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Small snowboard shops make their mark

Cindy Kleh
Special to the Daily
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As the number of snowboard manufacturers dwindled in the late 1990s, very few small companies were able to ride out the tsunami of consolidation without millions of dollars to spend on ads, hype and sponsorship.

As snowboard manufacturers took less risks in innovation, some riders were bummed that most of the boards on the market were Burton lookalikes.

The very essence of the sport, originality and bold thinking, had been swept under the rug, as big companies battled each other with enormous marketing budgets, buying the best riders in the world for their company teams.

A few manufacturers were able to hang on and draw support from this small group of riders who wanted more than the big guys were offering. One of those companies, Unity Snowboards, was able to survive by handcrafting high-end boards that lasted longer and performed better than the multitude of mass-made boards that were becoming more common.

Mad scientists

Unity Snowboards was started in 1996 in part of a small shop in Silverthorne by Paul Krikava and Pete Wurster.

The two are high school friends from Wisconsin who migrated to Summit County and learned the art of snowboard manufacturing from local legend, Steve Link, the mad scientist of snowboarding who owned Summit Snowboards.

Krikava and Wurster moved Unity to a new and much larger factory in Silverthorne in 1997, and were able to produce 600 boards a year by themselves. Krikava and Wurster were also the advertising executives, the research and development department, the salesmen, the factory workers, the team managers and shop janitors.

The pair worked their butts off making boards all week and driving to demo days on weekends at resorts in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states.

Unlike the big guys, they gave away very few boards or T-shirts. Each year, the two enjoyed a steady 30 percent growth increase by finding a niche in the snowboard market – riders who wanted a snowboard of exceptional quality, meticulously handcrafted in the heart of the Rocky Mountains by snowboarders who personally tested their product in the company’s backyard.

Unity usually sold out of boards and finally hired some employees.

“We have been able to stay alive as a small company by sticking to a definite business plan to be a local, regional company and spread from there,” Wurster said in January 2000. “We haven’t overextended ourselves with expensive advertising. Instead, we’ve grown slowly by word of mouth. We’ve also been efficient in hitting sales centers in our own backyard.”

Top 10 triumph

Krikava sold his share of Unity to Wurster in 2001, and moved back to Wisconsin with his wife to start raising a family. Wurster took over as chief executive and then, it happened. In August 2002, Transworld Snowboarding magazine’s annual top 10 freestyle boards of the year included Unity’s Pride 159.

The board test was conducted at Mammoth Mountain that year, and consisted of eight testers who rode 65 boards a minimum of two runs per board over five days.

The boards were masked so the testers didn’t know which brand they were riding. The testers raved that the Unity Pride was “bombproof and light” and “superb overall.”

What that meant to Unity was a 50 percent growth in the next year.

Luke Wynen, 2002 Vans Triple Crown half-pipe winner, approached Unity and came on board as a team member. Unity always had a small team of talented, no-nonsense riders who were with the company because they wanted to ride the best board – not for the big bucks or to see themselves glorified in two-page color ads in the board magazines.)

So, what could be better for Unity? Making the top 10 list again the following year.

That test was done at Copper Mountain, with four out of the five testers separately rating Unity in the top three.

“We will be maxed out here at this factory at 2,000 boards,” said Wurster, who finished up this winter’s production in October at 1,500 boards. “Then we will have to expand. It’s a great position to be in … to have retailers calling me.”

Transitional times

While Unity has been growing in leaps and bounds, K2 has managed to squeak by with modest profits by buying up smaller sporting goods companies and manufacturing all but a handful of K2 boards in China.

Burton has been sliding a little. For the first time in 26 years of the snowboarding business, Burton did not show a profit. In fact, it posted a 7 percent loss last year.

Amid job cuts – one-tenth of the company, or roughly 60 jobs have been shed – founder Jake Burton took a year off to ride around the world, and Laurent Potevin took over the reins of the top snowboarding company in the world at a time when the market was getting much tighter. The 36-year-old Potevin says he sees Burton’s future as a multi-brand “global lifestyle products” company.

His toughest task may be going after the lucrative youth market while not alienating Burton’s core customers.

Potevin says he plans to wean his company from its dependence on snowboards and hard goods by focusing more on apparel and outerwear. Burton’s newest clothes line – Analog – will open an office in Southern California this spring.

Women’s world

Most snowboard manufacturers, meanwhile, are now focusing on the one segment that is growing – female riders.

There have been women’s snowboarding boots for over a decade, because women’s legs differ from men in the width of the heel and a lower calf muscle. This difference is critical in how a boot fits.

But now there are women-specific boards that are designed to take advantage of women’s smaller feet and mass, with a narrower width for quicker control on turns and more flex to compensate for less body weight.

When women’s boards first came out – (about the same time as women’s boots – they were merely smaller versions of men’s boards with pretty graphics.

Women-specific bindings accommodate for women’s lower calf muscle with specially designed highbacks. Women are definitely being catered to by the snowboarding industry these days.

This is good news for us ladies who began by riding men’s stuff and wearing unisex sizes. Pros like Hannah Teeter, Gretchen Bleiler, Kelly Clark and many other daring women riders are stepping up and showing the world 900s and McTwists. They are giving new meaning to the phrase “ride like a girl.”

Donna Vano, South Tahoe Snowboard Series co-director and pro inline skater, has been around sideways sports most of her life.

This 50-years-young freestyle star grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles and made her first skateboard by taking apart a pair of metal rollerskates. She moved to Hawaii at 17 to be a pro surfer but cancer sidelined her for a while. She skied and inline skated until 1992, when she tried snowboarding because skiing bumps was killing her knees. She has dominated the USASA Nationals for years and is well sponsored.

“After the last Olympics, I saw more girls interested in snowboard competition,” Vano said. “Guys in this sport are so much more supportive of women than in other sports. It’s a lot tougher for women to get into skateboarding.”

Cindy Kleh lives in Keystone. She is an avid snowboarder, author of snowboarding books and a freelance writer.


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