Duraflex makes a splash in diving board industry
While most people watching the men’s and women’s diving competition at this year’s Summer Olympics will be focused on the athletes, Douglas Bowman will pay close attention to the other key component of the event.
Bowman is the chief operations officer of northern Nevada-based Duraflex International Corp., which has been making diving boards that are used in virtually every international competition since 1960. He’s traveling to this year’s games in Rio de Janeiro to oversee the assembly of the boards and stands prior to the Games commencement, and keep a keen eye on the equipment during the competition to make sure no problems arise.
Not that it has been a huge concern. In all the years since Duraflex has been the official diving board for competitions, Bowman recalls never having a equipment malfunction.
Duraflex makes approximately 1,500 diving boards and 700 stands a year from its facility in the heart of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. The boards, made from aircraft grade aluminum, can have life expectancy of about one to three years.
Duraflex is able to market abroad partly because all competitive divers, both internationally and domestically, need to use the same equipment not only during competition but in practice as well.
“Everybody has to dive on the same equipment,” Bowman said. “You can’t have the Chinese diving on one board and the Europeans diving on a different board.”
The company has three models of diving boards: The Maxiflex Model B, a 16-inch board, which is used at all major diving events in the world. It also makes 14-foot and 16-foot Duraflex boards for recreational purposes.
In addition to international competitions, Duraflex boards are used at every level of competitive diving, including the high school and the collegiate ranks. They are shipped to dealerships all over the United States and around the globe.
From time to time a few other manufacturers have cropped up, but didn’t last in the market. Bowman said an outfit out of China once tried to copy Duraflex’s board and stand but eventually failed. He added the lack of demand and the possible liabilities deters other potential manufacturers.
“From a business point of view, (competition) can always be a concern but is it really a big concern?” Bowman said. “Why would you get into this business, even if you wanted to? It’s not that lucrative because the world needs only a certain number of diving boards a year, and it’s kind of a high-risk sport.”
A small percentage of the company’s business is devoted to manufacturing diving boards for recreational pools. Bowman said the life expectancy of the boards could be up to 20 years because they don’t have the same usage as those in the competitive diving arena.
Much of the components are still handmade, but the company has introduced CNC — Computer Numerical Control — technologies to enhance precision in board manufacturing.
“We have gone from doing things by hand to using a lot of automation, but not all automation,” Bowman said. “Some things still need to be done by hand, because in some cases, machines wouldn’t be practical, or in other cases, we need judgment calls in production.”
Duraflex’s origins can be traced back to the 1940s in Southern California. Ray Rude, a young aircraft engineer at Lockheed Aircraft Co., used a discarded airplane wing as a last-minute makeshift diving board at his friend Donald Leslie’s pool party. (Leslie himself was an innovator, having invented the Leslie speaker used for liturgical and church organs).
“Leslie needed the diving board for that purpose and the rest is history,” Bowman said.
Through the remainder of the 1940s and into the 1950s, Rude worked to perfect his new board and to present it to athletes and diving’s governing bodies. Back then, it was commonplace for athletes to use their own boards, but Rude’s innovation proved so popular it became the only one used in competitions.
Rude was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1992 for those innovations, and is still the only non-competitor to earn the honor.
Rude’s company, then called Arcadia Air Products Factory, began making diving boards while also manufacturing airplane parts. The company eventually disbanded the airplane parts side of the business and focused solely on diving boards.
In 1969, Rude found the California business climate unfavorable and looked to relocate his business. It eventually settled on the location it still resides at today, long before TRIC was ever even conceived. Rude was enamored with the land in between Reno-Sparks and Fernley because, as Bowman explained, he could draw a workforce from both communities.
“What was happening back then is like what is happening now,” Bowman said. “The business environment here was so much friendlier such as with taxes, and EPA standards weren’t as stringent. Back then, there was no TRIC, there were only three companies out here, the power company, Eagle Picher Minerals and us,” Bowman said.
The company’s name was changed to reflect the name of the first patented diving board.
Today, Duraflex employs about 25 people. Turnover has been rare. Bowman said the few times it even had to look for help was when some staff members retired.
Bowman himself has worked for the company for nearly 40 years. Rude passed away in 2004.
With the company still being a relatively small operation, any time a worker takes vacation it can hamper production. Therefore, Bowman shuts down the facility for a two-week stretch during the summers, so employees can take accrued vacation time.
The company still markets itself through various social media channels. It maintains its website, http://www.duraflexinternational.com, with the help of OCG Creative of Reno.
Bowman admits the company, while not a huge operation, maintains a healthy niche of its own.
“It’s small but very vital part of the world,” he said.