WORKING from his solar- and wind-powered workshop near Telluride, Colo., Pete Wagner has been turning out custom-built skis since last year. A former designer of individualized golf equipment, Mr. Wagner adapted the software model he had developed for golf so that it could parse what he calls skier DNA.
In goes information about your ability, terrain preferences, equipment choices, goals and other data gleaned from an extensive questionnaire; out comes design recommendations for everything from ski geometry to materials. About two weeks later, a pair of finished skis that Mr. Wagner guarantees will improve performance shows up on your doorstep, at a cost of about $1,600.
Wagner Custom, which plans to make 1,000 pairs of skis in the next year, is one of at least two dozen boutique ski makers in the United States, run by people who have a passion for skiing and an entrepreneurial bent. While ski manufacturing’s major players continue to consolidate — about a half-dozen companies own established brands like K2, Rossignol and Salomon — the independents go after underserved niche markets, from big-mountain skiers seeking supreme flotation in powder to nonconformists who want to stand out in the lift line.
Companies like Armada and 4FRNT have been able to trade on the reputations of the pro skiers — household names among X Games and ski movie fans — who started and run these companies to achieve market presence within just a few years. Following in their tracks, so to speak, is a host of smaller ski makers offering specialized products: plump-waisted powder skis (Fat-ypus), asymmetrical tails (Scotty Bob), a continuously curved base (Praxis) and carbon-fiber construction (DPS), to name a few. The skis can cost as much as $2,000, though most fall in the $500 to $1,000 range.
Alicia Allen, of the trade association SnowSports Industries America, said that roughly 22 boutique ski companies have emerged in the past five years or so. The Web site Exoticskis.com, dedicated to tracking boutique ski makers worldwide, lists even more. Some will never sell more than a few hundred pairs of skis a season, but all are committed to providing fellow skiers — and themselves — with various versions of a dream ski.
Dissatisfaction motivated Dan Chalfant and James Satloff to start Liberty Skis, now in Avon, Colo. “You could buy a typical all-mountain ski, or you could buy a twin tip that was just a noodle,” Mr. Chalfant said. “We wanted skis that were performance-oriented twin tips.” (Twin tips glide equally well forward and backward, a characteristic required by skiers who use terrain parks and halfpipes, and land jumps all over the mountain.)
Mr. Chalfant, who had managed ski-boot-fitting shops, and Mr. Satloff, with a background on Wall Street, started their company five years ago on a gamble. Literally. At the ski industry’s annual trade show in Las Vegas, Mr. Satloff won enough money at the dice table to buy a ski-molding press.
Liberty now has four models of twin-tip skis. Instead of traditional hardwood cores, the skis use bamboo, for its elasticity and favorable strength-to-weight ratio. Sales have doubled annually for the past four years, Mr. Satloff said. And a lack of brand recognition actually helps. “The market for free-skiing is characterized by a somewhat rebellious personality,” he said. “They don’t want to be skiing on the same brand as their dad, or uncle or neighbor.”
In the early to mid-1990s, dozens of independent snowboard manufacturers sprang up as the sport gained traction; few survived. The current crop of ski makers, however, may fare better, thanks to Internet-based marketing and distribution opportunities.
Bluehouse Skis, of Salt Lake City, started this year by Adam Hepworth and Jared Richards, former roommates at Brigham Young University, sells only through its Web site, www.bluehouseskis.com. One of its two models, a lightweight yet stiff ski for both resort and backcountry terrain, sold out its 500-pair run in just a week and a half. Mr. Hepworth credits word of mouth, in the local ski community and on Web forums, for demand.
When he started PM Gear in 2003, Pat Keane sought opinions from the online community at Powder magazine’s Web forum to design the ultimate versatile ski. The resulting 188-meter (74-inch Bro Model) handles everything, Mr. Keane said, “from ice to crud to deep powder, from groomer slopes to 55 degrees of solid ice.”
Whereas anyone with a knack for combining wood, metal, fiberglass and epoxy can conceivably make and sell a pair of skis, producing those skis on a mass level, even if it’s a small mass, poses a challenge. Some companies contract with the same European and Asian factories that make well-known brands, which puts them at the mercy of those larger ski maker’s production priorities. Liberty addressed that problem by buying its own machinery at a factory in China to better control scheduling and quality.
On the day that Mr. Keane’s second-year shipment of skis was scheduled to arrive, he instead received a letter from his manufacturer, declaring bankruptcy. Undeterred, he high-tailed it to the factory in Chicoutimi, Quebec. “There was one guy sitting there, the owner,” Mr. Keane recalled. “I told him, ‘Why don’t you call everybody and tell them to come back to work? We’re going to build skis.’ ” By the next year, PM Gear had set up its own small factory in Reno, Nev., to avoid such calamities.
Even a skier who never lays eyes on a pair of, say, Bluehouse skis, may ultimately benefit from the existence of the boutique firms. “A lot of innovation has come from these smaller companies,” Mr. Hepworth said. “We have the ability to make small runs and test out crazy designs.”
To maintain quality — and sustain the skiing lifestyle that fueled their passion in the first place — many small ski makers aspire to stay just that: small. A perfect example is Igneous Skis of Jackson, Wyo., one of the longest-operating boutique manufacturers. Founded in 1993 by Adam Sherman (and the star of an ad for Dewar’s Scotch in 1999), Igneous originally had big plans. “We were kind of naïve when we jumped into this, thinking we’d compete with these giant companies,” said Michael Parris, who became Mr. Sherman’s partner in 2000.
The strain of vying against ski makers with larger advertising budgets and lower production costs eventually forced Mr. Parris and Mr. Sherman to realize that they loved making skis but not being a company. So in 2001 they cut back on promotion and product (so much so that some thought they had closed up shop for good). Today, Igneous produces just two or three pairs of customized skis a week in its Jackson factory. Marketing is purely word of mouth. The business model is bare bones. And Mr. Parris gets to ski every day.