"It's a question that we ask all the time: How does a company retain its soul as it grows?," says Chuck Sullivan, co-founder of Something Independent, a Denver-based organization working to support and promote Colorado as a global hub of innovation and entrepreneurism. Sullivan has worked directly with Meier Skis and each of the companies mentioned in this story, as well as dozens of other ski, snowboard and sporting goods manufacturers across the state.

This week, Something Independent is presenting The Art of Winter, a series of art installations in downtown Denver, in the Theatre District and around Larimer Square that coincides with the SIA Snow Show, and will host its third annual Something Independent Business Forum on Friday. This year's theme, timely enough: "The Godfathers of Soul: Pioneering a Culture of Entrepreneurism in the Rocky Mountain West." "People look at these companies as having that soul, that passion for skiing, and that's part of their appeal to consumers," Sullivan says.

*****

For Pete Wagner, founder of Wagner Custom Skis in Telluride, the question of his company's "soul" came first.

"Basically, I wanted to move to Telluride and ski all winter, so for me it was a matter of lifestyle," says Wagner. "I created this business as a way to live in Telluride and create something special that would be a positive part of this community. When you want to live in a remote ski town like this, there's not a lot of opportunity unless you start your own business, so that's what I did."

Wagner, an engineer with a background in sports-product design (he designed golf clubs before getting into the ski industry), got his MBA at the University of Colorado at Boulder and says his ski-company dream originally started as a purely academic exercise for a class he was taking. "I did a feasibility study to see if doing a custom ski business was something that made any sense — you know, 'Is there a market for it?' and 'Can you actually make money doing it?' Then I put a business plan together and put an advisory board together made up of ski-industry veterans, and set up a prototyping shop in Longmont. When I finished my MBA program, in 2006, I moved everything out here to Telluride, and that was that."

For a business that specializes in handcrafted custom skis, Wagner's operation is decidedly high-tech: Visitors to WagnerSkis.com are prompted to map their "Skier DNA" using proprietary software that syncs with an algorithm Wagner developed to help determine the ideal ski for any given customer. "Buying the right ski is really about getting the right fit, and the perfect analogy is custom-fit ski boots, which have revolutionized the ski industry in their own way," Wagner explains. "Boot technology hasn't really changed a lot, and neither has ski technology, but what they've figured out is that you can actually help people ski better — help them with their overall balance, comfort and control — by helping make their boots fit properly. And that's what we're doing with skis: Basically, we've created a scientific method for fitting people into the proper ski equipment."

Wagner Custom Skis start at $1,750, but for a small boutique brand doing battle against the industry's giants, business is booming. Wagner estimates that he and his nine-person crew will make about 1,000 pairs of skis this year.

To stay on top of his game, each season Wagner and his crew take the best-reviewed skis from each of their competitors and put them to the test. "We test a lot of skis on the slopes, and we've also got a machine in our factory where we measure the mechanical properties of the skis, the flex characteristics, the torsional rigidity, the geometry — sidecut, waist width, tip width, tail width, camber, rocker, mounting positions — and we put it all into this really extensive database. Then we have these design algorithms where you give some basic information about yourself, where you ski, your terrain type preferences, what kind of snow conditions the ski should be optimized for, feedback about your existing equipment and what you've skied in the past...and because we have this extensive database of the properties of everybody else's skis, your answers are calibrated with our design software and our design algorithms actually create the optimal design for you. So, for example, we can match the tail stiffness of those 2007 Völkl Katanas you loved, but make the ski wider and with a lighter construction to better suit your needs. We can build you just about any ski your heart could possibly desire."

*****

The basics of ski construction are so simple that you could probably do it yourself, too, with the right materials and a little bit of gumption. In December, Breckenridge-based ski maker Rocky Mountain Underground held a clinic at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder to help take some of the mystery out of the process, educate their customers, and help inspire some new DIY builders.

"We started out of a garage in Summit County ourselves, and that's where our roots are," explains RMU co-founder Mike Waesche. "In our clinics, we go over the basic materials and how all those components go together. We talk about shapes and camber profiles so people understand what all the geometry is about, and then we show them how to lay up a ski properly. We think that understanding the process and the materials, and everything that can and does go wrong when you aren't being careful about it, makes you a better consumer and maybe even a better skier."

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6 comments
MichaelJacksonsforgottoncat
MichaelJacksonsforgottoncat

ummmmm .... Volant? Went from 150 pair in 1989 to 52,000 pair and tied with Volkl at #4 in the industry 11 years later - every pair was 100% hand made. Cost per unit in the US was simply too much compared to the over seas manufacturing (165.00 per pair compared to 52.00 per pair). Even with the lowest warranty rate/highest quality in the industry (and very very deep investor pockets), there was no way to win/be viable long term. I am sure the folks who used to take the ferry to Vashon, and the Boulderites that rode their bikes to Howards place in Gunbarrel would also agree....

Matt Egan
Matt Egan

Let's hear it for small business and American manufacturing. America needs more garage companies that will grow and HIRE! Corporate America ain't doin' shit.

R. Randall Halton
R. Randall Halton

Thats wonderful this this person has his own construction techniques!!!!! Better get WIPO.com.

____________________ =^= (-----) ' ' HELI SKI dropouts

Jake Miller
Jake Miller

I think I'll get a Grace custom ski if David is making them.... hot!

everybody
everybody

Volants were doomed from day one for their weight, and the fact that you could bend one in half and it would stay that way. Junk. Worth nothing.

 
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