By Eric Peterson | Sep 24, 2020
Salt Lake City, Utah
Skylling partnered with ski lift legend Jan Leonard, who co-founded CTEC in 1976, to start Skytrac in 2008.
They were previously colleagues at Doppelmayr USA (previously Garaventa CTEC) in the early 2000s; Leonard served as president and Skylling was production manager and VP of operations. The century-old lift manufacturer discontinued maintenance programs on older CTEC lifts, and Leonard and Skylling sensed an opportunity.
"He wasn't too thrilled with that, because he thought he left his customers and legacy in good hands," says Skylling. "There was this whole big part of the market and these lifts that were basically going to be orphaned if somebody didn't step up to the plate and do some parts."
The duo co-founded Skytrac with two other partners, Alan Hepner and David Metivier, who had previously developed Hilltrac, a ski-oriented monorail system that became part of Skytrac's catalog.
At first, Skytrac focused on service and parts for old CTEC lifts. In 2010, Monarch Mountain in Colorado needed service on its Garfield lift, leading to a manufacturing strategy and the company's flagship Monarch chairlift system. "They were the first, so we named the design after them," says Skylling. "We really got it organized as a manufacturing and engineering company."
The Monarch was followed by the Monarch XL; Skytrac has installed more than 50 in the last decade. New lifts typically have a budget between $3 million and $5 million.
Installing gondolas and high-speed, detachable chairlifts worldwide, Doppelmayr and Leitner-Poma "were just too busy," says Skylling. "No one was doing the small stuff. . . . Our fit really is the older, fixed-grip technology -- full replacements of those type of lifts. They usually top out at 400 horsepower." The company also modifies and retrofits existing fixed-grip chairlifts.
The jump in price from a fixed-grip to a detachable lift is a big one, making for a stable market for the former. "A lot of small and mom-and-pop resorts really can't get into that arena [detachable lifts]," says Skylling. "For us in this country, the big lift-building boom started in the late '60s. Through the early to the middle 1970s, there were a ton of fixed-grip lifts being built all over. Those lifts are now getting pretty old, and really it's that replacement market that feeds our business."
As of 2020, about a quarter of Skytrac's business is service and parts and 75 percent or more was new lifts. "We had really great growth from 2010 to 2015," says Skylling. After a "good year" in 2019, 2020 has also been solid, with projects at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, Searchmont in Ontario, and Hyland Hills in Minnesota.
The founders' experience with the biggest lift manufacturers in the world gave them a solid foundation to understand what the market needed -- and how to deliver solutions in a cost-effective manner. "We knew jumping right in that if we were going to do this, we had to do it right," says Skylling.
From the beginning, Skytrac employed 3D modeling with SolidWorks "doing design-build versus design-prototype-build," he continues. "We really vetted our concepts on lift design and what the right lift design for this market really would be based on all of our experiences with many, many other lift designs. Ultimately, that whole modeling of different concepts really zeroed us in on what we thought was the optimal design. It also allowed us to do a lot of standardizations in parts and our products. With lifts, every one is pretty much custom-engineered, but our motor room and our gearbox and our drive systems are very standardized around certain components, so we're always reproducing and building the same pieces and parts. There was a lot of benefit coming from that."
Likewise utilizing integrated ERP and MRP systems since the start, Skytrac now manufactures in a 55,000-square-foot facility in Salt Lake City with two laser cutters, a plasma table, CNC mills and lathes, and bending and robotic welding capabilities, as well as a separate paint shop. The operation is largely vertically integrated, and works with a network of local vendors for a few select components. The crew often increases to about 70 in peak installation season.
Leonard passed away in 2015, and Leitner-Poma subsequently made an offer to acquire Skytrac in order to offer more economical options to small resorts. "It's something that [Letitner-Poma] knew they needed to do, but they could never justify taking resources away from accomplishing their big projects to focus on these little ones," says Skylling. "They really appreciated our approach to this niche in the marketplace."
With an assurance they would be allowed to operate independently, Skylling and company ultimately accepted the deal. "It's been really good to be able to combine our synergies and strengths and open up our market to their customer base," he says. "It really has been great to work together."
The arrangement has helped drive sales. "We had a really good year last year ," says Skylling. "There just was a lot of pent-up demand for replacing older lifts."
Even with the pandemic, the trend has continued in 2020. "We're feeling pretty fortunate. This summer, we had enough projects stay on the board for us to keep us pretty busy," says Skylling. "We managed to keep things rolling almost at full capacity. It's really a nice position to be in right now. A lot of resorts -- the Vails, the Alterras -- they did pull their capital-expenditure budgets back, and they impacted us as well, but not quite as much as Leitner-Poma or Doppelmayr."
He adds, "Going into next year, we're optimistic. There's a lot of potential work out there."
Challenges: "The unknowns," says Skylling. "You have a bad snow year, you can get impacted pretty hard just from that alone, then you combine that with all the things that are happening in the world right now."
Opportunities: Markets beyond winter resorts. Skytrac has installed lifts at a ziplining course in St. Maarten in the Caribbean and attractions in California. Skylling sees a lot of potential for Hilltracs in non-ski applications; installations start around $800,000. "There's endless market potential, but that market hasn't been tapped yet by us," he says.
Needs: Agility. "We're just trying to make sure we're able to react to market conditions," says Skylling. "We're just planning for plan A, B, and C."
Experienced personnel is an ongoing need, he adds. "We're always looking for good welders and machinists."