The Mervin office in Seattle-housing Gnu, Lib Tech, Supernatural, and Bent Metal bindings-isn’t known for being the tidiest place around. The walls are dripping with skate and snowboard artifacts. Old boards are everywhere, as well as years and years of posters. There’re no rules against painting the walls, and graffiti is actually encouraged. Some of Seattle’s best urban artists have been paid with snowboards to tag the walls. Even former teamrider and Northwest legend Mike Ranquet has added his touch.
The rich legacy of Mervin Manufacturing started long before the first Gnu board hit the slopes. Founder Mike Olson was inspired to start making snowboards after seeing a photograph of someone turning on a nondescript, twin-tip snowboard in a 1977 issue of Skateboarder magazine-the shot was simply titled “Ski Board.” Under the name “D.P. Gravity Harness Snowboards: No Guarantee,” Olson’s new boards were ridden at Ski Acres (the first resort to allow it) by the few skateboarders living in the Northwest.
The D.P. Gravity Harness masterpieces were built in Olson’s basement and later in his Pacific Lutheran University dorm room. Then in 1984, Olson made a move that would dictate the course of his life for the past eighteen years-dropping out of school to make snowboards full time. Several parties had promised him help in starting a company, but both Kitter Waterskis and a friend named Mervin (the company’s namesake) answered him with, “Well, we didn’t think you’d really quit school.”
With no one willing to help, Olson set out on his own. Looking for assistance wherever he could, he enlisted his college roommate-who quit soon after because it was 1984 and he didn’t see a future in snowboarding. Olson took a couple of weekend classes in business and marketing, learning that he needed a short name for his new company. Gnu was born as a three-letter version of wildebeest and a temporary label. After a year-the name stuck.
The growth of Gnu was phenomenal, and in 1989-thanks in large part to its team, including Mt. Baker Hard Cores Dan Donnelly, Mike Ranquet, and Amy Howat-the company was out of control, selling 20,000 boards a year. But as is inevitable in all relationships, Olson, his partner Fred, and their worldwide distributor Winline had a falling out. The brand name Gnu disappeared as the crew disbanded … and from the rubble came Lib Tech Snowboards.
Actually a skateboard company first, the name “Liberachi Technologies” came from an original flowery skateboard graphic that reminded Olson and friend/partner Pete Saari of the flamboyant pianist. While the name Gnu was being fought over, the two abandoned it all together and started making Lib boards. One year later, Olson and Saari got the rights to Gnu back. Because they already had some florescent-pink bases with the Gnu logo lying around, they decided to kill the brand by producing the worst-possible boards for one year. But the pink-based shredders accidentally worked well, and Mt. Baker ripper Jason Basarich chose to ride one. Pretty soon, he had a signature model, and Gnu continued to flourish. Today, riders like Danny Kass and Barrett Christy have helped to elevate Gnu to the same respectable status as Lib Tech.
Bent Metal bindings, named after the bent pieces of metal that they are, started in 1992 at the inception of the baseless bindings. And the newest addition to the Mervin family is Supernatural. Former Lib pro Dave Lee is in charge of the company, dealing with the marketing and business side of things, and everyone at Mervin helps out wherever need be.
Unlike most board brands-whose products are manufactured overseas-all Lib Techs, Gnus, and Supernaturals are made in one of the two Northwestern factories. At the Seattle office, 50 employees (90 percent of whom snowboard), toil in advertising, engineering, sales, and team services, as well as production. The office is sprawled across a factory that is always expanding. In 1993, the company builtt its second office on the Olympic Peninsula in a town called Carlsborg, conveniently located four minutes from surf and seventeen minutes from snow. This enables product testing year round. One-hundred percent of the 40 people who work in the Carlsborg factory are snowboarders. Each factory focuses on a different line and every few years the brands switch, giving each employee a chance to work with all of them.
Mervin tries to keep everything in the family. Currently, a new Hawai’ian-style building is being constructed for the art and marketing departments by the father of Lib pro skateboarder Alex Bland who’s using the dead trees around the Carlsborg factory. The electricity for the building will be generated by burning the sawdust created by snowboard manufacturing.
It’s been said that once you’re on the Mervin team, you never leave. Matt Cummins has the longest-running pro model in the history of snowboarding, and riders generally stay faithful. Mervin still gives boards to people who were on the program in the 80s. And longtime Lib pro Jamie Lynn has stepped up from just painting boards to being full-blown art director this year. He works on his own as well as with other artists to modify and lay out graphics on boards.Team members stop by whenever they are in town and can be found skating local parks, and taking advantage of the slots cars in Seattle and go-cart tracks of Carlsborg factory. A concrete bowl is also under construction on the Olympic Peninsula.
On top of job security-Mervin is one of the few brands to keep most of the their employees on year round without seasonal layoffs and has retained an amazingly low turnover rate over the years. For production employees it’s a full day of making snowboards and a midday skate or BMX session. Workers get benefits like season’s passes, free snowboards, and free lunch every Thursday-a perk that has been around for nearly ten years. Mervin Manufacturing has had some dignity since 1977 and will continue in that tradition for years to come.
Photo: Chris Owen