SURF COUNTY, USA : Building a Surfboard Starts in South Laguna
Gordon Clark is not your typical surfing capitalist. He’s over 50. He’s not much of a salesman. He hates beach fads. And his employees don’t run around in Day-Glo surfwear or hit the beach at lunchtime.
In fact, were it not for the racks and racks of surfboard-shaped pieces of foam, one would be hard-pressed to imagine that Clark’s South Laguna factory had anything to do with surfing at all.
In one foul-smelling room, respirator-equipped workers pour a computer-controlled quantity of viscous white liquid into a small bucket, hold it under a stirring machine for a few moments, and then run across the room and pour it in thin strips into a long, rectangular mold. Not exactly the laid-back image of a beach business.
But this is the guts of Clark Foam, the world’s dominant supplier of the polyurethane “blanks” that are shaped and then covered with fiberglass to make surfboards. It is one of the most venerable--and probably one of the more profitable--companies in the fast-changing surf business.
Centered largely in Orange County, the surf industry boomed throughout the 1980s and now generates an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion in sales annually. Most of that is accounted for by the clothing firms--such as Ocean Pacific, Quicksilver and Gotcha Sportswear--that have added the word surfwear to the international fashion vocabulary.
But surfing has spawned a wide variety of businesses, from tiny firms that make surfboard wax or leashes, or distribute surfing movies, or build a few dozen surfboards a year, to San Juan Capistrano-based Surfer Magazine and its bitter San Clemente rival Surfing.
This year doesn’t look to be one of the better ones for the notoriously volatile business. Surfer Magazine publisher Steve Pezman and Surfing publisher Bob Mignona--who are loath to agree with one another--both say advertising revenues have leveled off.
And the two magazines, which have played a central role in moving surfing from the cultural fringe to the commercial mainstream, are considered good barometers of the state of the industry.
Gordon (Grubby) Clark, paradoxically, would welcome a return to stable, predictable sales. Like a number of his compatriots in an industry where salesmen entertain their clients by taking them surfing, Clark seems to view making money as something of a sideline.
“The 1980s were the years of the fads,” the tall, lanky 57-year-old says with a disconsolate chuckle. Though some of his friends are in the clothing business, he doesn’t have much use for the fashion-defined “surfer lifestyle.”
“Some guys figured out they could use surfing to sell rags, and that screwed everything up, created a lot more demand than there would have been otherwise,” said Clark, who was a partner of pioneering surfboard maker Hobie Alter and took over Alter’s foam business in 1961.
That attitude results in part from the complexity of Clark’s operation. Unlike a surfwear vendor, he cannot simply buy more fabric and hire more sewing subcontractors when business picks up. He has to buy expensive capital equipment, such as the 12-foot-high, $50,000 chemical boiler that was recently installed.
Raw commodity chemicals are mixed in such tanks at high temperatures to produce polyurethane resin, and computer-monitored quantities are then released through a hose into buckets and poured into molds. In precisely 26 1/2 minutes, the thin layer of foam expands and hardens to fill the mold.
After the foam is removed, a light is shined through it to check for imperfections. Then, the blank is sawed in half and a thin strip of wood, called a stringer, is placed between the two halves and the whole thing is glued back together.
The stringers, which come in many varieties, give the board strength by maintaining a constant distance between the sheets of fiberglass that will eventually be layered onto the blank. And they also fix the “rocker,” or end-to-end curvature, of the board.
Keeping track of the hundreds of blanks that are produced each day is not easy, since Clark Foam offers 75 different shapes and four different densities of polyurethane, for a total of 300 different blanks.
Clark Foam makes all its own cement molds, cuts all the stringers from raw lumber and even produces its own glue. “I can’t integrate forward because I’d be competing with my customers, so I’ve integrated backwards,” Clark explains, revealing the strategic thinking that lies behind the self-effacing modesty about his business acumen.
The company also makes slabs of polyurethane which are sold to boat makers and others who need what is known simply as surfboard foam.
Clark, friendly but evasive, won’t discuss his private company’s finances. Nor will he say how many blanks his 100-strong work force produces each year.
But surfing industry experts believe he produces as many as 100,000 per year and commands a majority of the worldwide market for surfboard innards, with the balance accounted for by several Australian companies and by large chemical firms that sell standard polystyrene foam.
With blank prices ranging from $30 for a basic model up to $200 for customized jobs, Clark Foam is certainly pulling in some tidy sums. Enough, at least, to give the publicity-shy Clark plenty of time for surfing and trail-bike riding. He has a home in Hawaii, as well as one overlooking Capistrano Beach.
Though he downplays the novel nature of his business--”I’m just a resin producer. We might as well be making toilet seats”--Clark concedes that he enjoys being involved in the design and development of surfboards.
His customers, many of them individual craftsmen and surf-shop owners, “shape” the blanks in a variety of ways, cover them with fiberglass, install the fins, paint them, and sell them for $300 to $500 retail--proudly advertising with a distinctive logo that they use Clark Foam.
A stable core of customers, in fact, makes Clark Foam among the most fad-proof of all surfing businesses. Trends may come and go, but there will always be surfboards. And for as long as there have been fiberglass-covered foam surfboards, there has been a Clark Foam.