By Chris Meehan | Mar 16, 2021
Salt Lake City, Utah
Since its founding in the late 1960s DaleBoot has always focussed on fit and all of its ski boots today are still customized to the buyer's feet.
The company makes the custom boots at its facilities in Salt Lake City and Kitzbühel, Austria, where DaleBoot owner Rob Graham lives. The customer can then ski in the boots, and the retail partner or DaleBoot will make adjustments as needed.
"What really separates DaleBoot from any other ski boot out there is the customizability of the boot. We try to get the clog, the plastic piece, basically closer to each individual's foot first," explains DaleBoot Sales Manager Michael Sheets, who's been with the company since the late 1990s. "We really start from the foot measurement . . . and make the boot to that. So say one of the customer's feet is a little longer, a little wider than the other one, we're going to actually make that shell a little longer or a little wider. Once the shell is to where we want it, then we go ahead and heat up the liner and mold the liner."
Though DaleBoot isn't as big a name as some other ski-boot brands, most boots on the market use developments patented by founder Mel Dalebout, who invented the process for a custom foam-injected liner in 1971. The approach became popular, but other ski boot manufacturers were infringing on the patent and Dalebout -- with the support of GE -- successfully sued them and used the money to invest in plastic injection molding for his boots, Sheets says.
A former pro skier, Graham wore DaleBoots, so he was already familiar with the products when he bought DaleBoot from Dalebout in 2007. "The company's been growing consistently, year over year, organically and inorganically, since I purchased it from its founder," says Graham.
He cites several factors for the company's resurgence, among them strong investments in R&D, which led to product improvements and new product developments, as well as a significant increase in manufacturing capacity. Another factor is, "A heightened focus on geographic expansion and new retail partner development which has increased product awareness and driven steady year over year volume increases," he says.
Today DaleBoot is still manufacturing most of the parts of its boots in Utah. "Anything that is made out of plastic is made in Utah," Sheets says. Though they could also make the liners there, they partnered with Vancouver-based Intuition to make liners. "Our volumes have gone up so much, we just can't handle making them in-house anymore."
Making and assembling the boots in Utah, and shipping parts to Europe, allows a high degree of customization, and Sheets says that the company is usually able to send a boot out to a customer in about a week.
DaleBoot works primarily with ski shops that are well-known for their boot-fitting capabilities, rather than large stores like REI or Dick's Sporting Goods. The company offers a mail-order boot as well, but tries to discourage it, says Sheets.
The approach works well. "We have about a 3 percent return rate on our boots. So it works out good. We've been doing it for over 20 years," notes Sheets.
A pair of DaleBoot's boots sell for $825, but Sheets contends that the customization from day one is worth it. Bootfitters can charge hundreds of dollars to help skiers push, prod, bump, and adjust ski boot shells and liners to their feet.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company's sales have been impacted more in Europe than in the U.S. "Inorganic growth was steady [in the U.S.] as we continued to add additional partners to our network," says Graham. "Organic growth across the partner network was also fairly strong, with the exception of a few U.S. states on extended lockdown, with business from these states virtually nonexistent. In Austria, we've had three lockdowns so far and hotels and restaurants remain closed until at least Easter; tourism is virtually dead. . . . As such, our retail business in Austria has taken a major hit."
During the initial outbreak, DaleBoot pivoted to making face shields for hospitals and school systems. "We were not in this for profit," Graham says. "We were doing this as a public service and expected to merely cover costs and maintain employment." That effort allowed the company to maintain 100 percent employment while delivering thousands of face shields.
After the pandemic-shortened 2019/2020 season, sales have bounced back in North America. "Organic sales growth in Salt Lake City, for ski season 2020/2021, has been very strong," Graham says. "Across our North American partner network, we have already seen an increase in pre-orders for next season from those partners who were able to remain active through most of 2020/2021."
Graham says he also anticipates a boom in Europe next season: "I'm forecasting explosive growth in Austria due to the latent demand generated by extended lockdowns and the significant impact our new product announcements will have on our business."
Challenges: The shifting retail landscape. "A challenge for us is how we stay competitive with direct-to-consumer, with the way that everything's going in that way now," Sheets says.
Opportunities: Graham says that the pandemic provided an opportunity to look towards the future. "Rather than taking up day drinking, we used the time and that opportunity to invest heavily in R&D to accelerate work on four new product announcements to be released later this spring for the 2021/2022 season," he says. "These are highly significant announcements for us and we're absolutely stoked about these products and the incremental opportunities they'll bring to DaleBoot."
Needs: "The biggest need we have at the moment is making the boot more accessible to the general public without compromising the fit and performance of the overall solution," says Graham. "Finding good retail partners, training them, and maintaining their training level, given turnover in retail staffing, is definitely a challenge. It's something we're highly focused on, but approach very carefully."