Former 5C Foam Titan Leaves Big Wake
Will Howard | March 6, 2015, 7:47 p.m.
"There's nothing romantic about foam. It's dirty, messy and smelly, and nothing you'd dream of doing for a career," said Gordon “Grubby” Clark PO ’57 in 1972. Clark, however, eventually founded Clark Foam, a legendary surfboard foam blank manufacturer.
When the pre-engineering major wrote his senior thesis on sandwich construction, he laid the mental groundwork that would majorly contribute to the explosion of an industry and a sport. Clark would later apply this knowledge of the behavior of layered components to surfboard construction.
Clark began surfing in 1952 during his sophomore year at Pomona. A year later he shaped his first surfboard out of redwood with his friend and future windsurfing pioneer, Hoyle Schweitzer PO ’55, in Blaisdell Hall. While Clark was surfing and studying, American involvement in the Korean War was escalating, which meant a draft.
“I knew I was going to get drafted, so I saved my money and bought a one-way ticket to Hawaii,” Clark said. “I went through basic training in Hawaii and then conned my way so I got to stay there for two years.”
He ran out of money quickly and was forced to get a job, so he “glassed” (poured fiberglass on) surfboards for Olympic swimmer and surfing pioneer Tom Blake. Clark quickly became more interested in surfboard design. While in Hawaii, Clark learned about foam and fiberglass from Bob Simmons, who is considered to be the father of the modern surfboard.
“I would question a lot of older guys [surfboard shapers] about how they did this and that … what worked and didn’t work,” Clark said.
Clark then returned to Pomona on the GI Bill and glassed surfboards for Hobie Alter, creator of Hobie Cat catamarans, in the summer between his junior and senior years. He went back to work for Alter after graduation, and within a year, the duo had built the first successful polyurethane foam surfboard.
The key component was the stringer, a thin piece of wood in the center of the board to which the two foam pieces are attached. It was Clark’s knowledge of sandwich construction that led him to add the technology, which creates a strong and stiff board by holding the deck and the bottom fiberglass skins an equal distance apart. Many imitations quickly arose, none of which worked as well as the Hobie boards, according to Clark.
By 1961, it was not economical for Hobie to keep making foam blanks to match the demand, so Clark made an amicable split with his mentor to form Clark Foam. The company quickly seized a monopoly on surfboard blank manufacturing. The decade of 1958 to 1968 saw the biggest percentage increase of surfers ever, according to World in the Curl. Inspired by Hollywood films like Gidget and Bruce Brown’s wildly successful 'surfari' documentary The Endless Summer, thousands of people wanted boards. The vast majority of them were made from Clark Foam.
In addition to sandwich construction, Clark attributes his success to all the things he learned at Pomona College.
“You use all those parts—the chemistry, the math (especially the algebra) and the physics—you take a little piece here and there and apply it … All of those disciplines came into play for the design of equipment, the polymer chemistry, the computer programming,” Clark said. “I could read technical stuff and go on from there … I actually kept my textbooks. It all came in handy.”
It was not just the science and math that helped Clark, though; an economics class in Claremont proved crucial to his business.
“I have a daughter who got her MBA, and I think I learned more in my class than she did from her MBA … I wish I had taken a couple more, but that one was fascinating to see in practice,” Clark said.
In fact, he became a formidable businessman. Alter attributed Clark’s success to the fact that he was “incredibly efficient.” Others have called him aggressive and ruthless, according to encyclopediaofsurfing.com. In 1992, Surfing Magazine said that, "Nobody has ever wanted to do anything to upset Clark."
However, it came to an end in 2005. Clark sent a seven-page fax to all of his customers informing them that he was shutting down his company, effective immediately. In the letter, he alluded to the threat of “very large fines, civil lawsuits, and even time in prison,” blaming Orange County (where Clark Foam was located), the state of California and the Environmental Protection Agency. The company had run into regulatory problems as early as 1985, and Clark regretted having not closed sooner than he did.
“I waited far too long, being optimistic rather than realistic,” he said.
The closure rocked the surfing world. Surfboard shapers scrambled to buy the remaining blanks. At the time, Clark Foam was estimated to be worth approximately $40 million, according to an August 2006 article in The New Yorker.
"Clark Foam was the foam blank industry," said Zane MacFarlane PO '17, who often goes on surfing trips with other Claremont students. "It was huge. There was definitely a big reaction to [it's closing]. I mean, it was the cover of Surfing Magazine when I was in fifth grade."
Almost a decade has passed since Clark Foam’s closure and the surfing world is still booming as a multi-billion dollar industry and a sport enjoyed by millions of people around the world, according to Fortune.com.
These days, Clark is far away from the surfing world. He lives on a 52,800-acre ranch in Madras, Oregon, where he raises sheep and cattle. He loves it and is incredibly good at it. In 2010, the Livestock Association of Jefferson County named him Livestockman of the Year.
“While he started in the ranching business with no experience, he has used the best knowledge around by asking questions, reading, and hiring the right people,” Livestock Association member Shane Gomes said of Clark.
This certainly sounds like the Clark to which the surfing industry owes itself.
This article was updated to include a quote from Shane Gomes March 8.