CHANGING PLACES—CHANGING FACES IN THE SKI INDUSTRY
By Ron Bergin
It's been anything but quiet in the ski biz world during the last 12 to 18 months as numerous acquisitions have reshaped distribution chains, realigned ski-boot-binding system alliances, shifted geographic locations and adjusted personnel almost to a company among the top Nordic ski equipment manufacturers. And though some of this may be "old news," here's a quick overview to help you "follow the bouncing ball" of changes within the new and maybe improved cross country ski marketplace.
Rossignol's purchase by the snowboard manufacturer Quicksilver started the wave of changes. Initially it did not appear that there would be major changes within the Williston, Vermont-based Rossignol, but the decision soon came down that all operations would be moved from its long-time Vermont base to Park City, Utah where a new "Mountain Center" would house not only Rossignol, but sister brands Dynastar, Look and Lange. The new "Mountain Center" officially opened in Park City on June 1. The Mountain Center's Park City base puts Rossignol right in the center one of North America's most buzzed-about alpine communities. Former Nordic manager and present Rossignol Alpine Division Manager Kurt Hoefler said, "Everything that touches the consumer will maintain its own separate identity. But when it comes to the dealers it's going to make it much easier to work with us. Within the Center we can service all the brands."
At the core of the move from Williston west, Hoefler said, was the desire to live and breathe what the company was selling – namely, mountain fun. "You put all the elements together—all the great mountains, a longer season on snow, an international airport 30 minutes from the office, the world's best superpipe in our backyard, the U.S. Ski Team offices and all the backcountry action that's going on in the Wasatch—and it really is incredible," said Hoefler. Obviously, the move means a lot more on-snow testing as well. There's also easy access to meetings with major western specialty retail clients in Utah and Colorado, as well as the bi-annual outdoor industry convention down the road at Salt Lake City's Outdoor Retailer trade show.
Rossignol's original intent was to maintain its race department offices in Williston. However, former Nordic Race Team Manager Jim Fredricks has decided to move on and the Rossi Team will now fall under the purview of Geoff Hurwitch, Race and Nordic Product Manager and Robert Lazzaroni, Nordic Division Manager USA and International Nordic Boot Product Manager.
Following the opening of the Mountain Center, the Rossignol Group announced the restructuring of its U.S. organization. This restructuring will focus on the development of the organization's business units and will capitalize on a new, collaborative organization supporting all of its brands.
Amer Sports" acquisition of Salomon NA in 2005 initiated a domino effect of changes in pre-existing marketing and branding relationships. In addition to Salomon, Amer, a Finish holding company, had also previously purchased Atomic USA and sister companies Wilson Sporting Goods, Volant, Suunto and Precor.
Here's where the dance begins. Atomic, as a result of its new relationship under the Amer umbrella, which had previously used the Rottefella NNN binding, is switching to Salomon profil and Pilot bindings across its boot lines. Fischer, reading the hand writing on the wall, announced that for the 2007/2008 season it will jump from the Salomon system to NNN.
Further complicating this web of inter-mural liaisons is the fact that Salomon's new ski lines are manufactured at the Fischer plant in Austria. It is likely that Salomon will now seek a new source for its skis. As an aside, Rossignol's second tier ski also bears a "Made in Austria" tag and is also manufactured at the Fischer plant.
Another aside: for 2006 Atomic picks up the former Toko line of poles, jettisoned by the company in 2004. The high end carbon fiber poles will be marketed as the Atomic World Cup pole. Independent of these changes, Fischer U.S. President David Auer, has announced several key promotions within the Fischer staff. Peter Ashley assumes the newly created role of V.P. Nordic Division. The Nordic Marketing and Race Departments will report directly to Ashley. He will continue to be in charge of Nordic sales and sales representatives as well. Other recent appointments at Fischer include the naming of Andy Canniff to the new position of Director Nordic Marketing.
K2 Sports has acquired the Line ski business and the exclusive rights to the Karhu North American Nordic and Telemark brand from Burlington, Vermont-based Trak Sports USA, Inc. The majority of Karhu and Line's operations were relocated to the K2 Sports headquarters on Vashon Island, Wash., late this summer. K2 already markets K2 alpine and tele skis as well as Madshus Nordic ski brands and distributes products in approximately 44 countries.
Karhu's roots go back to the early 1900's when the brand was founded in Finland. Operations were launched in Canada in 1976 to market cross country and backcountry ski products in North America. Doug Barbor, who started Karhu's North American operations in 1976 and has been with Karhu ever since says, "With K2, Karhu is in very good hands to continue to build the brand in North America." "Karhu has a rich history in North America for developing ground breaking products for skiing out the back door or deep into the backcountry," said Charles Lozner, Brand Director for Karhu Sports" ski division. "Today the brand is driving and benefiting from the resurgence in Telemark and Nordic skiing."
With the addition of Karhu, K2 gets a new brand to ride into the outdoor market where, with its brands Atlas and Tubbs, it already owns the vast majority of the business in snowshoes. Although Karhu and K2 Telemark will complement and compete in vertical-freeheel, Karhu's line of touring and cross country skis could provide a new opportunity for the company with outdoor retailers.
"I think Nordic is a really important part of the equation," said Lozner. "Especially in the touring category with the XCD ski. Telemark and fitness are two of the places where there's growth in this industry right now."
In an early June press release, however, K2 Sports announced that Karhu will deliver all previously placed Telemark and Nordic ski orders to dealers, but will not produce, deliver or market Karhu Nordic boots, SNS Nordic bindings or Karhu Nordic poles for the 2006/07 winter. Lozner indicated that Karhu will resume production of these products the following season.
Though among the big names in the industry, Alpina has maintained somewhat of a lower profile over the past few years. That began to change last year, however, when Alpina Sports assumed distribution of several new product lines, including START waxes and One Way poles. In addition, Madshus the number two ski worldwide and distributed by Alpina Sports in North America, will roll out a complete new line of boots in the U.S.
What does it all mean? It really is hard to say. Added product lines and distribution are good—giving skiers more to choose from and perhaps leveraging competition to better pricing. However, with fewer companies assuming greater ownership of the major brands, it does make one uneasy about the potential for monopolistic control of the industry potentially leading to fewer choices and increased prices. Time will tell.