BARRY BENNETT. 1931 - 2022.
In late November 1958, Barry Bennett sat in the family home in Harbord, Sydney and wrote a letter to Greg Knoll of California. Barry was trying to solve a problem. The balsa wood he was using to manufacture the then lightweight Malibu boards in Australia could not be trusted. As he wrote to Knoll: “It has a lot of cores and knots.” Still: “Surfing season is in full swing here and I’m getting orders twice a day. It seems like every other person on the beach will have a balsa board like the one they’re selling. Greg never replied to Barry’s letter, although he kept a copy of it, and was still proudly showing it to the public until his own had recently passed. Because until then, Barry himself – in his cool way – was as big a deal as Da Bull, or really anyone at surfing. The way he chose to fix the 1958 dilemma would touch millions of surfing lives over time, even though most of those millions would never have been aware of the invisible hand behind their boards.
Born and raised in Bronte on Sydney’s East Beaches, where he joined his dad at a local swimming club. At the age of 14, he took the next step, which was the surf club in those days. And, well, boom. “That’s where I bought my first hollow wooden surfboard, one of the guys out there,” he told ABC’s Bombora series in 2008. “For five pounds. I took it home on the running board of the tram.” The 14-year-old then proceeded to take the whole thing apart and put it back together again, waterproofing and all. That can tell you something about the time and about the person.
Barry apprenticed to an electrician, but he kept coming back to board-building. At the age of 16, he found a hollow-board building blueprint in an old surf lifesaving manual made for a fellow in a surf club, and discovered a small market for his hobby. In the 1950s, he met Margaret Magnis, a girl from Sydney’s north side; they were married in June 1958, and moved to Harbord, where he took a job with Mackeller Council in their electrical business.
In 1958, there was a slight boom in surfing—the American lifeguard team, including Knoll, showed us what a light balsa Malibu could do, and a lot of grommet baby-boomers were interested. Barry thought it was a wave worth riding. He quit the electrician gig and began full-time balsa board manufacturing under house in Harbord. By 1959 he had moved to a block of land and factory on Harbord Road, just across the street from the factory where Bennett resides today. He later told people that the move was partly motivated by chemical exposure to him and Margaret’s first child, Greg. This risk stemmed from an experiment Barry was doing in the home garage, his way around the balsa dilemma: blowing up the foam. Today, polyurethane foam is in the original – both literally and figuratively – of the global surfboard industry. Even now, making it is complicated, involving a tricky mix of chemicals and an unstable expansion from liquid to solid foam. In Australia at the time, it was an unknown animal. But with bad balsa in hand and no response from Knoll, Barry has to try something new. “I had a flight engineer fellow at Qantas,” he told me, “and he had another fellow who was flying empty over California. My partner brought back photos of the process and the mixes needed. Barry and his business partner Greg McDonagh found a local chemical supplier, A.C. Hattrick & Co., but found that the chemical mix didn’t look right initially – the blanks would shrink the wrong way. He began importing the two-part mixture from the United States, borrowing money to support the purchase.
Bennett’s move into making the foam proved to be completely timely. The next wave of surfing popularity hit in 1964, after the victories of the midget Farrelly and Phyllis O’Donnell at the world competition in Manly. The Brookvale surfboard manufacturing culture took off; By 1965, board-makers like Scott Dillon and Gordon Woods were cranking out 40 to 50 boards a week. With Bob McTavish in the Factory. “He was a very simple man,” says Bob. “He was not impressed by the hype.”
In 1972, the original Bennett factory was destroyed in a fire. Barry was never sure of the cause, although he theorised that it was either an electrical fault, or rats. In any case, he rebuilt on the site Bennett’s still occupied today, a door or two down from Dion Chemicals, the company he founded to handle the blanks and resin supplies. Bennett’s foam-making system was by now highly developed, and he began to license it, eventually exporting the technology to South Africa, Asia, the Americas, Brazil and Europe, among other countries, often with boards. He also became involved with South Australia’s renowned surf industry pioneer John Arnold, helping to run the popular beginner surf brand Golden Breed and Arnold’s Surf Dive ‘n Ski retail chain. Over the years and millions of blanks, board-makers from Australia came to see Barry with great respect and awe. They were younger than him, and were living in a shaky world. “Those were very turbulent times, the early 70s, especially for young people,” legendary NSW Central Coast designer Bill Cilia told me. “We were moving out of Vietnam, and there was the whole LSD thing. It was hard to pin down a direction. Working at Barry was a steady, positive thing.” Bob McTavish had a similar experience, who was hired by Bennett in 1971. “I was into commitments,” says Bob. “My life was changing, I had kids to support me.” McTavish says Bennett had a wonderful 12 months before San Juan brought him back to Byron Bay.
The surfer-clubby conflict of the 1960s and beyond saw many of his clients pass Barry. He saw the conflict and understood its reasons, but never took sides. An excellent swimmer as part of the Bronte SLSC junior team, Barry tried board racing but turned to surf skis, racing seven times from Molokai to Oahu and winning the Australian title, as did his son Greg. Bennett Surfboards continued to make racing equipment for surf clubs and nippers, even as the company leaned into the longboard renaissance of this century. Barry was honored with several honors over the years. Among others, he was inducted into the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in 2016, gained membership of the Order of Australia, and was the first Australian to be inducted into the International Surfboard Builders Hall of Fame. He felt the respect deeply, but none of this changed his essential nature.
Bennett Surf, Barry's passion, legacy and business lives on today through his son Greg and Grandson Tom Bennett. The core aim of the business is to continue to provide its customers with quality surf craft, hardware and apparel.