So Board With the USA

Seeking low wages and lax environmental laws, OC boardmakers reluctantly find themselves in Asia

Photo by Jeanne RiceMatt Biolos is covered in foam dust. He's spent the past hour or so massaging a foam blank with a hand sander, putting his expert's touch on a short board. He pulls off his respirator, grabs a high-pressure air hose and blasts the dust off his sunburned face and arms and from inside his T-shirt. Although he's a millionaire surfwear executive—he spends much of the year chasing waves from Spain to Indonesia—Biolos is also head shaper for the surfboard division of his company, San Clemente-based Lost Enterprises Inc.

After Santa Barbara's Channel Islands Surfboards, Lost is the second-largest surfboard manufacturer in the United States. Lost is also the last major U.S. surfboard company that doesn't use overseas workers, taking advantage of cheap labor, weak environmental laws and duty-free shipping to maximize profits. But that's about to change: next year, Biolos says, his company will introduce a new line of surfboards made in Vietnam. It's the only way he'll be able to stay competitive, he says, the only way to keep sending paychecks to his small domestic work force of hand shapers, polishers and board painters.

"All the larger name-brand boards are being made overseas and imported, and it's forcing more and more manufacturers to go overseas," Biolos says during an interview in his office, an unfinished, narrow affair with a desktop computer. Loaded with Biolos' designs, the computer runs a saw in the workshop next door.

"What is starting to fall apart is a very unique piece of culture that was invented right here in Orange County: coming into a surf shop, smelling the resin and seeing the sawdust, meeting the guy that's going to make your board."

Two years ago, Biolos decided to do something to protect that tradition. He hired an attorney to force the U.S. government to track foreign-made surfboards. At the 2004 Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA) Summit in San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico, Biolos attempted to rally a mini-revolution by denouncing U.S. surfboard manufacturers who were making their boards overseas.

"Biolos [. . .] announced that not more than 48 hours before, he and his attorney had succeeded in getting surfboards their own individual importation classification," Transworld Surf reported on July 22, 2004.

"Now we'll know how many boards will be coming into the country—not only in volume of dollars, but actual units too," Biolos told his fellow surfboard makers. "From that we can build upon and protect what we have here."

Transworld Surf reported, "The crowd responded with a vigorous round of applause."

The applause died fast. The tide of cheap Asian-made boards rose higher. To preserve his hand-shaped surfboard business, Biolos now says he had no choice but to create a new line of low-density polystyrene boards, called Placebo, which he'll import from Vietnam.

"The name is tongue-in-cheek," Biolos says, "'Placebo' being a word for 'fake.'" Instead of the extreme, skateboard-influenced artwork that's hand painted on Lost boards, the Placebo boards are almost entirely white—the only decoration a self-parodic drawing of a maniacal, robotic board shaper with a surfboard emerging factory-like from its abdomen. Biolos has several Placebo prototypes leaning against the wall, all of them made at a Taiwanese-owned factory just outside Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Instead of being shaped by hand from foam blanks made by Laguna Niguel-based Clark Foam, which owns the patent for the foam blank and holds a virtual monopoly on the market, Placebo boards are made of molded epoxy resin, PVC foam and extruded polystyrene—what you and I call plastic.

"We're losing our floor space to foreign-made boards," Biolos says. "So we've answered back with Placebo. These will be a high-end product, not a cheap Chinese knockoff. They will sell for more than our normal boards."

To find a suitable factory in Asia, Biolos hired Freddy James, who grew up in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where his father designed sailboarding equipment. Placebo boards, James said, have their origins in sailboard technology. James just returned from a trip to Vietnam to inspect the factory where Placebo boards will be produced.

"The materials that are used to make the molded boards produce a lot less waste than the typical polyester board built in the USA," James said, but the biggest savings to Lost will be the cost of labor. "The labor is so much cheaper because their cost of living is so much cheaper." By American standards, "the factory workers aren't getting paid very much at all, but to them it's a great living because it's so cheap for them to live over there; relative to their cost of living they make better money than most of the guys in the U.S. building boards—especially the ones building boards in California. If you look at what the guys who actually build boards in the U.S. make and the amount of work they do they should be making more money. But the surfboard market won't tolerate much more of a price increase. That is why more and more companies are looking overseas for boards."

* * *

Biolos grew up a good 50 miles from the surf, in Chino, but his dad lived on a boat in Dana Point Harbor. He started shaping surfboards for Herbie Fletcher, the San Clemente surf shop, in 1987, fresh out of high school. "I also started surfing on the side, but just half-assed," he says. Biolos signed his boards with the moniker "Lost," and soon began printing T-shirts with the same name. The shirts were the first product in what would become a major surf apparel business. By the mid-1990s, Biolos was also manufacturing surfboards in a small factory on Los Obreros Street in San Clemente.

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