Four Australian moguls who matter in snow business

The ski and snowsports retail industry is a multi billion-dollar industry worldwide, and Australia is a big part of that. In fact, we are the top international inbound market to some of the world’s most popular ski destinations, such as Aspen, Vail (US), Whistler (Canada) and Niseko (Japan).

So it makes sense that Australians contribute to innovation in retail, outer wear, accessories and skis.

From liftie to director

Tony McWilliam

Going big: Tony McWilliam.

Melbourne-bred Tony McWilliam lives in the most coveted destination for big mountain extreme skiers, Verbier in Switzerland. The former liftie at Falls Creek is the co-founder and design director of Faction Skis, stocked in more than 20 countries and over 200 retailers.

Frustrated with existing ski designs not answering the demand of consumers' tastes shifting towards big mountain powder skiing, McWilliam (who completed a bachelor of Art in Industrial Design at RMIT), discovered a small factory south of Evian in France, which lent him its ski press so he could start experimenting. This was in 2003.

“I remember the first year driving across the border on Christmas Eve with 40 pairs of skis hidden under a blanket in the back of a borrowed car,” says McWilliam from Verbier, the home base for Faction HQ where he employs eight staff with another four in London and three in Colorado.

“We're very early adopters for a lot of new technologies. As a product designer I'm always looking for new ideas and materials. We were very early experimenters of different camber lines featuring rocker in our skis, and also adopted recycled ski cores in a collaboration with legendary French rider Candide Thovex three years ago.

"This year we're launching outerwear with a revolutionary lightweight insulation material called Aerogel that was developed by NASA.” 

Anthony Symonds and Simon Blondel of Le Bent

Dynamic duo

Anthony Symonds and Simon Blondel (pictured above) have known each other since birth. Their parents lived side by side in a semi on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Symonds, a snowboarder, has been obsessed by business since age 14 when he discovered the stock market and then went on to study business at UTS.

“I didn’t even go to school,” says Blondel. “I was a total rebel, wagged all the time, skied and surfed. Spent my young adult years living in Europe as a ski boot fitter and skiing big mountain. Anthony and I did two seasons in Val D’Isere together.” 

Today the two are business partners in Le Bent, a merino bamboo blend outerwear company that began as rumblings in 2009, launched with ski and snowboard socks in 2011, and branched out into base layer thermals this year.

“We realised the sock market was flooded,” Blondel says.

Adds Symonds: “But the saturated market gave us an opportunity to come in with an innovative brand, as [everyone else] were resting on their laurels."

Blondel: “We didn’t want to compete against merino brands or bamboo brands so we took the best of both to create a bamboo merino blend. We draw a very minimal wage - you could drink it away in one night in Thredbo. All of our investment goes into product testing with the CSIRO. ” 

“It is still just the two of us,” adds Symonds. “We don’t need staff members at this stage. The way we run the business we have minimised fixed overheads, we stay lean and mean and use contractors rather than staffing costs and fixed property overheads.”

Something is working as Le Bent has experienced 100 per cent growth in 2012, 2013 and is again on track for the same in 2014.  The winning formula of wool and bamboo means base layers don’t smell and those who can’t wear wool due to allergies find the high bamboo content nullifies the problem.

Caroline Graham of SKBoot

Downsizing retail to succeed online

Brisbane ex-pat and now Park City, Utah resident Caroline Graham (above) was frustrated carrying ski boots over her shoulder onto a plane while travelling with a huge suitcase, carry-on and handbag. Like most skiers she dared not check in her boots for fear of arriving without them.

“I was certainly the first company to come up with a wheeled ski boot bag in the traditional ski boot bag shape,” says Graham, founder of SKBoot: a boot bag on wheels that can be taken on a plane as cabin baggage.  

“Most ski boot bags at the time were over the shoulder rather than on wheels. So I decided to put my bag on wheels for ease of use. We launched in late 2009 in Australia first and then in 2011 in the USA.” 

SKBoot has changed business models in recent years, downsizing retail sales and concentrating online, moving away from the Australian market to focus on the US market.

“Our sales have increased every year by 50 per cent, so I think our change in tactic is working.” 

The Aussie Skier showroom

Online only

Richard Ross is the co-founder of online ski retail business Aussieskier.com with his business partner Tim Gale. Aussieskier.com is the first large-scale Australian retailer of ski equipment to have a completely online-first focus.

“We do maintain a physical location (above) that acts as a showroom for our warehouse, that is a key part of our strategy. But all of our operations revolve around our online presence” explains Ross. 

“We have computers in our showroom that allow customers to browse our site, watch our reviews on our YouTube channel, check out independent reviews on gear, and look at competitors sites so we can price-match.  

"We reached our first-year revenue goal two months early, and year-to-date in 2014 we are running at approximately 240 per cent over our very successful 2013 figures.” 

Ross and Gale have received some resistance from retail competitors, who have had a closed-shop attitude towards online sales within the industry.

“Customer service is hardly an innovation, but in our opinion it should be the clear, number one goal for all businesses in the Australian ski industry,” says Ross.

“We have an 'always-on' approach where we are available for our customers via whatever channel they prefer. We are contactable at all hours by phone, email, live chat and social media and you can’t do that without an online presence.”

Rachael Oakes-Ash is a ski and snowboard blogger.

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