on blanks seems to be disappearing.

In the long term, everything is going to be fine, but for now, things are still uncertain. For those thinking about buying a surfboard for Christmas, maybe the best idea is to get a gift certificate to a retailer that is good for six months.

“My advice to the surfing world is to tighten their belts,” Gary Linden said. “By the end of February or the first of March there will be foam for everyone.”


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