Former 5C Foam Titan Leaves Big Wake

“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. 

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