Surfboard-industry-icon Gordon Clark has closed his Laguna Niguel, Calif., plant and ceased making or distributing rigid polyurethane foam blanks.
The closing dismayed retail surf shop operators, board shapers and active surfers who depended on Grubby Clark for a component critical to the sport. Apparently, the abrupt move also surprised government regulators.
The engineer-entrepreneur established Clark Foam in January 1961, and sold about 90 percent of all PU surfboard blanks globally. He announced the closing in a bittersweet Dec. 5 goodbye letter of more than 3,000 words (see the Opinion section at www.plastics news.com for a copy of the letter).
Directing the message to his customers, the in-depth explanation railed about Orange County, state and federal regulatory actions and decried Clark Foam's potential liabilities.
``Our official safety record as an employer is not very good,'' he wrote, noting the full workers' compensation disabilities of three former employees and a pending claim of the widow of an employee claimed by cancer.
``When Clark Foam was started, it was a far different California,'' Clark said. ``Businesses like Clark Foam were very welcome and considered the leading edge of innovation and technology. Somewhere along the way things have changed.''
Clark was harsh on the Orange County Fire Authority, its upgraded inspection methods and its cross-reporting findings to other agencies. ``The letter took us by complete and total surprise,'' said Stephen Miller, public information officer with the Irvine, Calif.-based authority. ``We were dumbfounded.''
Clark Foam has a long history with the authority but was never cited or fined, Miller said. An annual inspection in September concluded ``they are in full compliance.''
Miller noted that, over more than four decades, Clark Foam has needed to come into compliance with evolving environmental regulations - including tighter controls on the still-used carcinogen toluene diisocyanate - and has made changes as required.
Clark has operated ``a relatively safe facility for what they do there,'' Miller said, noting that environmental regulation may not have been the lone driver in the closing.
``We think it was a business decision,'' Miller said.
Clark Foam was also clean with another agency. In August, the South Coast Air Quality Management District issued a permit for Clark Foam to install a storage tank at its facility. ``We have no violations or [pending] notices to comply with Clark,'' said Tina Cherry, a spokeswoman with the agency in Diamond Bar, Calif. She said some past notices to comply had been resolved amicably.
Meanwhile, Walker Foam of Wilmington, Calif., hand-pours low volumes of PU surfboard blanks in a traditional method using chemicals similar to those Clark employed. Harold Walker's firm stepped up production Dec. 6 as the impact of the Clark Foam closing hit the industry.
Several Australian operations also hand-pour PU blanks, and there are others making PU blanks in Brazil, South Africa and several Asian countries.
The closing of Clark Foam may accelerate the growth of mass-production surfboards, usually based on replicated digital designs from master shapers. Surf Technicians Inc. of Santa Cruz, Calif., contracts for production in Bangplee, Thailand. Societe Bic's sporting goods division makes surfboards at a highly automated Vannes, France, plant.
Observers have referred to Clark, 72, as a benevolent dictator. He often protected independent surfboard shapers from price increases, kept them supplied with blanks even during acute raw material shortages and helped them with technical support and business practices.
Usually, a shaper might pay $30-$100 for a Clark PU blank, depending on length and complexity. Clark offered about 70 models in limitless rocker choices.
Clark Foam combined polyester-type polyol and isocynate in a reactor vessel in cooking its own resin. Clark technicians hand-poured a PU formulation into a concrete mold with a mold-release agent. The chemical reaction formed PU and carbon-dioxide gas bubbles that expanded and created closed-cell-foam structures. The result: a semi-finished blank of uniformly white foam that retained a clean look.
``No one ... uses equipment and a process like mine,'' he wrote. ``For the majority of my equipment and process, I am the `standard.' That means I am legally liable for everything I designed, built, modified or used.''
A shutdown is his answer. ``I am not going to sell any of my equipment or the process,'' he wrote. ``The liability is too great.''
Clark envisions facing ``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.''
Clark expressed thanks. ``This has been a great ride with great people,'' he concluded. ``I have loved this job, and the people I worked with.''