Taming a rogue sport – Avalanche Snowboards Inc – Making It – Company Profile
Janet R. Beales
A ski-slope chairlift might be an unconventional place for a marketing meeting, but it helps Bev and Chris Sanders, founders of Avalanche Snowboards, Inc., stay on top of business. “We snowboard a lot,” says Bev Sanders, marketing vice president for Avalanche. “Every time we go, we learn what the market wants.”
Shaped like a fat ski a snowboard enables its rider to surf on snow. Though teenage boys latched on to snowboards at the outset in the early 1980s, women and younger children have taken up the activity.
While riding the chair, the Sanderses can note snowboard jumps and tricks that might inspire future snowboard designs. They talk with fellow snowboarders. The teenager next to them may wear a nose ring and shapeless pants, but he spends an average of $00 for his snowboard equipment and represents the Sanderses’ prime customer m a burgeoning market. Snowboarding has been the nation’s fastest-growing winter sport the past five years, according to Ski Industries America, a trade group in Mclean, Va. Snowboarders account for 14 percent of U.S. lift-ticket sales, says the National Ski Areas Association, in Denver.
The Sanderses founded Avalanche at Lake Tahoe, Calif., in 1982, when snowboarding was just getting off the ground. Chris built the boards by hand. Whenever they went “boarding” at local ski resorts, mesmerized kids would follow the pair back to their car to ask questions–and buy boards. “That’s when I decided, `Wow, this could be an incredible business,'” says Bev. She persuaded Chris to quit his job as a building-materials manager to concentrate on Avalanche.
Today the company sells 20,000 snow boards annually in 13 countries. A spinoff company, Universal Bindings, annually produces and markets 40,000 pairs of snowboard bindings, plastic devices that attach a rider’s boots to a board. The two companies, in Benicia, Calif., share 25 to 50 full-time employees, depending on the season.
At first, however, ski resorts, fearful of accidents, were cool to snowboarding–and its teenage, counterculture clientele. Persuading ski resorts to allow snowboards was harder than selling the boards, says Bev. But once the resorts relaxed their rules, demand for snowboards took off. Avalanche could produce only a handful of boards a week. “There was just no way we could carry on,” she says. “Chris was working every night till 3 o’clock in the morning, up to his elbows in epoxy.”
So in 1985, designs in hand, the couple went to Austria and got Pale Ski and Sport, a ski manufacturer in St. Stefan, to agree to make Avalanche boards. Elated, Chris and Bev eloped to a Greek island and were married.
A decade later, both partnerships are still going strong. Avalanche sells 20 different boards at retail prices ranging from about $240 to over $500; outlets are sporting-goods, ski and snowboard shops. Each model is designed by Chris. Several of his innovations have become industry standards.
“The early boards that he was making were radically different from the stuff out there at the time. Subsequently, everybody conformed to some of those designs,” says Daniel Boyce, owner of Performance Snowboarding, a mail-order snowboard company in Fairfield, Conn.
Avalanche caught the attention of Bob Edwards, an executive with a diversified sporting-goods company After failing to persuade his employer to buy Avalanche, Edwards left to join the Sanderses in 1994 as their company CEO and partner.
Sales of Avalanche and Universal products will reach $.1 million this year, double last year’s figure. And Avalanche, the 12th-largest snowboard company, expects to increase its market share as the industry matures. “With 250 snowboard companies in the market, we’re going to need power, some capital, because we know there’s going to be a weeding out,” says Bev.
An event in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan, snowboarding is going mainstream and is promoted as a family activity. Says Bev Sanders: “It’s no longer the outlaw sport that just appeals to teenagers.”
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