Avon-based ski manufacturer Liberty is now nationwide and in 20 countries
December 7, 2016
AVON — James Satloff and Dan Chalfant were in Las Vegas for the Snow Sports Industry Association about 13 years ago, strictly for market research, of course. And in the name of research they dropped a few bucks on the craps table. Their bucks began to multiply like election-year campaign promises and before they could say, "How much?!?" they'd won $30,000.
"We started with $300," Satloff said. "I was trying to teach Dan how to play craps."
They used the money to launch Liberty Skis in Avon, which are now available in more than 100 locations across the U.S. and Canada, and 20 other countries. They just wrapped up their national sales meeting.
Skis for all skiers
Professors in high brow business schools might turn up their bespectacled noses at playing craps to raise startup capital, but it worked for Satloff and Chalfant.
Here's the thing about winning: The casino comped them their hotel suite and almost everything else. They invested some of their $30,000 in wooing ski industry retailers. Some of the rest of they spent on molds — bought with $100 bills from the casino. Because Benjamin Franklin's face graces the $100 bill, for Satloff and Chalfant it really was all about the Benjamins.
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"What was great was that we won so much money, the casino comped us everything you can imagine; rooms, suites, and we were able to have incredible dinners with ski shops that we otherwise couldn't afford — all on the casino's dime," Satloff said.
They've spent 13 years earning it. You can now buy Liberty Skis in more than 100 locations across the U.S. and Canada, and 20 other countries.
From Avon to the world
Liberty just finished its national sales meeting, based out of its intergalactic headquarters, a 1,500-square-foot-warehouse just up Avon's Metcalf Road. Unassuming digs for such a successful crew.
Sales have been growing at about 20 percent a year; demand always exceeds supply.
Success attracts success. Liberty recently landed a round of investments that will enable them to increase production, Satloff said. A second round of investments should close in 2017, another big step in their 13-year journey, Satloff said.
"It's been a 13-year journey for us," Satloff said.
Living the lifestyle
Liberty is 13 years old, but it still has an all-hands-on-deck startup feel about it. Maybe it's the foosball table and ping-pong tables downstairs, or maybe it's the fly rods waiting in fiberglass cases. There is no dust on the golf clubs stacked in the corners of offices.
The company museum is in a rack hanging from the ceiling, packed with some ski designs that were brilliant, and others not so much.
Chris Sears, Liberty's chief operating officer, points out the back window where the crew can look out — and often do — to see Beaver Creek rising majestically across the valley. In fact, Saturday afternoon of last weekend's national sales meeting was spent skiing.
Along with designing and building revolutionary skis, perhaps the Liberty crew is also revolutionizing the business meeting. No on-mountain discussion took longer than a 15-minute lift ride, because … we gotta ski!
Because Beaver Creek is right there, they spend all kinds of time product testing.
"It's a huge advantage for our company to be located here. We can see what works and does not work very quickly," Sears said. "New designs, new prototypes, we can test them for a couple hours right away."
Liberty's bamboo ski core was Chalfant's idea. Chalfant is Liberty's CEO and ski designer. And how does one become a ski designer, we hear you ask?
"You start a ski company and there's no one else to do it," Chalfant said smiling.
Chalfant is one of those magical fishermen who waves his fly rod like a magic wand and fish throw themselves at him. He loves bamboo rods — as do lots of serious anglers.
Chalfant is one of those guys who asks, "I wonder what would happen if …" then tries it. In his case, he wondered what would happen if he built a ski around his beloved bamboo.
Something wonderful, that's what. But not all the time.
He didn't have any ski design background, but one of his brothers is an engineer and the other is an architect. They helped him with the computer programs he needed, and the rest he figured out through trial and error … lots and lots of error, he said.
"Trial and error 'Frankenstein' projects," he said smiling and shaking his head. "Some of the first ones were OK, some were not so great, and others were terrible and were never produced."
"But you have to have those failures to learn it. If you just hire someone to do it, you'll never learn as much or be as connected to your product as you'd be if you took the time and tried different things," Chalfant said.
Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants on earth and can be harvested without cutting down the forest canopy or root system, and creating erosion.
Liberty gets its bamboo from southern China, where it has to stand up to typhoons.
The ski poles are bamboo veneer over carbon fiber. Between the skis and poles, they weigh less than a clear conscious.
Liberty skis carry a three-year warranty, which Satloff says is the longest in the industry. If something goes wrong and you send your skis back, a new set goes out the next day.
"We're all skiers. We know how much you want to get back out there," Satloff said.
Tim Dyer, Liberty's national sales manager, was alpine product manager for Fisher skis. He was a college ski racer and one of those magazine ski testers.
"We're kind of a craft company. It's sort of like craft brews making inroads against Budweiser," Dyer said.
They have won more awards in the most recent years than any ski manufacturing company, "Not just any small ski company, but any ski company," Satloff said.
That works like this: Ski magazines or online publishers will blind test skis, hundreds of skis. When they're done they pick a winner. More than any other ski, they chose Liberty, Satloff said.
"They're frequently called the best skis ever made, which is really quite humbling for the people who started the company," Satloff said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.