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."