Q&A with Mike Kilcheinstein of RAMP Sports, handcrafting skis in Park City
There are a lot of small, boutique ski companies popping up around the country, including here in Utah. Viice, Bluehouse, and Surface are just a few examples, and now there’s a new player in the local ski manufacturing community. RAMP Sports recently built a ski factory in Park City where they are making skis by hand and are currently in full production for the 2012/13 season.
I sat down with Mike Kilcheinstein, the President of RAMP Sports, to find out what makes this new local ski company different, and how they’re finding their place in an already crowded ski market.
UtahOutside.com: What is RAMP Sports?
MK: It’s a new company that’s literally only a year and a half old. It stands for riders, artists, musicians project. I think it’s an interesting collaboration where we have Olympic and X-Games athletes and musicians from different bands that are involved. It’s a new approach to how you market, sell and produce action sports equipment.
UtahOutside.com: What are some ways that make RAMP different from a typical ski company?
MK: In the beginning, when we were doing our design work here, we were doing our sourcing overseas like a lot of companies do. So in the beginning I think our biggest difference was our business model. You know, instead of doing business the way everybody else does where you have a big network of dealers and a big wholesale network and infrastructure, we decided the consumer is not being paid enough attention to. So we completely refocused our energy almost exclusively on the consumer. So we let them buy directly from us and let them interact with us directly. They can be reps for us and all that kind of stuff.
I think one of the weaknesses now is the fact that as business became more difficult, a lot of the companies cut their marketing. You can’t get rid of your credit department, you can’t get rid of attending the SIA show, and all the things you’re kind of stuck with. So I find what happens is marketing budgets keep getting cut and it gets harder and harder and harder to communicate with your customers. So we want to make sure that the thing we could do the best is communicate with our customers.
So we’re much different I think from a business model standpoint. We also have had a strong desire to take complete control of manufacturing and design and everything else, so we built this new factory here so we can do that.
UtahOutside.com: I hear you make skis differently than other companies as well. Can you tell us about that?
MK: The biggest difference I think is the idea of going from the old traditional press type molding to a vacuum molding process. I don’t believe anybody else in the industry is doing that right now.
In a press molding situation, you use huge industrial machines and they have a camber plate underneath that shapes the camber of the ski. They crush everything down against that at about four atmospheres of pressure, so they force all the layers to form to that shape. And then they harden in the shape of the ski. In this new vacuum molding process, it’s about a quarter of that much pressure, and instead of the pressure being downward forcing everything against the camber plate, all it’s doing is squeezing evenly from every direction. And so what happens is, the tip and tail are forced into the curvature of the ski, but the whole contact point is in its natural state. So the reason that the skis would have camber is because while they are cooking in the oven, once they’re under vacuum, each different layer expands differently from the heat. Every element in the ski has different thermal characteristics so all the layers expand to their natural shape from the heat and are not being forced into the shape. Then when everything cools, the layers at the top generally contract a little bit more than the layers on the bottom, and you end up with a camber in the ski.
So what were finding with our testing is that the vacuum molding gives the ski a much bigger sweet spot because the layers are more in their natural state.
The other thing that we’re doing is we’re spending about triple the normal price on core material. Skis are normally made with poplar wood core, which is a really strong, light, hardwood that’s the best wood generally being used right now. But we are using FSC certified bamboo that’s four times as hard as poplar.
The quality of it is amazing. I’m not used to cores having very much of an impact on the behavior of the ski, because if you think about it from a structural standpoint, the core is more like a filler or a spacer that separates the composite layers that determines the flex. But this bamboo is having a significant influence to the ski’s feel, which is just rock solid because of how hard it is.
We’re really really pleased with our early results.
UtahOutside.com: So you’ll have a full line of skis to sell this winter?
MK: Yeah this year we plan to make around 1,000 pairs of skis, and ultimately a lot more than that. But that’s a good start.
UtahOutside.com: How much are your skis going to cost?
MK: I think we’re going to price them pretty typically. The powder skis are going to have an MSRP of around $1,000. Expert, all-mountain skis will be around $860-$880. But we are going to give people a better value on our website through the direct price that we offer. So a pair of those powder skis would be more like $750. So despite the fact that our skis will be made right here in the US, we can still give people a really good value on them.
UtahOutside.com: Tell us about your background in the ski industry and why you started RAMP Sports.
MK: I worked at Rossignol for 32 years, so that company is definitely in my blood. But I started there like two days out of college in the factory making skis. We used to have a factory in Vermont that was making 4,000 pairs of skis a day, and my first job there was making wood cores and then molding and quality control. Then I was a tech rep in the east and the west, then a sales rep in new England for a long time, and then I was sales manager. When Quicksilver bought the company I was VP of sales and marketing, then I managed the Roxy start up. Then Rossignol was sold again, so I started working on RAMP Sports. It gave me an opportunity to start something new.
UtahOutside.com: Where can people demo or buy RAMP skis?
MK: You can go to rampsports.com where we always have our demo schedule. We have lots of free demos where people can come and try the equipment.
To purchase locally we sell here out of Jans in Park City. They are our local dealer and those guys are awesome.
UtahOutside.com: It seems there are a lot of small, boutique ski companies popping up all over the place. Do you see this as a trend that’s going to keep going in the future?
MK: I think in consumer spending in general, I look at something like beer when everybody used to buy Bud. And now people love Wasatch and Fat Tire and Full Sail. They like the local beer that’s a little more personal. I think there’s also a perception that there’s more high-quality in these small shops where there’s so much passion for the business.
I think in some ways it’s challenging for some of the small companies, because I know it’s extremely difficult. So one of the things I want to do is open up this factory for some of the small brands, because we can do small runs of product efficiently. We can help a lot of the small companies have access to R&D, more development and that sort of thing.
But ultimately consumers are the ones driving it, and they like the idea. It doesn’t mean the big companies like Rossignol or Volkl are ever going to go away, and I think there’s a lot of people that feel very comfortable buying from those kinds of companies because they know them. But I think there’s an awful lot of people who like the idea of small brands, just like all those people who like the small microbreweries. They want something that feels more personal, more quality. It’s just a different mentality
I also think there’s a resurgence right now in American manufacturing that’s just in the very beginning sort of groundswell. Because we’re such leaders in technology here, we’re going to find clever ways to overcome cheap labor, and I think a lot of companies here are going to find that a customer would rather buy local, so I think that’s what will drive it.
UtahOutside.com: Anything else you want to mention about RAMP Sports?
MK: There’s a huge green element to our company. We ship our skis and snowboards in a padded ski or snowboard bag so people don’t have the waste of all those boxes. We also buy back any old ski or snowboard for a $50 credit and make them into stuff like furniture. We also buy 300 pounds of carbon offset for every ski or snowboard we sell.
Also, when we started manufacturing here, we found this new resin to use from a US company that’s pine byproduct base versus petrochemical base. It’s working great. We’re getting a really good cohesion and really good performance. So we’re trying to do things the right way. We buy our energy from Rocky Mountain Power that’s produced by wind, and we have two proposals to turn our front area into a solar power generating station and also install a windmill. I think in less than five years it would pay for itself and then we would have free electricity. So we believe pretty strongly in trying to do business the right way. I think people would prefer to buy from those kinds of companies. We’re trying to build this company around that kind of thinking.
For more information about RAMP Sports, check them out at www.rampsports.com