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Tide Turns for Foam Factory

Times Staff Writer

When Gordon “Grubby” Clark said this month that he was going out of business, fear rippled through the surf industry.

In a blink, the main source of surfboard blanks -- the polyurethane foam cores that big producers and individual artisans alike shape into finished boards -- had disappeared.

And Harold Walker, at 73, had finally gotten lucky.

The telephones at his Wilmington company, Walker Foam Inc., went crazy as surfboard makers scrambled to replenish their supplies.

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“I could sell thousands of blanks right now if we had them,” said Walker, who left the business in 1973, unable to compete with Clark, but resurfaced in 1990 to give it another try. “It’s surreal.”

Hank Byzak, who recalls how his fellow surfboard makers shunned Walker’s products while Clark dominated the industry, has another way of describing the turn of events.

“I think it’s poetic justice,” said Byzak, a customer of Walker’s who owns Pure Fun Longboards in Encinitas, Calif.

Clark’s Dec. 5 announcement upended a normally laid-back, Southern California-born industry of foam blank distributors, surfboard manufacturers, backyard shapers and surf shops. Surfboard makers scrambled for blanks. Retailers raised prices -- some adding $100 or more to boards typically priced from $350 to $900 -- or limited the number they would sell. And surfers -- totaling perhaps 2 million worldwide -- wondered where their next boards would come from.

Even as Clark’s closing roiled the industry, it has presented an opportunity -- and caused more than a few headaches -- for Walker Foam.

The company has added a second shift and doubled its workforce to about 20, including hiring “a bunch of Clark guys,” Walker said.

“We’ve gone from not having enough orders to successfully operate the business to having the lion’s share of the market,” plant manager Gary Linden said shortly after the announcement by the 72-year-old Clark.

But the new business has come with a price. With surfboard makers desperate for blanks, Walker Foam can’t come close to meeting demand, Linden said Thursday, the stress evident in his voice.

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At peak production, Clark Foam was making about 1,000 blanks a day, about 60% of global production, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn. in San Clemente. That’s 10 times what Walker Foam can produce, Linden said.

“I’ve just got this stack of orders I can’t fill,” he said. “It’s just an overwhelming thing.”

Clark’s decision has unleashed a riptide of change in an industry that has long resisted it.

In a letter announcing his company’s shutdown, Clark said, among other things, that county and state environmental regulators had targeted him for closure, an assertion that officials denied. (Nearly a month later, he and workers at his shuttered Laguna Niguel factory continue to decline requests for comment.)

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The loss of a supplier with such market dominance has been particularly painful for small surfboard makers.

“I personally know several guys who couldn’t buy Christmas for the kids this year and they’re having a hard time paying the rent,” said Thomas “T.K.” Brimer, owner of Frog House, a board shop in Newport Beach.

Although some in the industry predict that supply could be back to normal in two or three months, others remain doubtful.

In some ways the industry is in upheaval as it was in the 1950s, when the popularity of surfing swelled and balsa wood, which was then used to make surfboards, became scarce. That was when board makers started “fiddling around with foam,” Walker said. Among them were renowned shaper and surf shop owner Hobart “Hobie” Alter and Clark, who worked for him.

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Walker began fiddling too, mixing chemicals in a 3-gallon cardboard ice cream container. After his first experiment, he said, he was “hooked.”

“It was maybe 10 seconds -- poof!” Walker recalled. “I had foam all over the place.”

Clark initially made blanks only for Alter while Walker started making them for others. Hap Jacobs, 75, a widely known shaper, remembers Walker peddling blanks that were “strapped all over his little car.”

His business took off, Walker said, recalling the day his office manager appeared with “eyes as big as saucers and said, ‘Harold, we’ve got $120,000 in our checking account.’ ”

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Soon, though, Clark sprinted ahead of Walker, making his own chemicals, building his own equipment and keeping prices so low that others could not compete, industry insiders say.

“In a lot of ways he raised the bar higher than anyone will probably raise it again in terms of quality, diversity of product and service,” said Rusty Preisendorfer, a prominent shaper and owner of Rusty Surfboards in San Diego.

Clark “helped a lot of the manufacturers get going,” said Bill Bahne, who represents surfboard manufacturers on the surf industry association’s board. “He was always right there for everybody.”

But Clark also “had a firm grip on the industry,” Bahne said.

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Several shapers and shop owners said Clark was never shy about using his market power to keep customers from using other suppliers, including Walker.

Clark’s business mushroomed as it produced blanks in a variety of sizes and adapted to the changes of the early 1970s, when shortboards became popular and longboards faded, another shift that hurt Walker, whose customers at the time mostly made longboards.

By 1973, Walker had given up.

In the intervening years, he became a commercial fisherman and invested in real estate -- making a bundle and then losing “every cent,” he said. But after longboarders began reappearing in the late 1980s, he dug out his old foam formulas.

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“Nothing had changed,” Walker said -- including the challenge of competing with Clark Foam. “Up to the day that Clark quit, it was really a struggle.”

With his longtime competitor finally out of the picture, Walker said recently, his company could, within three months, be making 600 to 800 blanks a day, including some made in China.

“We’re zipping,” Walker said. “We’re trying to make as many blanks and as many friends as we can.”

But Linden, in a somber mood Thursday, said the Chinese operation wasn’t coming online as quickly as expected. China is “a long way away,” he said. “Ten thousand miles and a lot of other barriers too.”

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He declined to give specifics about the difficulties the company had encountered in Asia, where President Joe Boyle, Walker’s stepson, is overseeing operations.

The company is working to expand domestic operations with a goal of making 500 blanks a day here, Linden said.

The industry, in any case, has no intention of becoming overly reliant on one company again. And plenty of businesses are hustling to get a piece of the action, including Just Foam of Riverside, which began shipping blanks five months ago and is “overwhelmed” with orders, owner Scott Saunders said.

The surf industry association is urging board makers to use polystyrene foam and scheduling seminars to teach them how. The industry also is reaching out to polyurethane foam makers in Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Britain and Argentina.

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“I think we’ve all learned to be not so dependent,” Preisendorfer said.

For his part, Donald Takayama, who owns Hawaiian Pro Designs in Oceanside, said he was simply glad that Walker had finally “got a chance.”

“He can bow out of here when his time is up with a smile on his face,” he said.


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