Grand Junction, Colorado
Founded: 1888 (Leitner); Poma of America opened Grand Junction facility in 1981
North American subsidiary of Poma (France), owned by Leitner Group (Italy)
Employees: 120 (105 in Grand Junction); about 25 additional employees are hired for construction season
Industry: Built Environment
Products: Chairlifts and transportation
President Rick Spear started welding for the chairlift giant nearly 40 years ago. Now he's guiding the company into new and innovative transportation markets.
Founded in Italy by Gabriel Leitner more than 125 years ago, the Leitner name is a fixture on ski slopes worldwide. Poma installed its first lift in France in 1936. The two names merged under one corporate umbrella in 2000.
The North American arm of the Leitner Group, Leitner-Poma of America supplies chairlifts, gondolas, and other transportation systems to ski resorts and other customers in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.
Spear has been part of the operation for four decades running. He started out as a welder for Poma of America in Vermont in 1978, relocated to Colorado in 1993, and has served as president since 2007.
Things have changed markedly in the decades in Spear's time. In 1981, the U.S. operations imported about 80 percent of components from Europe. As of 2017, Leitner-Poma only imports about 15 percent of materials and manufactures the rest in the U.S.
And the lifts have continued to push the boundaries with innovative new technologies and designs. Case in point: New for the 2012-13 season, Vail's Gondola One "was a huge move for us," says Spear. Featuring heated seats and Wi-Fi, it was the first 10-passenger gondola in North America, and its speed -- 1,200 feet a minute -- set a new standard for speed in the industry.
"They needed a truck to move people out of the base area at 9 a.m. in the morning," says Spear. With a capacity of 3,000 passengers an hour, Gondola One has accomplished the task. "The line goes away in a hurry."
For 2016-17, the Grand Canyon Express became the first high-speed, six-person lift in Arizona when it opened at Arizona Snowbowl near Flagstaff. "It's a big hit," says Spear.
Another recent marquee project was the High Roller, the 550-foot-tall Ferris wheel that started turning at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in 2014.
"That was the biggest contract we've ever signed," says Spear. "It was huge" -- and not just in terms of the financials: It's the world's largest observation wheel.
Leitner-Poma developed round, 20-ton cabins from an artist's sketch, manufacturing components in Grand Junction and Arizona before shipping to a Vegas warehouse for final assembly. "We built their basketball," jokes Spear.
The project marked a steady increase in non-ski projects for Leitner-Poma, which have tripled in recent years and now account for about 15 percent of sales. "Our bread-and-butter backbone is going to be ski lifts," says Spear. "I don't see it changing. It's not a growth business, but it's a steady business. In order to grow, we need to go outside of it."
One target market is mass transit. "Urban gondolas are really starting to take off," says Spear, highlighting a project in Mexico City. "It's like the Vail gondola in the city."
Spear sees potential for gondolas to continue to gain traction in mass transit, with steadier sales than ski lifts and observation wheels like the High Roller.
"The roads are packed and you hit a certain saturation point with buses and start to slow everything down," he explains. "To build a subway is extremely expensive and it takes 20 years. There's no room on the surface."
"With a gondola, you get a tower every 200 feet," he continues. "That's all and you can build it in a year and a half. You can build it for $50 million instead of $500 million."
Leitner-Poma is currently in discussions with Boston, New York City, Austin, and other cities interested in gondolas. Closer to home, officials in Boulder and Denver have also looked into the potential of urban gondolas. Notes Spear: "These are all places with serious traffic problems."
Branded MiniMetro, Leitner-Poma's automated people movers (APMs) are also in demand. The company recently worked on an APM project at Tampa International Airport.
The company also has a wind-generation division, and has a few towers in North America, including one in Vancouver with an observation deck. "Wind is a tough business," says Spear, noting that the five-year paybacks in Europe require subsidies in the U.S.
Sales for Leitner-Poma of America are roughly $50 million a year. Since business is based on big contracts, that number fluctuates from year to year.
The market landscape spans just two companies: Leitner-Poma of America and Doppelmayr USA in Utah. "We both fight for every project," says Spear. "It's not difficult to know your competition. To know the price is much more difficult. We're very territorial."
Spear says he sticks to the basics. "You have two major assets: your employees and your customers. Take care of both of those and you'll do okay."
Challenges: "The biggest challenge is finding engineers -- mechanical and electrical and civil engineers," says Spear. "It takes a year or two years to get them up to speed, and you have to hire two to get one." He says Grand Junction's quality of life is a selling point, but add, "It's not like Chicago or New York or L.A. It's not that kind of labor pool."
Opportunities: Continued growth in non-ski markets. "That's where we're able to grow our business," says Spear.
Worldwide, the ski business is booming in China and South Korea. Leitner-Poma of America's business in Australia and New Zealand is "steady,"
Needs: "I always need more business," says Spear. "The ski business looks pretty good this year. It’s snowing everywhere."