I have recently returned from visiting Salomon headquarters in Annecy, France, and selecting skis at the Amer factory in Altenmarkt. While Salomon is a leading brand in the ski industry, they are a young ski company by any measure. Their brief history in the ski manufacturing game is quite instructive.
When you visit a ski factory it is apparent that nobody is going to start a ski company from scratch anytime soon. The number and complexity of the machines and processes involved in manufacturing modern skis makes the barrier to entry prohibitive. The start-up capital investment would be insane, and that would just get you to the point where you could produce something to test. While it might be possible to incubate a ski manufacturing concern from a garage-scale process, Salomon was never going to launch anything less than a full-scale assault on the marketplace. That meant that they needed to team up with an existing manufacturer. In the beginning this partnership was with Fischer, and it was a two-way street. Fischer manufactured skis for Salomon, and in return Salomon licensed their binding system to Fischer, allowing Fischer to manufacture their own Salomon-compatible outsole for their fledgling boot line.
After a couple of years of partnership with Fischer, Salomon was acquired by the growing Finnish sporting goods conglomerate Amer, which already owned Atomic. The Fischer partnership ended, and Salomon started over with skis, with production moved to the Amer-owned Atomic factory in Altenmarkt. At the time this mix-up raised all sorts of questions for an outsider. Would Amer continue to support two brands of skis? Would Salomon create their own product, or just put their name on existing Atomic skis? Would Salomon pursue a full World Cup racing program with independent development?
The first generation of Amer-produced Salomon skis was not encouraging. The Salomon guys readily acknowledge the difficulty involved with starting up an entirely new production process with new materials and production methods. Transferring Salomon concepts from Fischer production to Atomic production in a single year was always going to be a huge challenge, and the results left plenty of room for improvement. From an outside perspective it was an easy time to be dismissive of the Salomon ski program. Three years into the project Salomon was on their second manufacturing set-up, and appeared to have taken a step backward.
Now, just a few short years later, Salomon has turned things around impressively. When I started working with Tad Elliott in the fall of 2010 to provide fleet management and grinding services, I was skeptical of the potential for long-term success on Salomon skis. I was prepared to recommend changing brands. Over the course of a season’s worth of testing the skis won me over. More than that, the whole Salomon organization won me over with their openness, their work ethic, and their willingness to acknowledge weaknesses. Starting a relationship with a company is a big investment in time and money for a small company like Caldwell Sport; we don’t take a decision like this lightly. We need to be very confident in the future of a brand to be willing to go down this road.
As we have come to expect, the visit to Salomon’s headquarters and factory was enlightening. We can learn a lot from meeting the people and working with the skis, but the whole picture really comes into focus when we see the process in action. My recent trip to Austria and France didn’t show me exactly the picture I expected – I saw some challenges that I didn’t anticipate, and I saw some assets that I didn’t expect.
First, and most importantly, it’s necessary to understand that Salomon has a great deal of autonomy under the Amer umbrella. Salomon’s headquarters in Annecy, France, are where the company houses all of its design, research and development, prototyping, product testing, marketing and racing programs. It’s quite a facility, with Alpine, Nordic, Footwear, and Mavic bicycle components all under one roof. As far as Nordic is concerned, they have recently installed a brand-new press, and they have the ability to build skis for development purposes. All of the production is done in Altenmarkt at the Amer factory, where the skis are built by exactly the same people who build Atomic skis. But the development process is independent. While Salomon has had its own direction all along, this full autonomy has finally been achieved with the installation of the new development press in Annecy.
There is a strong and explicit understanding at Salomon that internal competition is a good thing. The Salomon Nordic division is competing with Atomic, just as they are with other brands. This is true in boots as well, where there is a dedicated Atomic boot team developing a boot line separate from Salomon’s boots. Everybody understands that successful technology will be shared, eventually. But the design process needs to be allowed to run its course in order to foster creativity and provide the best chance for successful innovation.
Annecy is where I had the greatest level of insight into the design parameters used in the skis. Like all companies, Salomon works with core density, thickness profile, laminations and mold settings to create their skis. Understanding how and when they change each variable, and how they measure the result, reveals a great deal about the performance of the skis. The R&D lab is a wonderland of unique measurement tools, capable of describing just about anything you can think of in the behavior and material response of a ski. Annecy also houses the World Cup racing department. Skis are brought from Altenmarkt to Annecy for custom grinding and distribution by the racing department team.
Altenmarkt is another whole story. First of all, the Amer factory is – let’s face it – the Atomic factory. It’s an extremely Austrian factory in an extremely Austrian town about 45 minutes south (into the Alps) from Salzburg. If you’ve never worked with Austrians you should understand two things about them: they’re proudly Austrian, and flexibility is not among their stronger qualities. The factory has been building skis for forty years, and they know what they’re doing. Imagine the challenge for a French company to show up in an Austrian factory to build skis!
Jean-Marc Draeyer is a Swiss guy who was worked in the industry for decades, and was hired last year to oversee Salomon’s custom ski program in Altenmarkt. Jean-Marc is the right guy for the job – jovial, outgoing, impossible to dislike, and fluent in five or six languages. The language of the Salomon company is French, and the language of the Amer factory is German, and this becomes an issue. So Jean-Marc is well placed to be the primary point of contact between Salomon racing and the production department in Altenmarkt
The “Custom Ski” program is basically Salomon’s race stock program. All of the skis are made in Altenmarkt by the same people who make Atomic skis. The production method and materials selection provides tremendous flexibility and a very cost-effective manufacturing process, but there is a fair amount of variability in the outcome. One of the big surprises for me from the factory visit was the amount of work done by Jean-Marc and his guys. None of the skis are paired by the production department. They are all measured using very advanced equipment shared with Atomic, and benchmarks established by Salomon’s racing department. Then the production series is brought to the Custom Ski room, where the racing guys sort through the skis by hand to make pairs, and reject skis that are outside of their parameters.
As a result of the nature of the production, the quality of the measurement system (classic skis are tagged with 11 different measurements) and the hard work of the Custom Ski staff, picking skis from the Salomon racing inventory in Altenmarkt is a somewhat unique experience. In one rack of 201 cold medium classic skis, for example, I was able to find well matched pairs for Green, Blue, Violet and Red conditions, with varying pocket shapes and running surfaces to suit each of those conditions ideally. From other manufacturers it is more common to find a narrower range of characteristics in a given production series.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how precisely you measure bad skis – they’ll still be bad. Potentially good skis can be rendered useless by insufficient attention in the post-production processes. We placed a big bet on Salomon skis because we had seen great evidence of control in the production of consistently good skis. I didn’t anticipate just how much of this control was imposed by sheer force of will and attention to detail after the skis had already been produced. The Amer factory has recently installed two new presses which provide screw settings to refine the mold shape every 6.5cm instead of every 12cm (which has been used up to this time for all Atomic and Salomon skis). These presses are the same as the new development press at the Salomon headquarters in Annecy. They’re also investing in environmentally controlled enclosures for the presses to regulate the temperature and humidity in the press environment to further enhance their control of the production process. All of these investments are good news for the future, but the best news will remain the attention to quality and the dedication of the Salomon team in assuring that they present a product that represents their vision of what a ski should be.