Colorado's smallest ski companies are going big
Sometimes I don't know if I should let anyone know I'm making skis in here, because I'm not sure if it makes me look cool or if it makes me look stupid," says David Liechty, the founder of Grace Skis, who uses his living room in north Denver for part of his manufacturing process. "This is year number one that I'm selling my skis, after spending last season testing and prototyping, and now I'm full steam ahead: I've got an order sheet I'm staring at right now that's twelve pairs of skis deep. Things are ramping up."
Those twelve pairs of skis — and the tiny scratch in the overall ski market they represent — aren't going to have anybody quivering in their ski boots over at the SnowSports Industries America SIA Snow Show this week at the Colorado Convention Center, where all of the world's major ski brands are in town to ply their planks to retailers from across the country. But that fact doesn't faze Liechty. After getting laid off from his job in July 2010, Liechty went home, drank more tequila than he cares to admit, and woke up the next morning determined to launch the handmade-ski company he'd had on his brain since his days as a competitor on the freeskiing circuit.
"I'd always wanted to build skis," Liechty says. "But you know how it goes: You always have things you want to do, but you can never seem to accomplish them because of all the other things you have going on in your life. Well, when I was 'relieved of my duties' at my last job, I took the opportunity to finally go for it. I dove right in, slowly funneled every penny I had into Grace — the company is named after my grandmother — and set out to do things a little bit differently than the big boys in the industry."
Liechty used to go through as many as five pairs of skis in a single season when he was skiing competitively, and says he started his own company to help combat what he calls the industry's "race to the bottom" as the focus moves away from craftsmanship and high-quality products and toward marketing and other abstractions.
"I think there's a lot to be learned from getting splinters in your hand and literally getting a grasp on what it means to make a great pair of skis," he explains. "By outsourcing that kind of work and focusing on more abstract ideas about what it means to run a brand, I think a lot of these companies have lost touch with reality and forgotten that some things have to be manufactured with care."
So far, Grace Skis has just one model available, the "Kylie" all-mountain ski ("named after a loyal Colorado wire-haired pointer," according to SkiGrace.com, where the skis run $649), but Liechty plans to introduce the "Kiwi" powder ski and the "Jake" touring ski (also named after beloved dogs), each with a lively bamboo core. His short-term goal is to be able to sell the three-ski quiver to hardcore skiers for under $2,000, about what some of his competitors charge for a single pair of high-end skis.
Although he'd eventually like to see his company move to a more suitable factory and be able to create jobs, for the time being, he's building the skis himself, by hand, partly in a shop space he's renting and partly in his living room.
Not that he should be embarrassed by the small scale of his operation. After all, what great ski company wasn't started in somebody's living room or garage? Yet the vast majority of skis sold in the United States are now manufactured overseas, primarily in China, according to SnowSports Industries America.
But Liechty's not alone in setting up shop here in Colorado, where there are now at least a dozen other boutique ski companies proudly toiling away in their own garages and warehouse shops or outsourcing production to Never Summer Industries, another Colorado company going strong. They include Fortitude Skis in Arvada, Folsom Custom Skis in Boulder, Meier Skis in Glenwood Springs and Wagner Custom Skis in Telluride.
Liechty has already gotten advice from each of them and has been collaborating with several to go in on orders of bulk materials.
"What's happening here in Colorado is bigger than any of these individual brands," says Liechty. "The way I look at it, if Nick at Fortitude can make a really good ski, and Matt over at Meier can make a great ski, and Pete at Wagner can make a beautiful ski, and Mike and the guys at Folsom can make a wicked ski, and I can, then there's something to be said for the whole brand of Colorado ski-making. We're elevating the game all the way up, and that's what it's all about: If everyone is better, then everyone is better. And the result is going to be that no matter where in the world you live, if you want to buy a handmade ski, you're going to come to a Colorado company to buy it, because there's no place on earth where they're making a better handmade ski, and all of these companies are good. Each of us will find our niche and find our own tribe, but if we all work together and share ideas, then we're all going to be better off for it. You can't necessarily put that in a spreadsheet, so it's hard to understand in business terms, but what's happening here in Colorado is something special, and I'm proud to be a part of it."
That bit about the best skis in the world being made in Colorado isn't just hyperbole; several local brands have been holding their own in the annual ski tests, gear guides and editor's-choice lists published by magazines like Powder, Freeskier, Telemark Skier and Backcountry, and business is growing across the board, recession and weak snow season be damned. In the ski industry, Brand Colorado is catching on.
"The boutique ski companies are so important to the industry from a passion and innovation standpoint and because they're really going after that top tier of the skiing market," says Kelly Davis, director of research for SnowSports Industries America, noting that one in six pairs of skis sold in America now comes from a boutique brand.
"What's happening in Colorado is special, and the entire industry is paying attention," she adds. "It's just been a tremendous success story all around."
High-end, handcrafted skis probably won't make much of a difference for the typical skier who gets on the hill just a few days a year — but many Colorado skiers are anything but typical. Mike McCabe, master builder at the worker-owned Folsom Custom Skis shop in Boulder, points out that skiing is a way of life for many Coloradans and that when you're skiing like your life depends on it, you need skis you can depend on.
"I'm 6' 2" and weigh 230 pounds, and I ski hard," says McCabe. "Mass-produced skis just don't cut it for me, at all. When I first got involved in working with Folsom, I was competing in the IFSA [International Freeskiers Association] big-mountain ski tour, doing a lot of those freeskiing world tour stops that are just big, crazy skiing, and I needed a ski I could trust. I was skiing on some other shall-remain-nameless brands and just couldn't get the skis to perform the way I needed them to. I had some catastrophic equipment failures in situations that were really bad, and it really started to shake me up. When you can't rely on your equipment, you start second-guessing everything you do."
When he examined those broken skis, he would invariably find sloppy manufacturing defects like uneven applications of epoxy and fiberglass. Now that he knows more about ski construction, McCabe blames those defects on lazy, outsourced manufacturing, a sad side effect of overseas mass production. He and his Folsom co-owners have decided that the answer to the problem is in completely customizing the process of buying a ski for their customers (and for themselves), and in personally taking complete control over every aspect of the design and manufacturing of those skis.
Unlike Grace and some of the other garage brands, Folsom got into the game with a big initial investment in a CNC (computer numerical code) machine for the precision milling of its wood cores and to make its own ski molds. The company also bought a dye sublimation printer to print its own custom top sheets.
"Not to bash the garage builders, but we're not a garage brand," says McCabe, even if his factory occupies a mere 1,500 square feet behind a garage door in a Boulder warehouse. "Our product is precisely designed and built, and we take great pride in that."
The 250 pairs of skis being crafted in the Folsom shop this year won't put much more of a dent in the ski industry than the twelve pairs Liechty is building. Sales of skis, boots, bindings and poles totaled $533 million in the United States last season, according to SIA's 2011 Intelligence Report. A total of 639,098 pairs of alpine skis were sold. Roughly 90 percent of that market is dominated by the top ten companies, including Atomic, Blizzard, Dynastar, Elan, K2, Line, Nordica, Rossignol, Salomon and Völkl.
But Folsom has been making a name for itself all the same by giving lifestyle skiers exactly what they want and building skis that last up to three times longer than comparable mass-produced skis. The ski industry is taking notice: This year Folsom won two Skier Choice awards in Powder's 2012 Buyer's Guide.
"We've taken out all those variables that a consumer staring at a wall of skis in a shop is faced with," McCabe says. Customers are offered the option to choose from one of ten pre-tooled shapes online or create a completely custom shape. They then fill out a basic Skier Profile questionnaire and are contacted by Folsom within 72 hours for a follow-up phone chat to discuss the ski design. "We wanted to take that whole side of buying a pair of skis out of the equation," he adds, "and just set up shop to say, 'Hey, you can come to us and we'll take care of you start to finish.' You come to us and let us know who you are as a skier, what you want and what you've liked and disliked in the past, and we'll build the right ski, the first time, just for you."
McCabe, who is 28, and his business partners have three customer types in mind: The Gear Junkie, who stays on top of all the latest trends and knows exactly what he or she wants, right down to the precise dimensions of a ski's geometry; The Aesthetic, who wants the skis to look good and may want a custom graphic; and The Patriot or Locavore, who adamantly wants a ski made in America, or, better yet, in Colorado. Increasingly, they're finding that most of their customers are all three.
Folsom's skis start at $750 for a semi-custom ski and $1,200 for a full-custom design. That's steep compared to most of Folsom's competitors, but "you get what you pay for," McCabe says. He and his team spend up to eight hours designing and crafting a single pair, ensuring that each ski is shaped impeccably and doesn't have any of the inconsistencies that can lead to those catastrophic failures McCabe feared as a competitor. "The basics of ski construction haven't changed a whole lot in the last thirty years, and we're not exactly revolutionizing the ski industry or doing anything drastically different from the other companies," McCabe says. "We're just being a lot more careful."
This year, Freeskier's 2012 Buyer's Guide featured a special category for "Skiing's Microbrew Brands," and five of the top ten slots on the list went to Colorado companies, including High Society Freeride (the Snowmass-based company outsources its manufacturing to the Never Summer Industries factory in north Denver), Ski Logik (the only Colorado company mentioned in this story that manufactures its skis in China), and Icelantic (the biggest of Colorado's boutique brands also outsources manufacturing to Never Summer). Folsom was number five on the list with a test sample of its semi-custom Gambit ski; McCabe says he thinks he'd come out on top every time if he could build full-custom skis for the reviewers to test. Either way, he says, he's flattered by the craft-brewery comparison.
"I think the craft-beer thing, honestly, has been a bit of a catalyst for smaller independent businesses of all kinds, and for consumers looking for high-quality products produced in small batches and willing to pay a premium for something that leaves a good taste in your mouth," McCabe says. "Upslope Brewing is a terrific Boulder brewery four blocks from our shop, and I'd absolutely cite them as an inspiration for what we're doing here at Folsom."
He also looks to surfing's culture of revering the best local surfboard shapers. "If you're a surfer living by the coast and you're getting up early to check the surf report, hitting your best local breaks and traveling around the world in search of big surf, then sooner or later you're going to get to a point where you're buying a custom-shaped board from a shaper with a great reputation, and they're going to build you a board designed for you as a specific rider with a specific ride style and looking to surf specific kinds of waves.
"I think that's where skiing is heading, and that's what Folsom is all about," he adds. "For a certain kind of skier, a mass-produced off-the-shelf ski just isn't going to do the trick anymore."
One regional ski shaper who has gathered a regional following such as the one McCabe envisions is Matt Cudmore of Glenwood Springs. His company, Meier Skis, is the embodiment of a Colorado garage brand — Cudmore presses skis in his one-car garage when he's not working his day job. Cudmore shapes and builds each ski himself, using locally sourced wood including aspen, maple, poplar, Douglas fir, and even the blue-tinged beetle-kill pine that has been a curse on local ski areas and mountain communities.
His work is catching on with locals in Glenwood Springs, the Roaring Fork Valley and nearby Sunlight Mountain, and his skis are available for sale or as rentals at the Sunlight Bike & Ski shop in downtown Glenwood Springs. And he was thrilled to have gotten coverage in his local paper, the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
"It's just like they said in the Post Independent story: If you're standing at the top of Sunlight Mountain with your Meier skis on and you're looking around, you're looking at the trees that your skis come from," Cudmore says, noting that he buys his wood from the nearby Delta Timber Company and uses clear top sheet material to show off "God's graphics" on his skis. "I take a lot of pride in my craftsmanship and using the right materials, using all locally harvested trees, and I take a lot of time for each pair of skis to get everything just right."
After all, he points out, "I'm making skis for people I'm going to run into on the slopes."
His most popular skis are named after legendary local gambler and gunfighter Doc Holliday and his flame, Mary Katharine "Big Nose Kate" Haroney Cummings. "The Doc...is designed to carry you through anything that nature dishes out," explains a description on his website at MeierSkis.com. "It writes the rules. Just like Glenwood's favorite gambler." And for the BNK, his ladies' ski: "Like its namesake, this ornery cuss of a ski takes nothing and leaves nothing, ripping through the backcountry trees with dexterity and grace."
Cudmore's skis start at $650, while custom orders begin at $1,200 — and those orders are starting to pile up, leaving Cudmore with some difficult decisions to make about how to scale up his business. Does he hire some help, creating local jobs? Build a factory? Outsource some or all of his production to keep up with demand? He knows people are buying his skis because they're made locally with locally sourced materials by a local craftsman, and knows he needs to tread carefully as he expands his business or risk losing the reputation he's worked hard to build.
"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."
A ski company that goes out of its way to teach its customers how to build their own skis? Waesche says he isn't afraid of a little competition. "If you're a good skier with some basic understanding of ski construction, the right materials, some basic tools and access to a press, you actually could build a ski in your garage," he says. "It might take you about 24 hours and end up costing you a lot of money, but you could do it. It's when you try to mass-produce them that it becomes a big problem."
When RMU outgrew its garage, Waesche and his business partners were determined to keep production in Colorado and moved their manufacturing operation to the Never Summer factory. Never Summer is celebrating its twentieth anniversary in the snowboard business this season, and has expanded in recent years to help keep other Colorado companies from taking their manufacturing needs overseas. In addition to making RMU's skis — which won nods this year in Powder's Skier's Choice 2012, the 2012 Telemark Skier Awards, and the Freeskier 2011-2012 Editor's Pick Awards — Never Summer now manufactures skis for Colorado brands Icelantic, Fat-ypus, and High Society Freeride.
"I don't even see the other brands here in Colorado as competition," says Waesche, a sentiment echoed by each of the local ski builders in this story. "Hell, a lot of us share resources, especially those of us manufacturing with Never Summer. The way I see it, we're all in it together."
That culture of collaboration is very much on Sullivan's mind as he makes his final preparations for the Something Independent 2012 Business Forum, which will feature panelists including POC Sports founder Stefan Ytterborn, Teton Gravity Research co-founder Steve Jones, Silverton Mountain co-owner Jen Brill, AEG Live CEO Chuck Morris, and Ken Gart, co-owner of Powderhorn Resort.
"Our belief is that collaboration over competition is the future of work and the future of business, and that each of these companies can and should be sharing resources, information and know-how quickly and transparently," Sullivan says, and he's walking the walk: Something Independent is one of a dozen companies — including Icelantic and ski-clothing giant Spyder — housed at Battery 621, the shared space at 621 Kalamath Street that has become a model for such collaboration. "To be working behind closed doors in the 21st century is to find yourself chasing the pack."
In Colorado, that pack is growing stronger by the day.
"Colorado has always attracted the kind of people who are inclined to take some risks to pursue their passions and merge lifestyle with business, to blur the lines between their vocation and their avocation," Sullivan says. "There's a long tradition here, and particularly within the ski industry, of entrepreneurs creating opportunities for themselves. When you run your own business, you can grant yourself a ski day now and then."
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