I’ve been a skier for 35 years and, as my friends and family will attest, it’s an obsession. I’ve owned dozens of skis from all sorts of brands over the years. But, interestingly (for a brand guy), there has never been one ski brand to which I was particularly loyal. The brands themselves all seemed interchangeable and none represented anything meaningful to me. For a sport that generates such passion in its users, that’s a huge missed opportunity.
Things changed for me last year when I discovered Liberty Skis, a small manufacturer from Avon, Colorado with a passionate fan base, some of the most industry-award-winning skis of any company, and sales that are growing by double digits each year. I now have two pairs of Liberty skis and have never skied better… or had more fun. Every time I see another Liberty skier, we share a knowing nod and a huge smile, as if we’re in on some incredible secret. I’m now loyal to a ski brand in a way I’ve never been loyal before and, naturally, I wanted to explore the meaning behind it.
Last week, I had the great privilege of sitting down with Liberty Skis Co-Founder and Chairman Jim Satloff to better understand the magic behind the company’s brand, culture and products.
What I found was a fantastic example of how a “higher purpose” can create the holy grail of branding: an “everyman cult” built around an elite-yet-affordable product that competes in a land of corporate giants not by stealing market share but by expanding the market for all.
What first drew you to the ski industry?
I grew up in Rochester, New York in the 1970s and all I knew of skiing was driving to local hills or to Quebec for the weekends and skiing typical eastern terrain. At 11, my parents took me out west to ski Vail and it was just a completely different experience and I fell in love with it. So much so, that the next year, I took the $95 I had earned from my paper route (delivering the Democrat & Chronicle) and I bought 10 shares of what was then known as “Vail Associates” over the counter. That was the first common stock I ever bought and I knew right then and there that I wanted to be affiliated with the ski industry.
I know you had a long and successful career in consulting and financial services before starting Liberty. What made you decide to start a ski company?
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, almost all manufacturers followed the European racing ski model: very narrow and heavy. They didn’t really make the skis that I wanted to ski on. I was looking for the kinds of skis that made skiing much more fun, much less serious and less racing-oriented.
Most ski brands look to build on a racing pedigree, don’t they? Your approach would seem to suggest a different vision of what skiing is all about.
Exactly; it’s meant to be much more fun. Skis you can take off-piste, into side-country, through the woods. But with a 65mm-wide racing ski underfoot, you just can’t have as much fun in those conditions as you will with a wider ski. In 2000-2001, the first true “powder skis” began showing up in heli-skiing and ”powder 8” competitions. But they were incredibly heavy and not practical for most skiers. They were just the same racing skis made wider and heavier. Basically, no one was making the skis my cofounder and I wanted to ski on and we saw an opportunity.
What is Liberty’s origin story?
In 2000-2001, I met Dan Chalfant, who was a friend of my youngest son’s ski instructor. Dan was from Maine, had an accomplished racing background, and was a highly sought-out boot-fitter at Surefoot with a real passion for customer satisfaction and making sure people were comfortable in their boots. We shared the desire to create a better skiing experience for everyone, not just racers, and we began talking about starting a company.
In 2003, we went to the Ski Industry Association (SIA) tradeshow in Las Vegas to do some recon, identify suppliers, and talk strategy about what kind of skis we would make. While there, we decided to take a break at the craps tables. Dan had always wanted to learn the game, and I knew it fairly well, having taught Discrete Mathematics (and odds-based form of math relevant in craps and various dice games) part-time at Columbia University. So, we sat down at a table and I began to show him the basics. We put down $300 and walked away with $30,000.
Are you kidding me?!
No, dead serious. And that was the moment we founded Liberty! They say going into the ski business is a gamble. In this case it literally was! And God’s honest truth: we paid for our ski molds the next day with cash from the casino cage. We didn’t even have designs yet. The casino upgraded us to suites and comp’ed all our meals for that year and the next. So, now we could take buyers out to fancy dinners that we could never have afforded. In almost no time, we had product, buyers, and a business. It was crazy. This is also why Liberty was incorporated in Nevada and remained that way until just recently (it’s now a Delaware-based corporation).
So, what makes Liberty’s skis so different?
First, is the use of bamboo in our skis. In addition to being a world-class boot-fitter, Dan is also a world-class fly fisherman and he was intimately familiar with the performance characteristics of bamboo in fly rods. It’s light, incredibly resilient and sustainable. And no one else was really using it. So, we knew we wanted to incorporate it into our skis. But not just any bamboo. We sought out a specific kind. It only grows in a handful of places around the world where nature has genetically adapted it to winds that come from every direction, not just one prevailing direction. That means it will return to its shape no matter how, or in what direction, it is flexed. And it makes for a ski core unlike any other.
Second is the width of our skis. We were among the first to begin producing a recreational fat ski engineered for all-mountain fun with twin tips. 4FRNT (out of business) and Line (part of K2) also started producing them about the same time but we were all ahead of the curve. Our first breakthrough ski in 2005 – the industry’s first 100mm wide ski – was called the “C-note” (as in a $100 bill). Today, that’s not even considered wide, but at the time, people thought it was crazy. They soon realized that in many conditions, wide skis actually make it easier to initiate a turn and hold an edge. On a wider ski, the center of your foot is farther away from the edge of the ski, so the same amount of ankle roll produces greater edging and more angulation through turns.
We also experimented with a lot of different radii. The shape of our skis is not a simple parabola. Dan uses many different radii in a ski to increase the amount of edge contact right through the last few centimeters of the turn.
All these things add up to a completely different skiing experience. One that’s easier and more fun.
Is that what customers tell you?
You know we hold these “demo days” at different resorts all season, and people come back with a huge smile on their faces and they don’t want to give the skis back, but we’ll have all these other people in line waiting to try them. We love that. They’ll say to us “Wow, I just love these skis!” or “These are the skis I should have been on my whole life.” Or “They just feel like an extension of me; the equipment doesn’t feel like it’s separate from me.”
All ski companies talk to each other about how they promote sales, but for us, the simplest and best sales tool we have is just to put the skis on someone’s feet.
What defines the Liberty brand, today? Is it an “elite” brand? Do you want to be seen as an expert’s ski?
No, not really. For a top-quality product, our skis may even be slightly less expensive than many other brands. But we’ve sort of become a cult ski for every skier, not just the best skiers. It’s true, many of our skiers are more advanced, but Liberty skis will make any skier a better skier. And we don’t need to be the most expensive ski. That’s not who we are. We’re about creating the ski experience everyone wants to have.
And that experience drives how we make skis. Take women’s skis for instance. There is an expression in the industry that so many manufacturers follow, which is “shrink it and pink it.” Basically, it means you take a men’s ski, make it smaller and make it pink, and “Bingo, we have a women’s ski.” That not only shortchanges half of our market, it’s also not how you win awards for having the best women’s ski. You do that by building from the ground up for a different kind of experience. And we have indeed produced the most-awarded women’s skis. We’re doing the same with a line for younger skiers now, too.
That’s how we can expand the market, find more niches to appeal to, and get more people participating and out onto the mountains. We’re really trying to increase participation in the sport using our product. We’re very excited when someone picks up the sport because of our skis.
Is that the company’s purpose? To increase participation? Is that in your mission statement?
Well, we don’t have a mission statement per se, but if we did it would be “to allow people to have more fun in the mountains.” We have this new tagline “In the Mountains, Details Matter.” And simply, the details are really important. That’s what separates you from the pack. And everyone at the company lives in the mountains. We’re not a conglomerate. We’re not owned by private equity. We’re owned by skiers. One of our top sales reps is 78 years old! He was written about in Powder magazine recently; incredible guy. Retailers are very smart about the brands they will trust. The fact that we’ve been around for 15 years says a lot. There is a saying in this industry that “Every year, 15 new ski companies start, but 16 go out of business.” I don’t remember if it was Woody Allen or Yogi Berra who said “50% of success is just showing up,” but showing up the next year (and every year) is a hard thing to do. And growing 15 years in row means we’re doing something right.
What’s the biggest challenge the industry faces?
The biggest problem is that it’s expensive to participate. For a lot of reasons. The equipment is expensive. The lift ticket is expensive. Getting there is expensive. Seen as elitist, it becomes inaccessible to many and as a result, it’s not even an aspiration for many young people. My feeling is that if skiing were more accessible, more people would ski, and the industry would benefit. The aim of every manufacturer should be more skier days, and you only have two ways to make that happen: you either get more ski days out of the people who already ski, or you get new people skiing. Skiing is one of the most freeing feelings in the world and most kids never get to experience that. We donate skis to help people try it out and not face that expense. In the past, we have worked with organizations like SOS Outreach and others to help get at-risk or troubled youth out and into the mountains. I see that community contribution and dedication to increasing participation as part of our brand and culture.
How else is the Liberty brand reflected in the culture you are building there?
We try to be very respectful of the mountains we live in. Respectful of our environment. We use sustainably grown bamboo. We buy wind credits to offset our energy usage. We use dense-pack for all shipping. We also respect our customers. One of the ways we show that is by having a three-year warranty on our skis: longer than anyone in the business. And we allow people to be individuals. There is an individualism we see in our market. Sort of the opposite of the European racing ski market, where everyone wanted to be on the same ski. In our market, everyone wants to be on a different ski. Not that they are better than the next skier, but they are different. They are an individual and they want to express it through their skiing and their skis.
How did you come up with the name Liberty?
We loved what the word “liberty” meant. It can be translated in every language and means something positive. Everyone wants liberty. It means freedom in so many different ways. Freedom to ski the way you want to ski. Freedom to ski on what you want to ski on. Freedom to be different from everybody else. Freedom to express yourself. That’s why, at the end of the day, people have a smile on their faces when they ski our product.
You’ve really pulled off the holy grail of branding, creating a cult brand with universal appeal – maybe not for racers – but for everyone from beginners to elite skiers.
It’s true. But even the racers love Liberty. Because, at the end of the day, after they are done training, they want to go have some fun, too! They’ve been working hard all day. So, they kick off their racing skis and go click into their Liberty skis and now they have that big smile on their face too!