Company Callout: Head Skis is making moves in good directions
Skis—fat skis, park skis, race skis—line the walls of reclaimed beetle-kill wood from Colorado’s mountain forests that serve as the backdrop to Head USA’s product showroom. The showroom, in Head’s Boulder, CO, headquarters, is just one example of how the company has embraced the Boulder (and Colorado) way of life since moving its US base from Connecticut two years ago. In addition to other stereotypical Boulder activities—composting, recycling, vegan-cuisine and generally being year-round badass athletes who occasionally wear skin-tight clothing—ski culture is a big part of the city’s identity and employees are encouraged to embrace that. They can use the company’s ski equipment in the winter and are provided a stipend towards part of the expense of a season pass if they purchase one.
“I can actively engage in a ski culture in the town that we’re in,” describes Andrew Couperthwait, Head/Tyrolia Wintersports senior business manager. “That’s a huge change from Connecticut, being 65 miles outside of Manhattan, skiing is not in the forefront of people’s minds.” Twenty percent of all skier visits in the United States occur in the state of Colorado. A bounty of snow-sports retailers, media groups, athletes and resorts set up home base in the state. Colorado is synonymous with the sport of skiing, yet Head remains the only major ski-manufacturing brand that calls the state home.
James Heim in the Whistler Backcountry, shot by Bryn Hughes
Head’s move to Boulder is a step towards re-establishing itself as a key player in the world of freeskiing. Sure, the company’s race heritage is well known in Europe. And the marquee signings of X Games champs Kaya Turski and Simon Dumont were big news over the last couple years, but many see Head as just an old, out of touch brand trying to get a piece of the freeskiing pie. However, in an industry where indie brands are popping up more often than zits on a 13-year-old, Head Skis has been a mainstay for more than 60 years. Just don’t forget they’ve been involved with the sport of freeskiing since it broke away from bumps-and-jumps freestyle.
For the 1998-99 season, Head introduced the twin-tip Air HEAD 140 and Air HEAD 170. Jon Olsson rode their replacement, the Mad Trix Mojo, to superpipe gold and slopestyle bronze at Winter X Games VI. The evolution of the Mojo series continued, and alongside, a Jon Olsson pro model, the JO Pro, was developed. Head went on to sign names like Grete Eliassen, Tim Durtschi and Oscar Scherlin to its roster, and in 2007, put out a five minute freeskiing edit called Evolution.
As time went on, the company retained the services of Jon Olsson and James Heim, but by 2010, the roster had thinned out. The freeskiing side of the brand was in decline, while the race team, stacked with athletes like Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso, was topping podiums and winning medals.
In 2011, the signing of Dumont breathed new life into the freeskiing side of the company. Citing a winning environment bolstered by the race department, Dumont agreed to a three- year partnership that quickly jumpstarted Head’s visibility among the core audience. Just a year later, Head relocated its United States headquarters to Colorado’s Front Range to better connect with the mountain sports community on a local scale while still conducting business on a global one.
The company continued to build on this momentum with signings of top-level athletes Turski, PK Hunder and most recently, Aaron Blunck. “We’ve really tried to reposition Head in the North American winter sports mindset as not just a race brand,” says Couperthwait. “But as a brand that is involved in all aspects of skiing. And we truly are.” That repositioning has attracted a string of freeskiers, veterans and up-and-comers alike.
Just because Head has moved its US HQ and is highlighting its freeskiing team doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten the European side of the operation, specifically that piece of the heritage focused on the skis.
Across the pond in Austria, Tyson Bolduc provides an extension of the athlete’s voice and American frame of mind at Head’s global headquarters. In February 2012, the former freeski athlete from Vail was appointed to the position of freeskiing product manager and international team manager. Having relocated to the headquarters in Austria, Bolduc is the liaison between athletes and engineers in the development of new products. “They brought me over here as an opportunity to add a new voice and build this side of the sport and incorporate the products into the line.”
While overseas, Bolduc constantly communicates with athletes and the rest of the North American team. “Working with the Boulder office is a very important aspect to how we’re moving forward and positioning ourselves in the freeride and freestyle market because they have great location and great connection to the industry being located there,” he says. Athletes such as Dumont and Heim worked closely with the team in Austria on development of the latest Caddy and Flight Collection skis, and continue to work on new projects going forward. For a veteran like Heim, who has been working with Head for his entire ski career, the new commitment is a breath of fresh air that comes through in the skis. “Last season was my favorite year working with Head products,” says Heim.
Simon Dumont at Keystone Resort, shot by Nate Abbott
“I worked directly with [Tyson] and designed a new big-mountain charging ski. This will be a much more specific ski design for higher speeds and cliffs, but it also still shreds the inbounds terrain.” This example of an athlete being excited to talk about new projects sends a strong signal that the company is in healthy condition.
Bolduc’s role as conduit from athletes to engineers doesn’t come without difficulty though. He moved to Austria with two duffel bags and a backpack. Although he’s more settled personally now, he still deals with language and cultural barriers on a daily basis. He tends to speak English when in meetings or discussing product, relying on a support team to translate for anyone who doesn’t speak the language. “Unfortunately, there’s always the game of telephone,” he explains. “There’s always a little bit of emphasis lost in translation, which is my biggest challenge.”
To further support the team, Bolduc returns to the US during periods of heavy competition, where he keeps the athlete perspective at the front of his mind and proves himself an incredibly important piece of the company’s puzzle. That backing from Bolduc, ski tech support and the conveniently located Colorado office, is another draw for athletes.
“Having the Head HQ right in the same state is so nice,” says Blunck. “They will help you with anything you need. It is sweet to just head down there and in the same day make it back up to my house with new stuff for training and comps.”
Contest skiers like Blunck, Dumont and Turski also benefit from Head’s racing roots on event days. “Having technicians there from Head at the start of every event is so nice,” says Blunck. “No matter what happens to your equipment, you know you can get help from them.”
While Head and its athletes can relax knowing that their ski line is the upshot of the intense R&D process, the commitment extends beyond sending new skis, boots and bindings to athletes with a good-luck note in the box. “We were able to offer these athletes a support system that they didn’t see with their past sponsors, and, quite honestly, no one was really doing in freeskiing,” explains Couperthwait. “In ski racing, we have technicians that are particular to those athletes. We’re actively working with them on their equipment, customizing, getting it perfect for them. We were able to take that mindset and incorporate it into freeskiing.”
Any ski company—whether well established or in its infancy, European or American—faces tests that range from engaging young consumers to making quality product. Being a complex transatlantic company, re-emerging in the freeskiing sector and also graced with a storied history, Head faces aspects of all those challenges. To meet that reality head on, Bolduc, Couperthwait and the rest of the team work with athletes, bringing their knowledge and opinions to the R&D process. For a brand that not so long ago seemed to be sliding away from the freeskiing world, Head is utilizing key players to steady itself among top the contenders.
This article originally appeared in the 2013 November issue of Freeskier, Volume 16.3. Freeskier Magazine is available via the iTunes newsstand.
About the author:
Donny O'Neill hails from the mystical, faraway land of New Hartford, CT. When he's not in the mountains searching for Big Foot, he's the Associate Editor here at Freeskier.