Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006 | Tim Bessell shaped his first surfboard in the backyard of his La Jolla home at the age of 13. Since then, he’s carved thousands of boards for premier surfers all around the globe.
But when the world’s leading manufacturer of blank boards, Clark Foam, shut down last December, Bessell’s company took a huge financial hit. Business is down $100,000 this year at the small surf shop behind the 7-Eleven on La Jolla Boulevard.
He sat down with us to talk about why surfing’s still the cheapest sport (except maybe tennis), why not to trust a man named Grubby, and the infamous “Blank Monday” – when shapers around the world learned of Clark Foam’s closure.
In December, when Clark Foam first decided to shut down, how did that immediately affect your business?
Basically, what happened to me was that I had 75 blanks on order that week. The story is, basically, I called Monday morning and talked to my friend who worked up there and I said “How’s my weekly shipment going?” He said “Oh, great Tim, KKL, the milling company, is getting 40 on Wednesday and you’ll be getting 35 for hand shaping here on Thursday.” And I go: “Great.” And then one of my glassers called me up and said, “Did you hear the story about Clark Foam, they’re out of business.”
I go “you’re crazy,” because I just talked to them and they said I’m getting my weekly order, you know, this week. So, I called back and nobody answered the phone. Then I knew that I was in trouble.
So how did you manage to stay afloat amidst all that?
Well, I’ve been in business for 30 years. I have connections all over the world so I started calling for blanks around the world – South Africa, Australia – and I just started getting blanks. And today I still have blanks from South Africa and Australia and England and Brazil. Cause you know, even though Grubby Clark had 90 percent of the American market and 60 percent of the world market, other foam companies have been around blowing foam for 30, 40 years.
So he left everybody in the lurch, but, there were viable options, but expensive options. So boards have consequently gone up in value $100, not because they’re worth more. Well, they are worth more, ’cause surfboards are totally undervalued to be quite honest. But blanks doubled in price and have stayed there and are not coming down.
I have no problems with Grubby Clark other than the … way he closed down his company. When you have a monopoly, which he did, you have a fiduciary responsibility to your clients and customer base not to put them in any financial risk. But what he did, was he basically, like a little baby, in a sandbox, took all his toys and ran out of there – where he should have given the industry six months to regroup. But it’s too late, the damage has been done. Thousands and thousands of workers have been displaced and the industry is in complete turmoil. And it’s gonna take years to rebound. And the only people he helped were the molded board companies such as Surftech, XTR and all these alternatives that were out there before that really were coming on in popularity.
Did you know Grubby personally?
Do you feel a little resentment towards him?
Absolutely! I’m down over $100,000 this year. Of course I feel resentment. He’s an asshole.
Let’s put it this way. One of the most respected surfers of all time just died last March. There were 5,000 to 6,000 people at his memorial service. I doubt if there will be 60 at Grubby Clark’s. The guy’s a billionaire. We made him a billionaire and he’s done nothing for me.
The only thing Grubby Clark ever did for me was give me a subscription to Surfer’s Journal – (long pause) – after buying 45,000 blanks from the guy. All I needed was three months to regroup and I wouldn’t have been in such a bad financial situation. And I’m really lucky because I’m a small company.
But big companies, it hurt them tremendously. Their productions have gone way down, and when your production goes down, it’s hard to bring it back up. People lose faith in your company, because you can’t deliver. They find alternative sources, then they get hot on that. And, then it’s just another nail in the coffin.
Who do you think might be able to come in and fill the void?
There’s about 30 foam manufacturers. There is no shortage of foam.
But are surfboard prices still high?
Surfboard prices have been artificially low for the last 30 years because of Grubby Clark. An average clear shortboard should be $600. And it hasn’t been there until basically today, but only because, you know, the price and materials have gone way up.
Is polyurethane ever going to become obsolete?
Polyurethane, I don’t think, will ever become totally obsolete because the classic board market will demand it. And that’s what, a classic 9′ 6″ triple stringer long board, will be made out of polyurethane, because that’s being true to the historical way that surfboards are being made.
Epoxy is ultimately going to be the industry standard, if it isn’t already.
By and large, has the industry settled down now?
No. We’re no longer in crisis mode. But, we’re in rebirth mode let’s say. What the crisis is, is that the audience is completely confused because there’s so many different technologies out there right now.
What’s it going to take to get back to where you were?
Just persistence. Just persistence. And putting out the best product in the world. That’s all it’s going to take. But the price isn’t coming down. Surfing is still the cheapest sport – maybe except tennis. But tennis shoes can be expensive. So, surfing is not going anywhere.
– Interview by SAM HODGSON