The story of a guy who’s influenced snowboard product through three decades
When I ask Mike Fox which products he's most proud to have had a hand in developing, he rattles off six: The adidas Tactical ADV, ThirtyTwo UltraLight, Burton Sabbath, DC Ply, and K2 Fatbob. If you've been snowboarding since the latter on the list debuted, you're likely able to note the pattern here. Fox has played a role in the development of iconic pieces.
"I'm just a snowboarder; that's it," Fox replies when I inquire as to how he got started designing product. But as the story unfolds, it begins with his days as a rep—the second K2 Snowboarding rep there was. The first was in the Northwest, and he took over the Northeast territory, after helping out the K2 Skis rep, who was also handling the brand's snowboard business before they assigned to it Fox. He immediately identified a need in the Fatbob.
"It was kind of a novelty board when it first came out. I saw a real need to change it up and make it a high performance mid-wide board. We were like, 'Okay, the Fatbob's going off. But it needs to be more high-performance; it needs some decent sidecut. Make it big enough, but not crazy wide.' The first one was massive; I think the waist width was like 28. And it only came in one size: 166. So I gave a lot of feedback to product manager Cameron Andrus on that board because I'm a big guy, and I saw my feedback directly influence it."
But it was at an early K2 sales meeting that the motivation to really delve into the product development side of the industry sparked for Fox.
We were a pretty tight group. We used to have round tables with reps and some of the key riders, and then the senior management team from K2. We would all get together. One of the spots we would always hit was down near Bend in Sun River. We would get a place in the spring and have a big pow wow with new product ideas. Man, this one year, we were really hammering on the boots, and the product manager got so upset with me. He was like, "Fox, if you think you can do it better, why don't you make the boots?" I walked away from it, just like, maybe I should be making the boots. And that sparked it. I took a risky leap. I had kind of burned myself out on sales. I rode the wave of snowboarding's massive success in the '90s…. But I got to a point where I was like, I need to sink my teeth into building something, rather than just selling it.
So Fox moved on from K2. At the time, Atlantis, Type A, Division 23 were all relatively prominent brands in snowboarding, struggling financially. They had been purchased and put them the same umbrella with Kemper. Here, Fox took his first full-time product gig, handling development for the four brands—something he knew little about and had no formal training in.
Me and a couple friends from back East all decided to move to Southern California, which is what you do, right? This one guy, Jay Joffe, purchased a bunch of brands but wasn't sure what to do with them. So I did the product, my friend Tony Deleo did the sales, and our other friend Jack Coghlan did the marketing. We were just a three-headed monster doing four brands at once. It was crazy. I took my first trip as a product guy going to factories in Asia. It was so hectic. I went to something like 13 factories in 10 days. We only had it going for a couple years, but it was a fun couple of years. I learned so much in that short time. Trial by fire.
Then, where so many industry jobs have sparked, it was on the SIA trade show floor that Fox stumbled into a role with Burton.
A friend who worked in human resources at Burton was walking down the hall and she was like, "Mike Fox! I got a job for you!" I was the boot product manager at Burton for the next five years. That was awesome. Burton was much more refined. Instead of juggling so much at once, I could really focus in and refine what I was doing because I was part of a product team.
It was during his time in Burlington that Fox refined his craft, worked with some of snowboarding's most legendary and influential riders, and helped develop some of the product he's most proud of.
Especially from a style perspective, the [Burton] Sabbath is one of my favorite designs I've worked on. It has a lot of meaning as well. It was when the Un.Inc team had just started. Designer Maurizio Molin and I got together with those guys and had a late-night product discussion. The creativity was definitely flowing. They were coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas. It was one of the last times I got to work with Jeffy Anderson, and he was so into the idea of the moccasin and the deco stitching and all the extra details. He sold it to everybody. He was like, "We gotta do it! We gotta do it!" I remember the first sample came in, and it was immediately like, "Oh yeah, no doubt. That thing is going to be a winner." I always ask people, "What was your favorite boot of all time?" And if you're a snowboarder who's been around since the early, mid 2000s, it's almost always one of the Burton boots from that era. Things like Speed Zone lacing, we came up with during my time there. We were a tight crew, and we made some awesome stuff. Boots really progressed a lot. That whole team is life long friends now.
After Burton it was onto Soletech.
Yeah, ThirtyTwo. I was there for a few years. I was the boot product manager. It was different. At Burton, I had a dedicated designer, and that was an amazing relationship. He's still one of my best friends to this day. When I shifted to Soletech, I walked in and they had a room full of skate shoe designers, and it was like, "This guy is going to help with one boot, and that guy is going to help with another boot, and this guy is going to help with another boot." It was tricky, but it was also cool, because the ThirtyTwo line at that time needed an evolution and each piece had its own personality. That was when the TM-Two first came out. We also did the Ultralight.. That was a good time at ThirtyTwo, for sure.
But after almost a decade dedicated to boots, Fox wanted to expand his horizons, and the timing lined up well with DC entering the hardgoods market with snowboards. So that's where Fox went next—down the road to DC.
It was an evolutionary time for DC boots, because we came out with the Judge, which I think still stands as DC's most iconic boot. But the board program was what I was super excited about, and we got a great design team together with Joe Blecha as PM, Johnny Q on engineering and Vivid Minds crew running point on graphics. The [snowboard] team at that time was so good too. We had Iikka [Backstrom], Lauri [Heiskari], Devun [Walsh], Halldór [Helgason], Chas [Guldemond]. The evolution of the boards went unbelievably fast. One board we did was the Ply. That was the first board that we worked with Torstein on, riding with him and listening to his needs and picking up on it. He still really wanted camber—an aggressive board, but a little bit more forgiving at the contact points. That camber profile we came up with, which is basically just a center camber to flat tip to tail—everybody at that time was either just doing straight up camber or reverse—was one of the first of its kind. We got a Good Wood first year, and I was really proud of that board.
But once again, Fox felt it was time for a change and decided to move on from DC. Enter adidas, where he works currently as the category manager for snowboarding.
I started with adidas as a freelancer. The first trip I took for adidas was pretty rough. The boots needed some work. They worked for some people. But one of the keys to a successful snowboard boot is that it has to be versatile. It has to suit the needs of a lot of different kinds of riders and foot shapes.
As someone who was working at a shop during adidas’ first year in the boot market, I can attest that the boots worked well for some and not at all for others. Fixing this problem became Fox's goal when he started with adidas.
For the first couple years helping out, it was tough. People just assumed, "Oh, it's adidas; their product is going to be on point." Even before I came to work here full-time, I think I went to China ten times for adidas. Trying to fix the boots, trying to work with the factory. I think it was right around mid summer when we got word that our factory was closed for good, and to get a sample line ready to sell for next fall that quickly is insane. But we did it. We shifted to a new factory that adidas had a relationship with that was building boots already. They were making boots in a very unique way and it didn't really suit what we wanted to do. It didn't really jive with the tooling and all the other things we had built and invested in, so that was a bit of a challenge.
But obviously the expectation was there for a brand with as many resources and as much collective footwear knowledge as adidas to be making snowboard boots at the highest level, and according to Fox, it seems they've figured it out.
We moved into a factory that is one of the pinnacle factories for the adidas brand. This is where all the super tech high-end running shoes are made and some techier soccer cleats. They took a look at the snowboard boots and were really excited about the potential. They really want to innovate. They saw this category and said that's a place where innovation can really shine. So they supported it, and they're doing some unique things with their production that's resulted in this rapid progression of the boots. The first sample was so solid. Then the second, third, fourth generation—they just got better, and better, and better, to the point where I just really feel like, in only two years at this factory that had never made snowboard boots before, I am confident that we're making the best snowboard boots out. We've finally got everything dialed in right where we want it. It's incredible that the boots can keep getting better, but they do, and they're so consistent. The boots we're going to be delivering this fall to shops are the best yet. I'm really stoked.
And adidas should be making boots at the highest level. But what about the team side of things and how that plays into both the brand as a whole and the development of its products? adidas has recently appointed team rider Alex Sherman, aka Wizard, from his role as a team rider into a team management position.
Wiz is our TM now, yeah. When the program first kicked off—before I got here, with Jake and Kazu and EJack—the team was icons. Like holy shit, wow, adidas is really getting after it. But I think a shared vision for what the brand was going to look like on snow was lacking. We just had these iconic guys. I really feel like Wiz being one of the anchors of the next generation of adidas snowboarding with Tommy [Gesme] and Derek [Lever] and Ben [Bilodeau]. I really feel like now, with Alex as the anchor, this new generation of guys that are on our squad that just really have that shared vision.
And as category manager for adidas Snowboarding, Fox works extensively with these athletes to develop boots and outerwear that meet their standards and preferences. Kazu Kokubo, he explains as "particular."
I think he was like 13 the first time I had a meeting with him—when he was Burton rider, a little guy riding stiff boots. Which is funny, because now he's a bigger guy but he rides soft boots. He definitely is very particular with his needs, and he's actually kind of cautious and careful about his feedback. He likes to be precise and really exact. It's interesting because he likes to work with a translator. He doesn't want to misspeak or express something incorrectly. This last winter, because I was so confident in the boots, I said "Alright, we're going to do all the demos." In early January, we brought in a bunch of key account guys, did a product launch in Japan, and Kazu came. The first night after we all rode together, we're at dinner, we start having a little discussion about product feedback, and to see his eyes brighten up and to see his personality come out—because he's in a room full of Japanese guys all talking about product in Japanese—was so cool. He is an amazing guy and rides too fast.
Louif Paradis, Fox says is less particular when it comes to product.
He goes with the flow. I'd almost like him to take a stand a little more. It's like everything we send, he's got nothing but good things to say. He's always keeping it positive, which is rad; I love that. He's definitely a sunshine guy, but hit me hard when you need to. But I think he is genuinely stoked on the product, so that makes me happy.
And what about Forest Bailey? His influence is seen on so many of the products his name appears on. From his 686 outerwear, to his Dragon goggles, to his Gnu snowboard, to his adidas outerwear and boots. But what is it like to work with someone as creative as Forest?
Forest is local. He's right here in Portland. I get to spend a lot of time with him, and he checks in quite a bit. His creativity is off the charts. It's always good to have a guy like him roll through. He knows the whole crew so he rolls through giving high fives, going skating with the guys. One thing with Forest that's tough is that for boots, it's such a conservative category. In the boot market, the vast majority of what is sold is black. Somebody like Forest wants to unleash his art and colors and creative vibe onto a boot, which can be tricky to balance.
Now that Mike Fox is decades deep into a career pushing snowboard product to be the best it can be, I ask what advice he has for someone looking to enter the industry, specifically on the product side.
Things have changed so much since when I got started in the industry. I mean, when I started there was hardly an industry to figure out how to become a part of. Now it is an established industry. At University of Oregon, they even have a product management program. You can go and get a degree in product management. It's pretty amazing. Obviously, design schools have gone through the roof. If you want to be a designer, there are incredible programs that you can get involved in. There's a lot of ways to get after it through school.
But it always comes down to the same thing for Fox: snowboarding. He returns to this sentiment throughout our discussion:
I'm a firm believer in snowboarding.
That, I agree, is most critical notion for anyone who makes a living off snowboarding to remember, but in itself is not a defined path. Fox offers this:
I think the thing that a lot of people are missing, are those roots in knowing who the customers are. One of the first things I always tell kids is go get a job at a shop. Get to know customers. Get to know what real snowboarders are all about, and what they really want. They may not be who you think they are. There's all kinds of people who want to snowboard. Working at a shop trains you like nothing else. Then for shop kids, who want to take the next step, the first thing I ask is, "When was the last time you turned screws for a rep at a demo for free?” That's the path. I think more kids should be going after it and trying to get after that path. Now, with social media, and the internet and everything, kids think they're going to start a super-brand overnight. They're forgetting that there is some rootsy hard work that has got to go down first. Get in touch with who snowboarders really are.
And this understanding is what has taken Mike Fox from the Fatbob to today, here in Portland on this bench in the sun we're sitting on outside adidas' US headquarters. He is a snowboarder who understands snowboarders and wants us to have the best product to enjoy it with.