K2 Saas Fee Line Preview, Part 3

On the third day of the K2 04/05 Line Preview, the weather broke and it was game on. Super on. Bluebird. Powder. Ecstasy. Just what the doctor ordered. It was a day to clear out all the smoke and alcohol we had been absorbing in two days and nights of heavy European bar time.

Of course, there’s nothing like hitting a ski resort at an elevation of 11,000 feet for your first day of riding for the season, and having powder to boot. Needless to say, some of us felt hung over, fat, and out of shape—but the skies were clear, fresh powder was everywhere, and the lack of oxygen was only a state of mind. The rope tow servicing the glacier, however, was by far the biggest obstacle to the day’s riding, but all us rope-tow deficient Americans struggled through the situation, and ripped the powder to shreds.

The Saas Fee glacier featured a small snowboard park with several big kickers, various rails, and a partially filled in halfpipe which was pretty unrideable. I had been at Saas Fee in the summer at a Nitro camp, and the setup was basically the same. However, I really wondered how it got built in the first place because it never seemed to be groomed.

Despite the partially groomed park and pipe, many of the K2 teamriders along for the trip sessioned the big quarterpipe, while European Uber-photographer Vincent Skogland shot the action with his array of unusual cameras. Others simply stuck to slashing powder turns, which was a pleasant surprise for early October riding.

Needless to say, the crew was super pumped on the conditions and faces were sporting perma-grins all afternoon.

Later in the day, it was back to the meeting room to learn more about K2. This time I hadn’t been drinking at lunch, and was wide awake, thank you.

K2 VP Of Marketing Anthony De Rocco talked about K2’s snowboard history. K2 started making snowboards in 1987. Indeed, the snowboard program had even influenced the ski program, and now the company is offering inserts in some skis.

In another short presentation, John O’Conner, K2’s board product manager, talked about the company’s position in the marketplace. Currently, Burton has 38 percent of sales in hardgoods, with K2 coming in second at 17 percent, Ride third with 14 percent, Lamar with 7 percent, Salomon with 6 percent, Rossignol with 4 percent, and Gnu with 3 percent of sales.

He said that K2 has definitely gained in sales over the last several years, and in fact, K2 was the number-one selling hardgoods brand in Japan last year.

K2 will be offering 26 board models next season, with four new designs. “We engineer stability and control in every board,” O’Conner says.

He then went into the key stories about the new models, and at one point Brian Savard came up and talked about one board in particular, and was on a roll, sporting his Fo-Hawk hair style. (We can’t tell you too much about the boards yet, but we will later.)

After boards, boots and bindings were also discussed, and the managers also talked about the brand’s commitment to the women’s market.

De Rocco got back up and then discussed K2’s Asian sourcing and manufacturing strategy. “It’s been a five-year plan that started in 99,” he said of shifting the production to China. Now K2 has 1.3-million-square-feet of factory space in China between six different facilities. In the last 18 months alone the company has opened three new facilities. All total, there are 1,500 employees who work in the ski and snowboard factory, and a total of 5,300 people working in all six factories. The company has invested 19.2-million dollars in Asian manufacturing in last five years, including adding new injection, new tooling, and new engineering offices.

The company has added a global sourcing office in Hong Kong in 2001 and in 2003 added more sourcing offices in Guang Zhou, Manila, and Bankok.

Interestingly, K2 builds more snowboards than skis in its China factory, but the numbers are close. The company wouldn’t disclose how many boards oor skis it builds total.

Communication between staff in Vashon headquarters and China factories done through a specific company web site that’s updated daily. The managers in either office can track every board made and where it is in the factory.

De Rocco gave us a virtual tour via a Power Point presentation through the factory with photos of everything. The snowboard factory has slowly added production functions that had previously been outsourced, such as woodshop duties. Five years ago all snowboard woodcores were sourced from around the world, but now all are made inhouse. The factory houses 48 snowboard presses and 30 ski presses. And in the last eight months it’s also added a sublimation press for board top and bottom graphics. The company still prototypes snowboards at Vashon, and can build a new board and test it at Hood within a week. After it’s been approved, the files are transferred to China and the same board is reproduced in that factory.

According to De Rocco, K2 has also invested in a snowboard-binding assembly plant.

K2 Director of Marketing Scott Mavis took the group into a question and answer session that revolved around the advantages and disadvantages of the consolidation in the industry, and focused on the brand and retail side.

That night it was off to a big cabin in the woods for another traditional Swiss meal that included little crock pots of boiling oil on the table where you cooked small pieces of meat for yourself. Interestingly, next to the building there was a cage with a bunch of rabbits. We weren’t sure how fresh the meat we were eating was, but the rabbits didn’t look too scared, so we figured they probably weren’t tomorrow’s meal.

After dinner, things moved back to the local bar, Popcorn, for another late night of drinking and hanging. By wake-up time the next morning, it was snowing in the town and the mountain looked totally socked in. We were shut down again for our last day of riding, but nobody really seemed to mind. The teamriders rallied around Team Manager Kevin English and started a doing lifestyle and product photo shoot for K2’s upcoming dealer catalog. The rest of us packed our bags and headed back to Zurich, to get ready for early flights the next morning.

Although we only got to snowboard one of the three days, we were all stoked on the information we learned about K2 and the new friends we made. And we definitely got a taste of winter again, and knew that riding was only a matter of weeks away back home. And that’s something we’re all looking forward to.