By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | Dec 14, 2015
The mass-market, multinational snowsports companies have long since moved most manufacturing to China, but numerous companies still make skis and snowboards locally, offering innovative and often custom designs and taking a craft ethic to heart.
But these independent upstarts must juggle a premium price point and lower marketing budget with intense competition from the Rossignols and K2s of the world. And handcrafted means labor, and lots of it.
CompanyWeek talked to four Colorado-based snowsports manufacturers that are making the math work in very different ways: Never Summer Industries, Meier Skis, ScottyBob's SkiWorks, and Folsom Custom Skis. While the strategies differ, the end goal is the same: that one perfect turn in the powder.
Denver-based Never Summer Industries has been on the cutting edge of snowboard manufacturing since brothers Tim and Tracey Canaday started the company in 1991. They've since grown Never Summer to be one of the top domestic snowboard manufacturers, surpassing $10 million in annual revenue in recent years. The company's annual production has eclipsed 40,000 units, utilizing 45 employees on the factory floor.
"Innovation in snowboard design and technology is a huge differentiator for us," says Vince Sanders, Never Summer's lead product developer. "In 2008, we saw the resurgence of a rocker snowboard. Having made these rocker boards back in the day, we knew the advantage -- flotation in powder and a looser, more forgiving ride -- but we also knew some of the drawbacks."
Against this backdrop, co-founder and owner Tim Canaday designed a hybrid rocker camber system (U.S. Patent Number 7,798,514, to be precise). It hit the market in 2009 and defied the sluggish economy, says Sanders. "Having a revolutionary new design going into an economy where people were not readily buying snowboards, let alone antiquated designs, Never Summer Industries actually had some of its biggest growth during the recession, partially because of this innovative design and our distribution model."
The rest is history. Now more than 80 percent of new snowboards have reverse- or mixed-camber designs that owe a debt of gratitude to Never Summer's idea, according to data from SnowSports Industries America (SIA). It's just the latest in a long line of innovations that Never Summer has brought to market.
It all starts on the slopes. Sanders calls Colorado "an R&D playground . . . from brain to snow in the same day for testing."
"Most of us ride, including Tim Canaday, our principal engineer and designer, and Director of Manufacturing B.J. Slater," he says. "Tim can design a core profile or board, sidecut it, and test it himself."
But that's not the only benefit to domestic manufacturing, Sanders adds. "If there is something to make our product better, we can implement it immediately since we have total manufacturing control. We can adapt quickly to changes in the market and to do special projects."
Never Summer has offered OEM services since the early 1990s, when the company made boards for a brand that targeted the Japanese market. Clients have since included Colorado-based companies like Icelantic, High Society, and Fat-ypus, as well as adaptive ski-makers Enabling Technologies and Mountain Man. "We are manufacturing for one of the original brands in snowboarding, Sims," says Sanders.
"Our OEM operations are currently flat, but this is due primarily to poor snow years in California and the Pacific Northwest," says Sanders. "We are on track to grow our OEM business."
It's doing so through a variety of creative strategies, he adds. "We have a dealer OEM program that we started early on for shops like Val Surf in California to give them a shop board and something more exclusive to them."
Never Summer has also made promotional snowboards for Coors, Breckenridge Brewery, 1stBank, Twitter, and other brands. "Having our own sublimation/print facility, we can execute their design precisely to how they want it," says Sanders. "Typically, they look to use a Never Summer base graphic to add to the value of the promotion" -- which speaks to the company's reputation for quality.
"Controlled growth" has been critical to success, he notes. The company strives to avoid overproduction, which leads to offseason discounts. "With leftovers from other companies and strong sell-through on Never Summer, we know the dealers are going to order a bit more," explains Sanders.
Never Summer sells its snowboards and longboards through a network of about 350 retailers and regularly earns kudos for tight control of distribution and balancing supply and demand. The company is notorious for protecting its dealers, who are handpicked and often independent.
But the company isn't resting on its laurels. "Some of our current challenges and opportunities are to reduce the amount of non-value processes within the facility, increase production to accommodate manageable growth while maintaining superior quality and performance, and grow into offseason markets," Sanders says.
After selling his software business to GE, Ted Eynon wanted to change his career path and connected with fledgling ski maker Matt Cudmore of Glenwood Springs' Meier Skis in 2012. They moved manufacturing from Cudmore's garage to a 3,000-square-foot factory and grew annual production from 20 pairs to about 1,000 pairs in three years.
"It's been planned growth," says Eynon. "The worst thing we could have done is put more money into sales and marketing." The key, first off, is to "make sure the quality is there," he says. "Differentiate yourself."
Meier Skis accomplishes that task with its clear topsheets that showcase the resilient, lightweight, and stable cores made of local aspen and beetle-kill pine below. "We've got a very unique look," Eynon says. The strategy goes way beyond aesthetics. "We aspire to be the world's most eco-friendly, high-performance ski and Colorado is a great backdrop for us."
The company now has eight employees (plus contractors), and its joint manufacturing venture with Rocky Mountain Underground (RMU), The Factory, has another eight on staff. "Essentially, we joined forces with a new company," says Eynon.
Prior to the April 2015 launch of The Factory, RMU had been working with Never Summer and an OEM in Canada, and wanted to shift production to Colorado. The two companies share equipment and labor and can offer OEM services to other brands. "The plan is to OEM with others that are kind of in that awkward stage," says Eynon. "We think that's pretty unique."
The strategy looks to be working. "We're kind of busting at the seams right now," says Eynon. "We've been trying to move to the Front Range for some time." But the high price of industrial space in Denver -- catalyzed in large part by the marijuana grows -- has made moving difficult, he adds. "We've probably looked at 30 spaces in Denver and the surrounding area in the last year and a half."
While he remains mum on specifics, Eynon says he is on the cusp of signing a deal with a developer to share a Denver facility with a major Colorado craft brewery. The 20,000-square-foot design features for The Factory and showroom space for Meier, and is seen as a potential catalyst for the surrounding neighborhood. "This would launch the whole area," says Eynon. "The developer is trying to turn it into the next RiNo."
Upcoming move aside, it's been a slog to get to this point, he adds. "I hate to say it, but to go from the garage to a true factory and go from making 10 skis to making hundreds or thousands is a huge leap. It requires a lot of capital. It requires you think ahead. If your motto is, 'We've got the baddest-ass ski,' that's not going to cut it."
Funneling a lead to demo to purchase can be a difficult task. "Once they get in the skis, nine times out of 10 they will fall in love with them," he says. "It's hard, man. It's definitely not for the faint of heart. The software business was easier and the margins were a lot better."
"When people tell me, 'I dream of being a ski builder,' I tell them, 'The dream can turn into a nightmare pretty quick. It takes a lot of money and a lot of hard work."
Having to compete with big brands and their multi-million-dollar marketing budgets, he adds, "forces us to think outside the box and be creative."
One way to do that: find a niche.
Scott Carlson makes a specialized asymmetrical ski for telemark skiing with ScottyBob's SkiWorks in Silverton.
Telemarkers typically are way out in front on their lead ski, so his patented design has different edges on each side. The end result? "Your sweet spot is located where it should be," says Carlson.
After coming up with his concept skiing at A-Basin, he set up shop in Silverton in 2003 and now also makes custom alpine skis. Prices start at $850 a pair.
"We're on-demand manufacturing," says Carlson. "The only time we make a ski is because someone ordered one."
Selling through retailers cuts too deep -- he says he could make less money but make more skis -- so his sales are almost all direct to the consumer.
It's difficult to compete with the "instant gratification" consumers get from buying from a brick-and-mortar retailer, says Carlson. "That's why you're paying the store 45 percent. People can walk in, see them, and walk out with them."
Carlson regularly ships skis to Asia and Europe. "One guy was from South Africa," he says. Recent output went to Kentucky (the state) and Georgia (the country).
Getting the word out is the biggest challenge. And on-mountain demo days can be prohibitively expensive for a one-man shop. "To have a demo day, you have to carry a $1 million dollar insurance policy," says Carlson, and that can run $10,000 a year.
Another hurdle: a complete lack of planned obsolescence. "They don't break," says Carlson. The sugar maple cores can take a beating for 10 seasons or more.
But the superior quality leads to repeat customers, he adds, and plenty of word of mouth. "I get that a lot," says Carlson. "They want to go to a different flavor of ice cream."
In the end, making skis "is a balancing act. I don't think I'll become a millionaire, that's for sure."
"What really differentiates us is our ski-fitting package," says Ryan Prentice of Folsom Custom Skis. "We really understand our shapes and how those shapes benefit the skier."
With Mike McCabe and Jesse Durrance, Prentice is one of three owners and full-time employees; Folsom's other staffers are interns. Another primarily direct-to-consumer operation, the company has quadrupled production to 400 pairs a year after moving from 1,200 square feet in Boulder to a 4,000-square-foot Denver space in 2012. "We've grown it by leaps and bounds with the same manpower," says Prentice.
Prentice and Durrance were "shattering skis" on the competitive circuit before McCabe sent them some of his own handiwork to ski on. Impressed, both soon returned to Colorado to join McCabe at his startup manufacturer.
While Folsom's skis are largely made to order, the company has also developed a stock line that's often co-branded with the seller. "We sell at a wholesale price, but the skis are built exactly the same," says Prentice. Backcountry.com is the largest retailer at 40 pairs a year, and Folsom also makes branded skis for Brundage Mountain Resort's retail operations in Idaho and the Ute Mountaineer in Aspen.
Folsom gets exposure for its custom offerings through its retail accounts, and consumers get an introduction to the brand without the customary six-week wait. Another benefit: Orders from retailers make it "easy to line up financing and delivery," says Prentice, in comparison with the one-off custom business.
The tradeoff is selling at a notably lower wholesale price, and the thinner margin is a big hit for a small operation like Folsom's.
At maximum capacity, the factory can turn out about 10 pairs in a week. "Our skis are very labor-intensive," says Prentice. "Mike and I do all the important stuff."
That includes handpicking poplar and maple from Austin Hardwoods in Denver. "We sort through 100 boards and maybe take 10," says Prentice. "Bad wood leads to a bad ski."
Cores are bookmatched and cut on CNC routers. McCabe still bends every edge by hand, but a CNC bender should be in place by spring 2016. The cores are sandwiched with the topsheet and carbon fiber, epoxy is applied by hand, and skis are pressed in one of 30 different molds for about a half hour. After pressing, they're sanded, beveled, and otherwise finished. The entire process takes nine hours.
"We do everything here 100 percent start to finish," says Prentice. "We don't outsource anything."
Most of the year, a pair of custom skis start at $1,050, but Folsom's annual summer sale knocks $200 off that price with delivery guaranteed by October -- and helps smooth seasonal spikes in demand in the process.
Since everything is done by hand, custom graphics are another selling point. "There is a minimum of one," says Prentice. "It's no more expensive to do 10." And that gives the ability for Folsom to sell skis to breweries and other businesses for promotional giveaways and corporate gifts.
The marketing budget is laser-focused on a single area: Folsom pays about $5,000 annually to several top magazines to test their wares. "That's a lot for us," says Prentice. "It's nothing for Salomon, but it's a lot for us."
But the best advertising for Folsom is free, he adds. Word of mouth "is ridiculous, and most of our new customers have heard of us through friends."
But some small shops that have produced inferior skis have hurt the independent cause. "They give us a bad name," says Prentice. "Our quality is on par with the major brands." As evidence, he points to the number of skis that come in on their two-year warranties -- one every 18 months, give or take.
It all adds up to a slow and steady rise for Folsom. "Year over year, we're growing," he says. "A lot of companies have come and gone. We're in no hurry to build 10,000 units a year."
7 Mile Skis / www.7mileskis.com / Golden
Albritton Skis / www.albrittonskis.com / Salida
Boardkor / www.boardkor.com / Breckenridge
Donek Snowboards / www.donek.com / Watkins
Enabling Technologies / www.enablingtech.com / Denver
Fat-ypus / www.fat-ypus.com / Breckenridge
Grace Skis / www.graceskis.com / Gypsum
High Society Freeride / www.highsocietyfreeride.com / Aspen
Icelantic Skis / www.icelanticskis.com / Denver
Liberty Skis / www.libertyskis.com / Avon
OZ Snowboards / www.ozsnowboards.com / Wheat Ridge
Rocky Mountain Underground / www.rockymountainunderground.com / Breckenridge
ROMP Skis / www.rompskis.com / Crested Butte
SkiLogik / www.skilogik.com / Breckenridge
Unity Snowboards / www.unitysnowboards.com / Silverthorne
Venture Snowboards / www.venturesnowboards.com / Silverton
Wagner Custom Skis / www.wagnerskis.com / Placerville
Weston Snowboards / www.westonsnowboards.com / Minturn