Crested Butte, Colorado
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Co-founder Caleb Weinberg crafts custom skis with a special ingredient in a shop at road's end.
When construction dried up in Crested Butte in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, brothers Caleb and Morgan Weinberg started looking for something new.
"[Morgan] came up with a thing online where you could make skis in your garage with standard woodworking tools," says Caleb. "We're lifelong skiers and gear dorks in general. We made eight pairs of skis that winter."
Using a vacuum bag and fiberglass skills from their boating backgrounds, the Weinberg brothers passed their handiwork out to friends to try on the slopes," says Caleb. "We got an awesome response from everybody, so we started a business out of it."
That's when they swapped the vacuum bag for ski presses they built themselves. A vacuum bag "works okay at sea level, but up here at 9,000 feet, it barely works," says Caleb.
Romp now has three presses for the cores, skis, and sublimation. The Weinbergs built the presses in house out of necessity, as factory-built presses can cost $60,000 or more. "That's not in the budget for a company like ours," says Caleb.
A pair of Romp Skis starts with poplar sourced from the Southeast for the cores. Five to seven layers are pressed, vertically resawn, and tapered in a CNC router from Diversified Machine Systems. The precise specifications are based on the buyer: Most Romp Skis are custom-built to order, based on the skier's skill level and preferences.
From there, the edges are bent and attached, the graphics are sublimated, and the layers are stacked for the ski press. "The epoxy gets mixed and everything is put together and it goes in the press," says Caleb. "Because we make custom skis, out press gets assembled and reassembled multiple times every day."
About 30 minutes later, the skis are fully cured and ready for finishing, and Romp also sells stock skis through a local retailer and demos them at Crested Butte Mountain Resort.
The overwhelming majority of individual orders are custom and direct to consumer. "Our individual customer business is steady and growing," says Caleb. "The first few years we were under 100 pairs." In 2017, Romp sold 350 pairs of skis to individuals.
Customization is a big selling point. "There are very few custom ski makers," he notes. "Our interview has changed over the years. At first, it was mostly about skis. We learned most people don't know much about skis."
So Romp pivoted to focus on skiing: What's your favorite terrain? What's your turning style? How fast do you like to ski? How would you like to improve?
"We design the ski for them without them having to know any technical aspects," says Caleb. "The whole idea is your skis are a tool to make skiing more fun."
A pair costs $750 for stock and $1,050 for custom, and add-ons can bring that up to $1,550.
The most popular upgrade is Countervail, a composite that goes into about a third of custom orders. It's largely used for industrial applications, although Wilson is using it in premium tennis rackets. "We're the only people putting it in skis as far as I know," says Caleb. "It's a difficult material to work with."
Once Romp cracked the code, it emerged as a big differentiator. "We've got it perfected," says Caleb. "It's amazing. It's lighter than fiberglass, but it skis with the dampness of a race ski that has five layers of metal in it."
Countervail is a $400 upcharge, but he says it can be worth every penny, especially for weekend skiers. "It reduces fatigue tremendously. You might be able to ski 'til 3 p.m. instead of 1:30."
But that's just one side of the business: Bulk orders of branded skis for customers like Odell Brewing and the U.S. Army "has fluctuated from year to year." Romp also manufactures splitboards for Cold Smoke Splitboards in Gunnison.
Bulk customers use the skis for giveaways, incentives, and resale. It helps smooth out production lulls during the spring and summer months. The Army ordered 350 pairs of a commemorative 10th Special Forces Group ski in 2017. "We were behind when we started," says Caleb. "We were running at full capacity through the summer."
Challenges: "It's a challenge being in Crested Butte," says Caleb. "There's nothing we use in out entire process we can buy here."
He dubs it an "end-of-the-road challenge," but notes, "It goes both ways." There's a certain cachet that comes with manufacturing skis in a ski town, plus there's an unparalleled testing ground just up the hill.
To move outside of Crested Butte is a non-starter. "It's really important for us to stay in town," says Caleb. "We have a little retail shop here. It's cool: All you have to do is walk around the corner and we have manufacturing."
Opportunities: Bulk orders in the offseason. "That helps us with consistency as far as keeping our employees year-round," says Caleb.
It's also a unique giveaway or incentive for corporate clients. "We're used to making each pair individually," he notes. Odell, for example, ordered four different sizes with the same graphics. "They were able to give away something that will get used."
Another is a national market. After first selling in Crested Butte and Colorado, Romp is "pushing out across the country," he says. "We're seeing more and more orders coming from the Northeast, the Northwest, and California. We're becoming nationwide instead of local."
Needs: "It's all marketing for us," says Caleb. "Trying to get in front of the right people is a big challenge." Social media helps, and Romp recently hired PR firm Purple Orange to spread the word.
Advertising is tough for a small company. "The print stuff is really expensive," says Caleb. Ski tests with big magazines sometimes requires a fee in the $10,000 ballpark. "That's basically our whole marketing budget." One outlier: Backcountry Magazine charges just $250. "It's an actual test," he notes. "They're really testing the product rather than just advertising it."