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Dead in the water

Industry upheaval, poor sales leave surfboard makers struggling

May 30, 2008|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

When Clark Foam Inc. in Laguna Niguel shut down, it looked like Harold Walker would catch a break.

Clark Foam had been the chief maker of blanks -- the cores of most surfboards -- and Walker Foam Inc. moved to fill the void. The workforce at the factory in Wilmington quadrupled, and Walker added a second shift to meet the surge in demand.

Now Walker's factory is closed too, another casualty in an industry that has been roiling since Gordon "Grubby" Clark decided to call it quits just before Christmas 2005 after 44 years in business.

Walker gave up in January because sales were "dismal," as he put it, and there were plenty of reasons.

In the wake of Clark Foam's exit, there was a bit of a panic. Companies in Southern California and Mexico rushed to churn out blanks. Cheap alternatives from Asia flooded the market. Soon there was a glut. And then the economy swooned.

"It was like three strikes and you're out," said Steve Ford, who recently shuttered his Encinitas, Calif., surfboard factory, West Coast Glassing Inc. Ford said orders dropped 50% in the last year and that after 14 years in the business he had been forced to rent a shaping bay in a competitor's factory.

"Nobody's really buying anything. The industry right now is taking a really bad hit," he said.

Another problem: The rising prices of the petroleum-based products used in surfboard manufacturing.

"Resin jumps practically weekly, fiberglass, sandpaper, rent, electricity -- just everything has gone up," said Peter St. Pierre, owner of Moonlight Glassing in San Marcos, Calif.

U.S. retail surfboard sales were $190.4 million in 2006, an increase from $105.9 million in 2004, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn., which releases sales data every two years. Many in the industry aren't expecting the 2008 numbers to look very good.

"I would say sales are off right now -- 30% easy," said Fins Unlimited President Bill Bahne, who represents surfboard makers on the association's board. "And last year wasn't that good either."

Many conventional board makers and shapers, as board-making artisans are known, are feeling pressure not only from the sagging economy but new technologies and competition, much of it unleashed by Clark Foam's shutdown.

In fact, Sean Smith, the trade group's executive director, said the industry had seen more innovation in the last two years than in the prior 20, with boards that are "stronger, lighter" and that in "some cases perform better."

"The companies that have said, 'I'm going to offer a wide range of technology,' I think, will find themselves doing better over the long run," Smith said.

In the old days, Clark Foam's blanks ruled, revolutionizing the sport by paving the way for much lighter surfboards than the early ones made from balsa wood.

The polyurethane blanks were composed of the chemical toluene diisocyanate and coated with polyester resins, which the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said can be harmful to people who handle them and to the environment.

Clark cited an increasingly expensive battle to meet government regulations as one of the reasons for closing his company.

Polyurethane blanks are still used, but so are cores made of less toxic methylene diphenyl diisocyanate. And there's been a growing acceptance of so-called epoxy boards, made with polystyrene foam and epoxy resin that are mass-produced in Asia. Some natural products -- such as sugar cane and cactus -- are used in the production of some higher priced boards.

Surfers waiting in line recently to catch the surf film "Out There" in Newport Beach said they appreciated materials that were easier on the environment.

"I'm open for whatever the market wants to do or make available to us," said surfer Jeff Neubauer, 25, as long as the boards are made of "environmentally friendly stuff."

Neubauer said he preferred custom handmade boards, not those produced in low-cost manufacturing countries that are often stamped from a mold.

"If you want something from China, you're picking out of a catalog," he said. "I'd rather have something that's made to my standards."

But to young surfers, or groms, less expensive stamped-out boards can make sense.

"Most growth in the surfboard sales is people just getting into it," said J.P. Cart, 24, who has been surfing for six years and likes his boards hand-shaped. "If I were just starting, I would buy the cheapest board I could."

Stuart Newsom, 16, recently bought his fifth surfboard, a Firewire, made of foam and balsa rails. "It's a lot lighter and faster, and I'm very happy with it."

As for the shifting in the industry, Newsom was philosophical: "Things are just changing, and that's the way it goes."

For some Southern California surfboard retailers, the changes are still problematic. Many shops find themselves trying to unload the backlog of boards they imported from China and other countries after Clark Foam closed.

"All those boards are just all over the place," said Roland Chocarro, owner of Roland Surfboards in San Pedro. Chocarro, who moved six months ago to a smaller factory where the rent was cheaper. "Once they're all gone, the U.S. manufacturers can get back to business."

That isn't likely to happen quickly.

"There's just warehouses full of them," said St. Pierre of Moonlight Glassing. "Here, in Europe and on the East Coast -- unsold inventory."

The businesses that tried to pick up where Clark left off are busy peddling polyurethane blanks, cut roughly in surfboard shapes, at bargain basement prices, said Jon Stillman, owner of Ice-Nine Foam Works in Orange, who bought Clark Foam's production specifications and customer base and Walker Foam's formulas.

"I'm facing foam guys going out of business who are trying to sell everything they've got," he said.

For his part, Walker isn't nostalgic.

"The industry has changed dramatically. I'm really glad to be out of it."

--

leslie.earnest@latimes.com

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