Industry News 6/30/2015

EVENT: Surfers' Hall of Fame to Honor Clark Foam Founder Gordon "Grubby" Clark

Gordon “Grubby” Clark, whose namesake company Clark Foam was the leading producer of polyurethane foam blanks from the early 60s through 2005, is among the 2015 inductees to the Surfers’ Hall of Fame.  Gordon joins with Floridian CJ Hobgood, who won pro surfing’s world title in 2001 and later added the 2007 U.S. Open to his trophy collection and John Davis, the first captain of the nascent Huntington Beach High School surf team in 1967.  All three will be immortalized in cement on Friday, July 31st at 10 a.m. in front of Huntington Surf & Sport.

“We’re stoked and excited to induct Gordon Clark into the 2015 Surfers’ Hall of Fame,” said founder Aaron Pai.  “Gordon’s impact on the surfboard industry stretched across five decades and included many significant technological developments that improved the ‘surfing’ experience for millions of surfers across the globe.”

Gordon Clark was born in Gardena on January 19th, 1933.  He learned to surf while attending Pomona College in the late '40s and '50s, where he earned a B.S. in engineering.  Gordon landed his first paying job in the surf industry was when he was 19.  He began working for the legendary Tom Blake, inventor of the surfboard fin after going to Hawaii and running out of money.  From Blake, Clark was able to learn the history of surfboard construction dating back to the 1920’s.  At the same time Gordon met designer and shaper Bob Simmons who shared with him some of his experiences with the EPS/epoxy surfboard technology that he had invented in 1948.

In 1955, after spending two years in the army, Clark began working as a laminator for Hobie Surfboards during the summer and over holidays to help pay for the remainder of his college education.  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.  One week after Hobie started his development of the first successful polyurethane foam core surfboard, Gordon went to work full-time on the project.  

In June of 1958 Hobie Alter started mass production of his foam blanks.  This event triggered an incredible demand as Hobie’s boards were lighter, more maintenance free, and, unlike balsa, had a supply of raw material that was almost unlimited.  Clark made an amicable split from Hobie in 1961 to form Clark Foam in Laguna Canyon—later relocating to Laguna Niguel—and by the mid-'60s Clark had become the runaway leader in blank production.  At its height Clark Foam produced an estimated 90% of blanks sold in America and 60% of those sold worldwide.

Highlights and innovations include:

·         Clark Foam developed inexpensive, steel reinforced cement molds that were hydraulically operated which allowed very accurate mold tolerances.  Over the years this technology was improved, eventually allowing dozens of different mold sizes for different markets and types of waves.  This saved on raw material as well as shipping and labor costs.

·         Another notable achievement was the “hot coat” or “fill coat”; the coat of resin put on the fiberglass after the layup.  The original reason was to eliminate the “itch” caused by sanding fiberglass, but a side benefit was keeping the lengthwise strength of the fiberglass.  This technique was universally adopted throughout the foam surfboard industry.

·         By the end of 1968 Clark Foam was making all its own resins from commodity chemicals bought by truckload and stored and processed in large tanks, eliminating 55-gallon drums, labor and waste.  Clark also kept a full wood mill on the premise, making the operation virtually self-contained.  

·         In 1969 Clark Foam introduced the first full container load and rail car shipments to Hawaii, the East Coast and a number of foreign countries.  This development greatly expanded the available of quality blanks and surfboards outside of California.

·         In 1974 Clark Foam built the first hydraulically operated glue presses.  This innovation led to very close tolerance gluing and eventually over 5,500 rocker templates kept in a computer database.

·         In 1978 Clark Foam began an ongoing effort to utilize computers (using custom software developed by Clark) to boost productivity, improve quality controls in the manufacturing process, fine tune inventory control and ultimately offer a wider selection of products.  This created a wide range of close tolerance blanks, saving raw material and shaping labor.  

·         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.

Clark constantly updated and refined his product, and remained in contact with the surf industry by sending out long, detailed memos with titles like “Analysis of Future Trends in Surfboard Construction.”  Gordon Clark 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.”  Hobie Alter stated that Clark became the blank king because he's “unbelievably efficient.”  

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

In a move that shocked and briefly paralyzed the board industry, Clark shuttered his business in December of 2005.  At 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 Dale Velzy, Rusty Preisendorfer, Pat Rawson and Dick Brewer.  Not long after his business closed, Clark moved to his 52,000-acre central Oregon ranch and began raising cattle and sheep.

The nation’s first imprint collection of legendary surfers, the Surfers’ Hall of Fame celebrated its first induction in 1997 inside of specialty retailer Huntington Surf & Sport where several slabs remain.  Four years later with the blessing of the City Council and a stunning bronze statue of Duke Kahanamoku serving as a backdrop, the ceremony moved outside to the corner of PCH and Main, less than 100 feet from the famed Huntington Beach Pier, site of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing.