Barry Bennett

Barry Bennett is now in his early 80's. Every era of Australian surfing has passed by his gaze, from the surf club hollowboard days to the ultralight blanks and longboard revivalism of the new century. In the process, via Dion Chemicals, his foam blank and chemicals business, Bennett has given the sometimes wayward, boom-and-bust Aussie surfboard industry an immovable rock of support.

Legends have poured through the Bennett factory in Brookvale : BobMcTavish, Geoff McCoy, Nat, Lopez, and the great surfboard craftsmen of the past 40 years, names like Wayne Burton, Peter Cornish, Alan Blythe, and even Midget Farrelly, who worked at Bennett’s briefly in the mid-1960s before eventually, becoming his greatest rival in the vast Aussie foam market.

Bennett was part owner of the Surf Dive ‘n Ski shop chain which he started with Greg and Dennis McDonagh. He is also a man who dislikes the public eye. One of the many small Barry legends concerns former sales manager Barry Kelly, who’d occasionally masquerade as Bennett when a chemical salesman or other dubious visitor popped into the showroom. “Is Barry Bennett in?” the salesman would ask. “Hey Barry!” the floor clerk would yell. Out would come Kelly; “Hi, I’m Barry,” he would say, not technically fibbing, you understand, while Bennett got on with some foam-pouring out the back.

In fact, despite Barry’s undoubted wealth, he’s rarely thrown his weight about in the surfing community, and some boardmakers think he might’ve made even more money had he really gone to town on production capacity.  But that’s not Barry. “He really seems to enjoy it (the foam blowing),” says former Bennett sales manager Steve Sloan. “It’s almost seemed more like a hobby for him – a hobby that’s made him a very rich man.”
Barry has connections to an older Australia: a time and place before the great surfer-clubbie split of the 1960s, and it’s something he’s never let go of, through all the years. He still trains along the Manly stretch where he now lives for the Masters carnivals. Barry was 18 years old when he made his first surfcraft, a Bronte boy who’d been in the club and decided to keep himself busy in a part-time sort of way making the big sixteen-foot hollow ply paddleboards that were all the rage among the top surfers of the time – Keith Hurst, the Morath boys and others.

Don Burford first knew Barry Bennett through the paddleboards. Barry was making and sending the things over to Don and his mates at the Grange SLSC in South Australia. “He had a good reputation with the paddleboards, good workmanship,” says Don. He first actually met Barry sometime in the early 1960s, before either of them had started making foam. The meeting took place at Harbord, where Barry was “clamping up balsas” under his house. Don was doing a boatbuilding course and making balsa boards part-time.

By 1971 Don was up in Queensland and beginning to blow foam. He was the third major player to arrive in the Australia foam blank making industry – a fascinating game.Polyurethane foam “blanks” were the core of the surfboard industry.Making the foam is an extraordinarily complex task. These chemicals are mixed in liquid form, then poured into a specially designed mould, where the mix expands and forms what is known as a “closed-cell matrix” as it hardens.  Then you have it – the fundamental form of the surfboard, remaining only to be shaped, glassed, and sanded to the finished product.

Surfboard urethane, which must withstand shaping, glassing and the constant pressure of riding waves, is generally agreed to be the best foam of its type on earth. Skills as an industrial chemist are no guarantee of success; perhaps it’s more to do with a certain tenacity of purpose, a willingness to work and fiddle unceasingly toward a solution. “It’s all in the chemicals,” says Barry, simplifying things. “If the chemicals are good quality, so will be the blanks.” Polyurethane replaced balsa in California toward the end of the 1950s, after a Dow Chemicals salesman showed boardmaker Hobie Alter a sample of the foam. Hobie’s employee, Gordon Clark, took the ball and ran with it; Clark now owns and operates Clark Foam, the world’s biggest blank business.

Barry Bennett began making foam in Australia in 1960. By then he’d married Margaret, a northside girl and moved to Harbord, where he worked for the then Mackellar Council as an electrician.  In 1957, surfing’s first minor boom was underway – the US lifeguard team had shown what a lightweight balsa Malibu could do at Avalon and Manly, and plenty of the boys were interested. Barry figured this was a wave worth riding. He gave away the electrician gig and began full-time balsa board manufacturing under the house at Harbord road. By 1959 he’d made the step into a block of land and factory on Harbord Road. It’s only just down the road from the factory that Bennett’s inhabits today. Foam was the next step. “I had a flight engineer mate at Qantas,” Barry told me, “and he had another mate who was blowing blanks in California. My mate brought back photos of the process and the mixes required.”

Barry and his partner Greg McDonagh found a local chemical supplier, A.C. Hatrick and Co., but found that initially the chemical mixes didn’t seem right – the blanks would blow up and shrink erratically. He began importing the two part mixes from the USA, borrowing money to support the purchase. Foam didn’t initially result in cheaper boards than balsa: for one thing, more glass was needed. But it was lighter – and according to Barry, “balsa was so fragmented in quality...and board production was able to take off.” The next wave of popularity hit following Midget’s win at the World Contest at Manly in 1964; Bennett’s step into foam blowing proved perfectly timed. By 1965, board makers like Scott Dillon and Gordon Woods were cranking out 40 to 50 boards a week.

One indication of how important Bennett was becoming to the blossoming little industry came in December 1964, when a shipment of foam chemicals failed to make it through the docks. The entire Brookvale thing stopped dead in its tracks.

Steve Sloan came to work with Barry in 1969. An original member of North Narrabeen Boardriders, Steve was a mate of Wayne Burton’s who wanted a change of scene from his job as a butcher. Fin guru and sander Wayne “Wizz” Rickards was leaving the factory for a trip to Europe, and Steve asked Barry for the job. “Baz hummed and hawwed as Baz does,” says Steve, “but in the end he had a vision, he could see the growth ahead.”

At the time Barry had begun work on the new factory, where the business can be found today. Sloan started working in the old one, glueing up blanks and doing deliveries, whatever it took. One Saturday morning in 1972, an electrical fault flashed through the old factory and the place went up in flames. But a fire was never going to put Bennett out of business, and as the Brookvale surfboard industry mushroomed – at one point there were over 25 boardmakers all packed into the industrial area just west of Curl Curl – so did the core business of supplying foam and resins. Bennett’s foam making system was by now highly developed, and he began licensing it out, eventually exporting the technology, often along with boards, to South Africa, Japan, Brazil and Europe, among other countries.

In 1970 legendary NSW Central Coast designer Bill Cilia was living at Norah Head on the Central Coast, but wanted to get a job in Brookvale, where he could really learn the trade – dig himself into the heritage of Aussie board building. He ended up at Bennett’s, where he and Frank Williams worked on a big range of model boards: Nat Young, Lopez’s Lightning Bolts, Peter Cornish, McTavish bluebirds. “They were very turbulent times, the early ‘70s, especially for young people. We were just getting out from Vietnam, and there was the whole LSD thing. It was hard to nail down a direction. Working at Barry’s was a stable, positive thing to do.”

Bob McTavish had a similar experience, being hired by Bennett in ‘71. “I was into commitments,” says Bob. “My life was changing, I had kids to support.” McTavish says he had a great 12 months at Bennett’s before San Juan lured him back to Byron Bay. “Barry was the first entrepreneur,” he says. “He saw it was better to have a small piece of every surfboard made in Australia than to make a small number of surfboards and barely survive. He was a very simple guy. He wasn’t hoodwinked by the hype - he liked measureable things.” Bob sees this as being part of Barry’s commitment to the surf club movement, which runs in the family – the older Bennett boy, Greg (who now manages the Bennett board business), won a world double ski title paddling with Olympian Steve Woods, and John Bennett has been both clubbie and surfer.

It’s a nice reflection on the durability of both these men that McTavish still uses a few of Bennett’s blanks, and sold around 140 boards a year through Barry’s Sydney Surf Dive ‘n Ski store. Other boardmakers barely know Barry, despite having traded for years with his company. Phil Byrne figures Byrne Brothers has ploughed at least a couple of million dollars into Bennett materials in the past 25 years; Phil’s spoken to Barry perhaps five times. Terry Fitzgerald, whose Hot Buttered label was a big part of that seminal Brookie push in the early 1970s, says Bennett has provided his raw materials “99.5% of the time”, and is happy to describe Barry as “the Rock of Gibraltar”. “I think we’re on our seventh five-year plan,” says Terry, “and he’s been responsible for us getting through six of ‘em.”

If anyone has a criticism of the Rock, it’s an old and classic gripe: Backyarders. Freelance backyard boardmakers are the bane of bigger surfboard businesses. They can work in the garage at home without the wages and insurance overhead, make four boards a week, and charge their mates way less than the surfshop pro equivalent. Some estimates have 20% of Australia’s board production happening this way – a nice chunk of the market that’s still out of reach of the professional labels. Theoretically, Barry Bennett could exert his muscle, stamp out the backyard business by simply refusing to supply anyone without a tax number. “I don’t understand why he keeps doing it,” one boardmaker told me. But he’s not thinking – not seeing Barry Bennett 45 years ago under a house in Bronte, cutting ply for a paddleboard, the same bloke who still wanders his factory, sweeping up after everyone else despite his millions, and still happy farming foam.

CREDIT: Thanks to Journalist and Surfer Nick Carroll for the words and interview.