Mainpoint: Skiis made in America
From Time Magazine April 2, 2012 – Money Section
“Sweet Spot. Niche skimakers are making a run for diehard skiers” by Bob Diddlebock/Denver
Steve Kneller, an all-over-the-mountain downhill skier in Breckenridge, Colo., takes his skiing seriously. For years, Kneller, 58, a geologist who hits the trails five times a week, burned through pair after pair of big-name skis-like Icelantics, Fischers and Volkls-because of all the sharp dodging and turning he does on Breckenridge’s black-diamond slopes. So when it came time to buy a new pair this season, Kneller hung up his latest pair of made-in-China Dynastars for skis better equipped to handle some serious mileage. He shelled out $649 – $300 more than he paid for his previous pair – for skis handcrafted in Denver by David Liechty, owner of Grace Skis. “It’s a very clean, classic-looking ski that’s good going over icy bumps and for making strong turns,” says Kneller.
He also liked that Liechty, who started Grace Skis in 2010, manufactures the skis in his living room, his garage and a local machine shop rather than in a foreign factory. “They’re very solid and smooth, and I’m enjoying them tremendously,” says Kneller. “I definitely think David’s onto something.”
Small-batch skimakers in Colorado – whose revenues have grown 50% since the 2005-06 season, to roughly $5 million a year – are setting an example for boutique ski shops across the country. They’re attracting high-end consumers who crave all things local and a growing crop of older hardcore skiers. The number of skiers ages 45 and older is up 93% since the 1996-97 season, according to the National Ski Areas Association, and affluent skiers – those with a household income of $100,000 or more – now make up half the visitors to U.S. slopes, up from 24% in 2004. Those skiers tend to have the time and money to ski more often and splurge on high-tech, higher-end skis crafted for a particular experience, like deep-powder turns, which China-made skis don’t typically offer. “I’m building skis for guys like me who don’t want to give up the sport and for kids who’ll work all night so they can make the money to ski all day,” says Liechty, 43, a Kent State University graduate with a background in industrial design.
There are some 80 niche skimakers in the U.S., up from 70 five years ago. Some are in snowy states like Maine and Wyoming, but a sizable chunk – 13 – have set up shop in Colorado, home to more top ski resorts than any other state. A handful of big-name manufacturers, including Atomic, Dynastar, K2 and Salomon, control about 90% of the $533 million ski market, with roughly 35% of their skis made in China. Boutique skimakers want to change that: they generate a steady $20 million to $30 million a year in revenues through the downturn. And as more skiers gravitate to handcrafted, high-end skis made in the U.S., those skimakers could capture another 3%-5% of the ski market in the next 5 to 10 years, according to trade group SnowSports Industries America. “These small companies bring a huge amount of passion and innovation to the industry,” says Kelly Davis, research director for SIA. “They’re going up against the Goliaths, but they have very specific target markets and are selling to a specific customer. That’s the hardcore skier who skis 10 to 100 times a year, the skier who knows exactly what kind of ski he needs for the conditions he skis.”
Personal frustration tends to drive die-hards into the trade. Matt Cudmore, 32, a computer draftsman for an engineering firm in Glenwood Springs, Colo., started his ski operation, Meier Skis, in 2009 after suffering through numerous pairs of big-name skis with improperly cured fiberglass, wood that separated from the frame and top sheets that flaked off. “For big manufacturers, it’s all about pushing more and more product. For me, it’s giving skiers what they want and what they need to ski the way they want to ski,” says Cudmore. His six models, which run from $500 to $2,000, feature local woods like beetle-killed blue-stain pine and lightweight aspen from the Grand Mesa. Meier’s rocker technology also helps downhillers negotiate powder and make more elegant turns. So far this season, Meier has sold 30 pairs of skis, a number Cudmore expects to double next year.
Peter Wagner, a mechanical engineer and sought-after designer of custom golf clubs, has taken the local skimaking craft even further. Whereas most boutique skimakers use precast molds for a better fit, Wagner, who started his 12-person workshop in Telluride, Colo., in 2006, makes each pair from scratch. He tailors the width, length, side cut and graphics of his skis to customers’ needs on the basis of their answers to a questionnaire, which he then plugs into his own computer algorithms. “We’re more of a tech company than a ski company,” Wagner, 36, says. His custom-milled creations, which range from $1,750 to $2,300, are gaining ground fast: he sold more than 1,000 pair of skis this year, a 60% jump over last year, and yearly sales have grown as much as 80% since he set up shop.
Apex ski boots would go nicely with those boards. manufactured since 2009 by Apex Sports Group, a Boulder, Colo., start-up led by Harvard Business School graduate and ex-racer Denny Hanson, the $1,295 boots – which the company calls the “most expensive ski boot on the market” – have a target audience: baby boomers with sensitive feet who can no longer crash the trees, like famed former alpine ski racer Billy Kidd, a racing buddy of Hanson’s turned Apex spokesman.
Hanson’s boots, handcrafted by a 10-person workforce, are built from carbon fiber, which gives them a pliability and walkability similar to that of snowboard boots. Sales have doubled every year for three years, according to Hanson, which has given him room to experiment. Next year he’s promising an even pricier unisex boot, at $1,495, and two under-$1,000 models. He thinks selling some products at lower price points will expand his customer base and allow him to compete with the cheaper boots on offer from big manufacturers. The skiing business is not for the weak of heart, he says, noting that he’s only breaking even this year and could turn a profit next year. “I’m not a youngster at 68,” says Hanson, which is why he’s gunning for big growth.
Not Cudmore, who started Meier Skis with $1,000 from his grandmother. He’s sticking with the high quality and high prices that attract skiing zealots. “Nobody cares what the numbers look like. Everybody loves a local story,” says Cudmore. At least that’s the case for fanatics who can afford one. END ARTICLE
For a listing of little known ski manufacturers around the world check out ExoticSkis.com.
Editor’s note: I find it heartening that the area of ski manufacturing is slowly decentralizing. It is a reversal from the three decades long trend of Mega- everything: Mega-banks, Mega-stores, Mega-farming. I would love to see more smaller businesses competing against the goliaths by finding little niches. I would like to see Hawaii growing sugar cane again locally, and increasing its production of pineapple. And I definitely would love to see more clothing manufactured in the United States as well as all products imaginable. Maybe the goal should be to make a decent and comfortable living instead of trying to rule the entire world.