By Chris Meehan | Jan 24, 2021
Snowboards and other outdoor gear
It’s not exactly the 30th anniversary the pioneering snowboard manufacturer would have imagined, but Never Summer is still anticipating carving plenty of turns as it shreds into the future, with new designs and patents for its Colorado-made boards.
Never Summer's roots go back to the earliest days of snowboarding’s popularity. Brothers Tim and Tracey Canaday began building boards in 1983 with friend Scott Rolfs as Swift Snowboards. They formally launched Never Summer in 1991 and have been making leading-edge products ever since, becoming one of the early adopters of P-Tex, and securing nearly 10 patents, including the industry’s only patented rocker camber profile and a triple camber patent awarded in 2018.
"We wanted to make a board that performed well so we're using our latest mold sets and technology on the board, but we’re reducing some of the higher-cost materials to make a unit at a lower price point for men and women that would still be a really good performer," says Never Summer "Chairman of the Board" Vince Sanders. That effort produced a high-end, U.S.-made splitboard that retails for $649.99, where most splitboards in that category retail for closer to $1,000.
Sanders launched a board shop in 1987 and carried Never Summer’s snowboards. When he closed the place in 2009, he joined Never Summer and has been integral in launching new products like splitboards and soft goods.
"We're still a small company, so we wear a lot of hats here, no matter what we do really," says Sanders. He's a prime example himself: In addition to design and innovation, he also works with the marketing team and customer service. "It helps me out a lot to kind of see what the consumer's looking for," he says.
Though Never Summer’s been making splitboards since 2000, Sanders says it ramped up production and launched the new boards at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. "We saw the writing on the wall," he says. "Myself and our production manager, we're up on Berthoud Pass -- which we would have been anyways -- right after the resort closures. It was just unbelievable, the amount of people."
"At that point, we started thinking about, you know what we're going to do as far as developing a new split or kind of when we're able to get up and running to kind of switch a little bit of the production over as much as we could towards that."
It was a fortuitous decision. "On splitboards, we've probably had an 80 percent sell through," says Sanders. "We weren't able to increase the production as much as we probably would have wanted to, but we’ve had unbelievable sell-through. Normally, we'd have some splitboards left over."
Though some of its distributors had cut back on orders, the boards are selling well. He offers an example of a distributor in Canada that cut back on its order and has already had a 70 percent sell through of Never Summer’s boards for the season. "In hindsight they’re kind of wishing they wouldn't have cut their orders back as dramatically as they did," Sanders observes. "It’s just that people are wanting to get outside."
However, COVID-19 has impacted the company in many ways. "Spring is a really big time of year for us. We've done the biggest consumer demo tours, pretty much in snowboarding, for the last four years and those take place in the spring," Sanders says. "To lose all of those events and having the retailer shops closed down and stuff like that was a big hit."
It follows that Never Summer started direct-to-consumer sales from its site for the first time while implementing other changes, Sanders says. "We did a virtual open house in the spring," he says. "We were able to kind of get through it."
COVID-19 has also negatively impacted Never Summer’s production dramatically. In 2019, the company produced nearly 53,000 units. The regulations have resulted in far lower production numbers with the company producing about 35,000 units in 2020.
"We were up to 235 units a day. That encompasses all our OEM production. We manufacture for Academy Snowboards, Icelantic Skis, and other brands," he says. "That’s been reduced to half with the restrictions that are in place right now by the city of Denver. We're regulated to be at half staff." He says they retained their senior craftspeople (some of whom can make more than 30 boards a day), but the head count is down from 70 to 35.
The reduced production will also impact the company’s offerings for next year, according to Sanders. "For next year, we'll have more of a limited COVID menu. We're scaling back some of the size offerings models so we’re dropping the number of SKUs we'll have for next year just to simplify everything for us and for the retailers as well," he says.
Despite the cutbacks, the company didn’t have problems getting supplies during the period. Sanders said it had a good stock of material going into the pandemic and hasn’t had any issues with most of the materials since then.
Even while it’s cutting back some production for winter 2021-22, it’s still cutting a new path. "We're going to have some new technology in a new, solid board," Sanders says, referring to the triple camber design. "There will be camber between the feet as well as out on the end of the board."
Likewise, Never Summer plans "to increase our splitboard offerings because this is obviously going to carry through as far as the influx into the backcountry," he adds. "Then we have a new topsheet, a transparent topsheet, so you'll have that window to the wood core and some of the other technologies."
For the 30th anniversary, Never Summer also looked back to some classics. "We did a limited drop on a 30th anniversary kind of graphic," Sander says. "Then we did a board called The Bone, which kind of had a cult following and it was an older model of ours. . . . We did a limited drop on that that was pretty successful. So we plan on doing more of that down the road."
The introduction of direct-to-consumer and more splitboard sales will also help Never Summer offset the lowered production numbers, since splitboards are higher dollar items and direct-to-consumer offers better margins than retail, according to Sanders. At the same time, he says, "We’re finding a pretty good balance between that and with our established retailers."
Challenges: "The increase in minimum wage and the cost of materials and labor are probably ones I could pinpoint right off the bat," Sanders says.
Another is "finding a balance between the direct-to-consumer with the retailers," he notes. "It's really important for us to maintain that partnership that we have built over the years, but the fact is to stay in business, we have to offer a little more direct-to-consumer."
Opportunities: "This influx in the backcountry is a huge opportunity for us, more people wanting to get out there," Sanders says. "We have a long experience in splitboarding and I think that gives us a step above a lot of our competitors out there."
Another advantage: "Having our own factory and being able to be really versatile and be able to change things up fairly quick."
Needs: More automation and "a better inventory system," says Sanders. "It gets tough because we're fulfilling dealer orders, trying to fill direct-to-consumer. It’s hard to just keep track of balancing the inventory from the raw materials to the finished product."