Eight Bells: Tom Johannsen

Tom Johannsen

Aug 24, 2021

The Man Who Wrote the Book on Foam Core Construction

Tom Johannsen 1933 – 2021

We were saddened to hear of the recent passing of Tom Johannsen, a pioneer in the development of light weight foam cored composite laminates, and a true gentleman in an often competitive industry. Tom was born in Germany in 1933 and immigrated to Canada in the 1950s, abandoning a career in the family textile business to carve out his own career in the rapidly expanding plastics industry.

He ultimately focused on the promotion and sale of Airex linear PVC foam cores. At the same time he became involved in competitive dinghy sailing, ultimately combining both passions with the building of an Airex foam core Finn dinghy that he named Huckleberry. Cored construction, of course, was outside the class rules, but that was not Tom’s point. Tom almost single handedly pioneered the use of foam cores in North America, competing against the dominance of balsa cores in the marine industry. Indeed, it was through his input and efforts that the Peter Hatfield designed Porpoise III, the first fully foam cored hull, was built in Vancouver in 1967, barely two years after Red Jacket, the first fully cored balsa cored hull. Further projects followed as diverse as fishing boats, mega yachts, racing sailboats, high speed powerboats, and impact resistant architectural applications.

Moving to New Jersey in the 1970s with the building of an ill-fated Airex plant in the US, Tom continued to promote and sell Airex cores through his own company Torin, a name derived from Tom and his wife Karin. This is when Tom published his first book on cored construction – “One-off Fiberglass Sandwich Construction” in 1973. This was eventually superseded by his publication of the “Core-Cell Design Manual” in 2001. In that respect, Tom Johannsen literally wrote the book on foam core construction. After Airex cancelled their distribution agreement with Tom in order to hand the product to a large nationwide distributer, Tom and Karin returned to Canada, relocating to Oakville, ON, and established a new company ATC Chemicals, named for the partnership between Bill Borntraeger and his distribution company Armkem, Tom Johannsen, and Raymond Conway. ATC was based in Drummondville, Quebec, producing polyester bonding compounds that Tom and Raymond had pioneered for the installation of Airex core and the bonding of the Laser dinghy.

Tom Johannsen ATC Marketing TeamTom Johannsen on left with members of his ATC Sales and Marketing Team – L to R, Rob Mazza, Rita Barclay, JP Schroeder, Maureen Bookbinder, Jef Benkelman, Al Horsmon.

However, Tom already had another ace up his sleeve. Working with his former mentor from Airex, the retired Karl Brandl, a new formulation for a linear foam core was developed that Tom named Core-Cell. This was an entirely new formulation of a linear foam core based on new SAN chemistry that started limited production in Drummondville in the mid-90s. With Tom’s development of Core-Cell, the ATC partnership was restructured with Tom attaining two thirds ownership. Demand for the core, as well as for the polyester bonding compounds, especially the pump applied Poly-Bond B39, increased exponentially, resulting in the badly timed decision to build a larger plant in Drummondville, Quebec. Timing could not have been worse, with the groundbreaking for the new plant taking place on 9/11 – September 11th, 2001. The immediate decline in demand in both the marine and the rapidly emerging wind energy markets, as well as cost overruns in the building of the new plant, resulted in ATC being acquired by SP Systems and later Gurit. Tom lost his ownership in Core-Cell, but retained the bonding compound business and the ATC name, and rapidly re-established the financial viability of the company, before eventually selling to Scott Bader in 2013.

That is when Tom and Karin finally retired from a life in cored composites and the marine industry, with Tom returning to his other love, sailing, spending more time on Huckleberry II and racing Ideal 18s at the Royal Canadian Yacht Club. Huckleberry II, of course, was an Airex cored boat that Tom had promised to own 20 years previously. In retirement Tom also enjoyed canoeing in Algonquin Park with his ATC associate Steve Crow.

Tom Johannsen ATC Family 625













Tom Johannsen, with cap, among the members of the extended ATC family in the 1990s

Tom’s contribution to the development of lightweight cored composite laminate structures cannot be over stated. When Tom entered the industry in the 1960s, foam cored sandwich construction was in its infancy, and it was only through Tom’s dedication and technical expertise that light weight foam cored construction is now the norm for products as diverse as boats, trucks, aircraft, and wind turbine blades. Tom Johannsen taught the world how to do it properly and successfully. His primary sales philosophy was simply “to tell the truth” as he explained to a new arrival to the company. Throughout his career he always was about to have success in hand, until it was snatched away often by people who did not always share his philosophy. But he always bounced back, often going on to greater success. He put teams together of dedicated individuals, who worked tirelessly to grow the companies for Tom. Working for Tom was always a pleasure because you knew you were part of a team, even a family. His was an old world philosophy that people mattered, whether they were customers or employees. Tom earned the respect of all his competitors, and established friendships with his customers that lasted decades. This was summed up by Tom Preisel, past Sales and Marketing Manager of Tom’s main competitor, the Baltek Corp. Upon hearing of Tom’s passing Preisel said; “He was one of the good guys. I always jokingly and seriously said that as a competitor Tom was the last one I wanted to put out of business”. Every year for the past several years, former ATC employees have organized a gathering around Tom for dinner at a local restaurant to maintain the comradery that Tom had instilled in us.

Tom is survived by his wife Karin, who, as the name Torin indicates, was very much part of the business, and his two children Christopher and Tania. As a friend, a husband, a parent, a pioneer, a collaborator, and as a competitor, Tom Johannsen will be sadly missed.

Rob Mazza


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