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Seeing with your feet

Montana Ski Company carves its niche in a changing industry

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Local knowledge built in

There’s a tribe of Whitefish skiers who routinely turn tight clusters of snow ghosts into a series of gates. They bash between lodgepole and fir, seeing only one at a time, making fast, swiveled turns along the soft edges of tree wells.

MacDonald and Anderson say regional ski companies hold an advantage because this kind of constant R&D is already happening. If you ski in Montana, or in similar terrain from Sandpoint to Whistler, Montana Ski Company offers something like a rifle with its scope already sighted in. They know what you are going to see—and not see—out there, and they claim to know exactly how you want your skis to feel.

This pitch is repeated by other small, independent companies hoping to poach market share from dominant brands like K2 and Volkl.

In Salt Lake City, 4FRNT company president Matt Sterbenz uses YouTube mini-lectures to frame himself and his company as part of this budding revolution.

Sterbenz recalls his company’s first trip, in 2004, to the annual SnowSports Industries America convention, known as the SIA show. By joining the annual industry gathering, Sterbenz helped provoke a healthy conversation about where commerce meets the soul of skiing.

Sterbenz tells his YouTube audience that when he showed up at SIA, “People looked at us as though, like, ‘Are you stupid? Do you really think a ski company can just start up and just start selling to retailers in North America?’”

Anderson believes Montana Ski Company and at least half a dozen other independent American ski builders stand poised to step out of the garage and into a growing number of retail spaces. CFO MacDonald says Montana Ski Company hopes to move from pressing a couple of hundred boards a year to a couple of thousand. He also wants to eventually relocate the company’s manufacturing space in Spokane to an industrial area between Whitefish and Columbia Falls. This move will be financed in part by retired NFL star Drew Bledsoe, one of the company’s founding investors.

MacDonald and Anderson know that 71 percent of the $533 million ski market is controlled by the top five ski companies: K2, Volkl, Rossignol, Atomic and Salomon. But compared to microbrewing, the ski market picture looks less like David and Goliath. In brewing, the big few guzzle around 90 percent of sales.

It’s a natural comparison: Like beer, skis come to life when the right mix of ingredients, heat and pressure meet inspiration and local tastes.

The Montana Ski Company’s full line will be on display for the first time at the SIA show, Jan. 31 through Feb. 3, in Denver. It will be a coming-out party for the Skookoleel and other wood-cored creations inspired by and tested in the steep, snowy forests of northwest Montana.

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