Longform

Colorado's smallest ski companies are going big

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"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.

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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."

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Colin Bane
Contact: Colin Bane