Vail Daily column: Klaus Obermeyer, 94 years young
Ryan Summerlin December 13, 2013
It was nice to congratulate Klaus Obermeyer on Dec. 2 on his 94th birthday. I think he is the ultimate entrepreneur in the American ski industry. He owns and manages the largest ski-only clothing company in America. His trip to the top was not an easy one.
When I first met Klaus in July of 1948, he was way over his head digging a hole for a septic tank for Flush the Plumber in Ketchum, Idaho. I knew Flush as I had planned on eventually hiring him to do the plumbing in my log cabin that I would build on Trail Creek.
After Klaus climbed out of the 8-foot-deep hole he had dug, Flush drove us both down to his log cabin on the Big Wood River. Klaus had recently arrived in New York City with $10 and two pair of lederhosen. While he was hitchhiking to Sun Valley he sold the two pair of lederhosen (short leather pants) and his $10 bought him enough food for the long trip.
His first full-time job in America was digging that septic tank hole for Flush while he was waiting to hear from Otto Lang about a job in the Sun Valley Ski School. He had also applied for a job with Freidl Pfeiffer at the brand new resort in Colorado called Aspen.
We had an immediate kinship when he told me how he had skied all over Europe for an entire winter without spending any money whatsoever. We understood each other!
While skiing all over Austria, he had managed to somehow get his hands on a 35-millimeter movie camera and then show up at a resort. There he would convince the local tourist director that he was producing a major theatrical ski movie and needed six ladies that were good looking and good skiers to perform for his camera. Since his supposed business was unique news, he got a good write-up in the local newspapers, and soon the ladies were being scheduled for interviews and being tested for their ski ability.
Once filming started, Klaus would run the same roll of film through the camera over and over. The filming did not start until Klaus had spent a few days of free skiing while he was scouting the surrounding mountains for the “proper locations” for this epic ski movie called “There Never Was.”
This was one of the many stories that Klaus told me when we took our epic three-week trip together throughout the West.
Klaus and I had both hired Flush the Plumber’s wife to work for us all winter in her log cabin making our specialty ski accessories.
If you can remember the pompoms the girls in high school wore on their saddle shoes? Klaus had turned them into a necktie and convinced the local Sun Valley ski shop that they were imported from Bavaria and were the latest rage in ski resorts all over Europe.
I would later find out what a good skier Klaus was when we got to Alta, Utah, together in the early winter. But not before our monumental journey together selling his imported-from-Sun Valley Koogie ties and my nylon-parachute-shroud, guaranteed-for-life ski-boot laces. (Imported by being manufactured in Ketchum, Idaho.) I sold a pair of my laces for $1 retail. They cost me less than 10 cents a pair to buy the parachute shroud and the dye then for Mrs. Flush to burn the ends and die them in her kitchen.
We lived in the back of my ’46 Ford business coupe that I had hollowed out to live in when I went on my many surfing trips in Southern California.
Our three-week trip was from Sun Valley to Seattle and then down the West Coast to Los Angeles and from there to Salt Lake City. We called on every ski shop along the way and never missed selling both of our one-of-a-kind products. After three days of skiing while living in the Alta parking lot, I said goodbye to Klaus at the Salt Lake City Trailways bus stop and went on to Sun Valley to teach skiing that winter.
Klaus went on to Aspen where he went to work for Freidl Pfeiffer teaching in the Aspen ski school. It was a very cold winter, and his pupils froze and took days off because they were waiting for Klaus to invent the down quilted parka several years later.
Ski boots in the ’50s were very uncomfortable, so Klaus invented an inflatable bladder inside a boot, and that also was a best seller in the late 1950s.
Today, Klaus operates out of an industrial park by the Aspen airport that I would not be surprised if he also owned. He no longer sells his infamous Koogie ties, but it is estimated that he sells between $30 million and $40 million worth of ski clothing annually.
For all of those reasons and a lot more, too, we have chosen Klaus to be the Entrepreneur of the Year at our annual fundraiser for the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation dinner in February at The Yellowstone Club in Montana.
Our foundation teaches young people basic business practices and to think like an entrepreneur. It is a 10-week course taught by a local teacher. We believe that America’s strength has grown on the backs of small-business owners and will continue to do so with hard-working people such as Klaus.
When I caught up with Klaus on the day before his birthday, he had just finished laps in the local swimming pool and was at his 100-acre ranch 25 minutes downvalley from Aspen.
When we talked we reminisced about sleeping in the ’46 Ford and cleaning up in gas station restrooms, putting on our neckties and then getting the ski shop addresses out of the yellow pages and selling to them, one shop at a time.
The unanticipated consequences of that meeting in the septic tank hole in Ketchum many years ago would be hard to believe if you wrote a book about it with footnotes. As a matter of fact, I have just finished a book about those good old days when there were less than 15 chairlifts in America. Colorado only had two and they were in Aspen, and Idaho had four in Sun Valley. I wonder what the two of us together might have dreamed up if we both lived in the same ski town. But a tremendous friendship was the result.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to more than 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto www.warrenmiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to www.warrenmiller.org.