The Cost of Independence

On a somewhat busy street of an increasingly busy Golden downtown, the independent ski makers at Icelantic did something that might have seemed totally crazy just a few years ago.

They opened a store.

In a retail marketplace as packed as Colorado’s esteemed ski country, hanging up a lone store shingle can certainly seem like trying to drain an ocean with a spoon. There are so many other shops in so many other places around the Rocky Mountains that do retail so well, it’s easy to wonder if it can really be worth the effort to compete in the brick-and-mortar scene.

But times have changed for ski companies, and the pathway to long-term survival is about way more than just simply making great skis. It’s about embracing every opportunity you’ve got to build a fan base, because when you build a reputation, you build a brand. And when you build a brand, you increase the value of your entire company.

“Our intention here is to welcome skiers into our space to experience the brand in its purest form,” said Icelantic CEO Annelise Loevile in a recent interview with Freeskier about the brand’s new store. “One of our biggest opportunities … is to continue building our brand awareness with (non-skiers) by offering products that appeal to them.”

The Quote

The ski industry is a competitive place full of smart people, and the community of companies that make it up includes what can seem like zillions of tiny soul brands, dozens of rising independent stars, and even a few Titanic-size behemoths.

But what if that field changed? What if a big chunk—say, a third of the brands out there—just put their skis down and walked away?  What if a rapturous moment whisked away a huge chunk of the ski industry with no explanation whatsoever?  Would tiny garage-based makers fill the gaps? Would the biggest brands just get bigger? Or would it just kind of suck?

Over the last six months, the ski world wrapped its head around that exact question. This curious story began about six months ago when the big-time holding companies of Newell Rubbermaid and Jarden Corp.— one of the biggest sporting goods companies in the world — decided to get married and bring their mile-long list of brands together under a single $15-billion roof.

It came in a proclamation that would make even the weirdest family dinner seem even more awkward.  It came in The Quote Heard ’Round the Ski World.

“Ideally I would like to sell these assets versus simply walking away from them,” said Newell CEO Michael Polk in September, speaking at a conference about his new ski brands as well as a few other arms of his new family. “Some of them are the kinds of businesses that would be difficult to sell and therefore, we should just shut down because they create no value for you and they are a distraction for us.”

Company heads and armchair CEOs everywhere inhaled the news and held it for a long time. They wondered about what it might mean for the likes of K2, Marker, Völkl, Dalbello, Morrow, 5150, Liquid, Line, Ride, Olin, Madshus and more—to just disappear. It certainly wasn’t illegal or immoral, but was it a good business move? Was it a rash decision?  Was it a total dick move?

Eventually, some poor PR guy got saddled with cleanup duty, clarifying that the new Newell wasn’t actually going to pull the plug, but would instead seek out a buyer at a “full and fair value” who “shares our interest in unlocking their full potential.”

But The Quote was already out there, as were the reactions.

“I will plead the Fifth on this,” said a director of sales at a ski industry company that I know you know. “I don’t think what I really want to say would be PC for print in the position that I am in … though I can certainly narrate over a beer or two.”

“I have some opinions, but I’d rather hold them close to my chest,” said a marketing director at another ski industry company that you definitely know.

Battle Call

While eyebrow arching and negativity were easy to find, some independent brands saw The Quote as less of a challenge and more of, well, an opportunity.

“What really tweaked people about The Quote was the sentiment that if skiing isn’t a ‘growth industry,’ then all of our brands should just be liquidated. We know that our day-to-day work in the ski industry isn’t here to save lives, but we also know that skiing gives us all a little something extra to enhance our lives. It’s something that a growth-oriented private equity guy will never understand, but skiers always will,” said Dan Abrams, founder of Flylow.

For Abrams and the Flylow crew, the arrival of The Quote kicked off a flurry of phone calls and emails, and led eventually to a lengthy blog post:  one that naturally reinforced their independent roots, their non-corporate governing structure, and the fact that they’re actually skiers.

The unexpected part of the post for Flylow, however, was ending up in the curious position of decrying the possible demise of a massive, publicly traded competitor.

“K2 … is part of the fabric of American skiing. K2 is Phil and Steve Mahre, Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake, Seth Morrison, Shane McConkey, Coombs. K2 made the first fiberglass ski. Their first skis were red, white, and blue for God’s sake. If K2 were to shut down shop, that would be a sad day for skiers. So here’s an idea: Let’s all rally around and host a giant gear swap and raise enough pennies to buy K2 back,” read the Flylow blog post.

Flylow’s stance wasn’t alone in the indy ski world, as other innovators and disruptors also stood tall for the big brands on the chopping block.

“Big brands are definitely critical to any industry. Big brands can efficiently communicate a new message—whether product or direction of your sport—worldwide with the most credibility and trust. Big brands reach the mainstream consumers that otherwise may not be aware of the smaller micro brew style brands that don’t have the bandwidth to reach as many people,” said Jason Levinthal, the iconic founder of Line and current operator of JSkis.

Levinthal harkened back to Line’s early days in the 1990s, when the brand was trying to get somebody—anybody—to pay attention to the idea of twin-tip skis. He said it was like pushing meat uphill until a couple big brands got on board and launched their own twin tips. Ironically, the arrival of the big brands “exponentially” increased Levinthal’s sales at Line.

Yet while Levinthal praised the invisible hand that helped his nascent brand surge forward (and eventually be acquired by K2), he was less flattering about the reality of publicly traded brands owning ski companies.

“Reality is, the ski industry is not growing, it’s shrinking so the only way to accomplish annual growth is by spending less while selling the same. In a flat business, this can only be accomplished by making cheaper product, reducing the number of employees, reducing athlete and media support, less marketing, ultimately investing less and less of the money made back into the brand and the sport. This leads to an automatic death spiral driving sales down, thus requiring more cutting and so on. Eventually the public company comes to the conclusion that they are done squeezing blood from a rock and it’s time to sell it and look for the next brand to purchase to do the same,” said Levinthal, in a guest post on

Some felt that the uproar was too little too late. “If people are upset about (K2 and others being sold), they should have been more upset when Jarden acquired them in the first place,” said Stephan Drake, Founder of DPS Skis.

Brand Loyalty

The skier’s brain is a funny thing. People can’t remember the exact details of the last powder run they took, other than the fact it was awesome, and they frequently end up on the same tree run off the same side of the same summit lift. We are not strong in the short-term memory department it turns out.

But when it comes to our gear, we are wickedly loyal. People have a deep connection to their gear because those boards in the back of the truck are the only ski partners in the world that we actually, truly need. And when that gear is made by folks like you, who share some common passions and set of wintry values or two, that loyalty drills down even deeper.

“I think ‘independent’ means that you’re owned by people who work at the same place as the rest of the workers, not owned by some distant corporate entity or stock holders,” said Chris Valiante of 22 Designs. “It’s been great to see the U.S.-made ski revival over the past decade. Hopefully the Newell debacle will end up being a big step toward more domestic ski manufacturing.”

In the many reactions to The Quote, there were also a number of folks who offered up fantasies about buying one or two of the brands, maybe on the cheap, by convincing the CEO over a boardroom table (or a 12-minute gondola ride) of the benefit of handing over the keys. It would be a deal that every true skier could relate to. It would put a few iconic brands into the hands of the 100-day club. And it would come with a Quote of its very own. Like this one, from Valiante.

“Hey Mike … if you can’t find a buyer, we’ll take it off your hands for $500 and a case of beer.  What do you drink?”

Drew Simmons is the president and founder of Pale Morning Media, an independent traditional and digital public relations agency specializing in the outdoor world.  He grew up skiing at Eldora and Mary Jane, started his family as skiers in Jackson Hole and now skis mainly in the trees of the Green Mountains.

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