Surfing aims to rebound from foam company's wipeout
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
SAN DIEGO - The wipeout might not be so bad after all.
For sure, the surf culture is still shaking after Clark Foam - an icon among surfers - suddenly closed its Orange County factory after producing an estimated 90 percent of the blanks used to craft custom-made boards worldwide.
"It's kind of like saying Microsoft just pulled Windows off the shelf. Uh oh, that's different," said Sean Mattison, a former professional surfer who's now a buyer for Surf Ride, a shop in Oceanside in northern San Diego County.
The latest forecast is for foam - lots of it - pouring into the $200 million surfboard market from small manufacturers around the world anxious to replace the estimated 250,000 blanks that Clark produced annually in a near monopoly.
Making custom boards is a painstaking process that holds special meaning for surfers. Foam blanks - which resemble rough surfboards - are smoothed and shaved before painters add designs and color. Boards are then covered in fiberglass and polished.
At a recent action-sports trade show in San Diego, manufacturers from surfing hotspots such as Southern California, Australia, South Africa and Hawaii promised that by June, they could fill the void by ramping up production.
"Going from underdog to top dog is exciting, but it comes with problems," said Gary Linden, general manager of Walker Foam in Wilmington, an industrial area near Los Angeles.
Manufacturers like Walker are pushing equipment to the limit and hiring more workers to be the first to get their foam to anxious board makers.
For now, surfers will see dips and curls - tight supplies and higher prices.
At Hansen Surfboards in Encinitas, Mark Dastoli said he expected to pay as much as $200 more for a new board than he would have before Clark Foam shut down. The Australian transplant, who tries to surf every day, shrugged off the cost.
"They don't charge me to go in the ocean," he said.
If any industry can ride out a crisis like "Blank Monday," as the Dec. 5 closing of Clark is called, it would be the laid-back surfing sector. Many people in the business say surfboards were underpriced anyway and might never return to previous levels.
"In the long run, everything will be fine," said Craig Hollingsworth, 49, who's been using blanks to shape boards in northern San Diego County since he was 16. "Most customers have been patient about it. A lot of customers are starting to appreciate a custom-made surfboard."
At Mitch's Surf Shop in funky Solana Beach north of San Diego, shoppers are greeted by a sign saying: "Blanks Not For Sale To The Public." At the bottom of the sign is a skull and crossed surfboards, like a pirate flag.
Hollingsworth is a longtime customer at the shop and recently stopped by for his ration of 10 blanks. Half were from a batch of Clark Foam that had been in storage. The others came from Walker Foam.
Hollingsworth also has chipped in with friends to split the cost of buying and shipping 650 blanks from South Africa that are due to arrive in California in early February.
The market for foam remains strong because surfboards are like tennis balls: They eventually wear out and feel dead. A high-performance short board ridden every day might need to be replaced after four to six months.
Hollingsworth said he liked Clark Foam because the shape of its blanks were refined and he could custom-order certain curve characteristics.
Other would-be suppliers will have to make adjustments to offer the same features. he said.
"Right now they're just trying to make as many as fast as they possibly can," Hollingsworth said. "We're happy they are. We're getting blanks."
Industry leaders already have warned that some of the new foam might lack the quality of Clark products and not offer the same performance or longevity.
Clark Foam founder Gordon "Grubby" Clark began making blanks in the 1950s and became a legend over the years. He closed his factory in December amid increasing trouble with state and local governments over his nonstandard production machinery and his use of toxic and polluting chemicals.
The resulting upheaval has been good and bad for companies like Walker Foam. Before "Blank Monday," Walker had five employees and produced only 80 to 100 blanks a week.
In two months, it has hired 20 more workers, many from Clark Foam, and now pumps out 600 blanks a week. The factory will max out at 2,000 a week in a month or two, Linden said
By comparison, Clark Foam was believed to churn out more than 1,000 blanks a day.
Linden estimated the cost of speeding up production, plus building a new factory in the desert, will easily exceed $1 million. He says the moves could help the company capture as much as 70 percent of the wide-open market.
"We have a market all of a sudden," Linden said in a phone interview. "The downside is, we don't have product. It's not fun not being able to help people in their time of need."
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