Obituary: Volant Ski Co.

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The deceased: American ski manufacturing

Born: About 1879

Died: August 2001

Cause of death: Globalization

Mike Markkula pulled the plug on American ski manufacturing on August 28.

Markkula is an immensely wealthy electrical engineer - the third co-founder, with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, of Apple Computer, and now chairman of Echelon Inc., which makes a computer chip which functions as a kind of wireless light switch. For the past dozen years he's been the bankroll for Volant skis, the "steal the thunder" folks in Wheat Ridge. The factory never made a dime - instead, Markkula found himself soaking up red ink year after year. This summer, with his tech stocks in the toilet (Echelon, along with the NASDAQ, dropped 60 percent in a year), Markkula figured he'd bled enough. The word to Volant's management: "Don't spend another dime. Send everyone home, close the doors and sell the brand."

The only qualified buyer turned out to be Canadian snowboarder Jamie Salter, the co-founder of Ride. Salter parlayed Ride's IPO to his own gaudy fortune - at one point, Ride's market cap (the total market value of its stock) exceeded the value of the entire ski business. After Ride, Salter co-founded Gen-X, which buys up "distressed" sporting goods brands like Tommy Armour golf clubs and Oxygen skates. Two years ago he bought Limited Snowboards from Volant. Gen-X expects to move Volant's unique production tooling to some factory in Eastern Europe, and produce the skis there. Why? Colorado factory workers earn around $15 an hour. In the Ukraine, the average factory worker makes about $1.50 an hour. There's roughly 4.5 hours of labor in a pair of skis, so Gen-X ought to be able save about $60 per pair on manufacturing costs, or about a third of the ski's wholesale price.

K2 made a similar decision on July 19, announcing that its entire ski-making operation on Vashon Island, Wash., would be shut down in favor of production in Guangzhou Province, China - where the average worker makes 75 cents an hour, working a 12 hour, 6 day week. All that's left of U.S. ski making is K2's prototype shop (capable of making about 1000 pairs a year), and two oddball garage operations: Evolution in Salt Lake City, and Claw, in Jay, Maine. The last big factory in North America is the Karhu plant in Quebec, where, in addition to cross country skis, they mold Line alpine skis and Burton snowboards.

Modern ski manufacturing is an American invention. The first mass-production ski factories were set up in and around St. Paul, Minn., by Norwegian immigrants, starting in 1879. At the time, the best material to use for jumping skis was Louisiana hickory, shipped up the Mississippi a few decades before jazz made the trip.

During World War II, American chemists perfected flexible, waterproof glues for bonding aircraft aluminum and plywood. Howard Head, an aircraft engineer from Baltimore, used the stuff to bond aluminum to a plywood ski core, beginning in 1950. The Head Standard goosed ski manufacturing to a 15 percent annual growth rate that lasted until the first oil embargo, in 1973. Between '73 and '75, American factories built bindings and boots, and at least 16 factories produced alpine skis in the U.S.: Northland and Hart in Minnesota, K2 in Vashon, Century in Tacoma, Rossignol in Vermont, Hexcel in California, Durafiber in Nevada, The Ski in Utah, Olin in Connecticut, and, in Boulder, Lange, Lovett, Molnar and Head. I don't remember where Graves and Voit built their skis. These factories could, collectively, have produced about two million pairs of skis a year.

Unfortunately, the European factories could also produce over two million pairs of skis, and it turned out that the world market for skis stabilized at under two million. European full-employment laws forbad lay-offs, so the Euro factories operated at full tilt even in bad snow years, when they had to dump their skis at a loss. Which meant that Americans could buy very good Rossignols and Fischers for less than they could buy mediocre Harts and Heads. American factories failed, or moved off shore (Head, for instance, moved to Austria).

Some very smart guys tried to reverse the flow. Bucky Kashiwa is a very smart guy - he's a nuclear scientist at Los Alamos (yes, he builds bombs, but you didn't hear it from me). Bucky, a former ski racer and brother of Hank, figured that if you built a ski from something cheap, and minimized the labor content, you might be able to compete with the Euros. The cheap stuff he had in mind was carbon steel - basically the same stuff Detroit uses to stamp out car bodies. He also wanted to use off-the-shelf rolling equipment to shape the steel for his skis.

Stainless steel skis are a very good idea. Peter Kennedy, a former Olympic figure skater, built them in Seattle in the '60s. Under Kashiwa's system, in theory, long sheets of cheap steel would roll continuously through a machine; ski parts would pop out the other end, already coated with epoxy resin. A worker would sandwich the parts into a press, along with a base and core, and 15 minutes later would pry out a finished ski, ready to be boxed and shipped to a happy customer.

It wasn't that easy. Volant skis provided a smooth ride and great float in godawful unskiable crud and crust - they were hero skis for wet snow. But there were design problems. The steel cap was far too stiff torsionally for the beam flex, so the skis had to be beveled three degrees. And steel is so stiff that the skis had to be built very thin. A standard binding screw could sink through the core to the bottom steel and literally jack the ski apart in the middle. The tips delaminated. The molding press scratched the stainless steel. For 12 years, a succession of smart engineers tried to take that 4.5 hours of hand labor out of the Volant production process. In the end they managed to produce about 60,000 pairs a year of very good skis. But average wholesale price remained about $200, and the company continued to lose money.

In the meantime, the Berlin Wall fell. Western European companies began moving their production from France, Spain, Austria, Germany and Italy, where workers were paid well (and got great benefits, and job security, and short work weeks, and long vacations), to Slovenia, and then to the Czech Republic and Estonia and Poland and Ukraine. By paying under $3 an hour, the surviving Euro brands can run profitably while selling skis for under $100 wholesale. These aren't Volants, but on corduroy, new skiers can't feel the difference.

In 1999, Markkula tried to morph Volant into an e-tailer, selling skis direct to the consumer through a Website. A lot of ski specialty dealers, infuriated at having to compete with the factory, immediately dropped the Volant line. The light at the end of the tunnel winked out.

We mourn is loss of a proud American manufacturing culture. We used to romanticize the idea of a clever craftsman like Mike Brunetto or John Howe building custom skis in a garage, reeking of resin, near the lifts. Now we can't afford to be snobs. We'll learn to carve turns on skis assembled by Lu-chen or Dmitri. The only difference is that these guys don't work the night shift so as to ski with us during the day.

From here on, if you want a ski assembled in a ski town, Dynastar is near Chamonix, Atomic is in Altenmarkt, and Blizzard is in Mittersill.

For now.

--Seth Masia

From Mountain Gazette #83


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