There we were, standing in the lift line of the Sun Bowl on a busy President’s Day Weekend at Vermont’s Stratton Mountain. As we breathed the fresh mountain air and daydreamed about après beers, my buddy Steve nudged me and said: “Dude, check it out. That guy’s got Wagners.” The guy in question was decked from head to toe in top-of-the-line gear but, having been out of the game for about three years, I had absolutely no idea what Steve was talking about.
“What are Wagners?” I asked, naively. As a connoisseur of all things winter, Steve proceeded to explain that Wagners were custom skis that cost around $2,000 a pair. Kind of a simplistic description for such an expensive ski but nonetheless a shocking one. I think I paid around a quarter of that price for mine. A flurry of questions filled my mind: Why would someone drop all of that coin on a pair of skis? What made them so great? Was this pimped-out guy even worthy to click into them? In true stalker fashion we followed him up the lift and down a trail to see what all the fuss was about. Nothing could be determined from that one run, but as I later learned, Wagners are much more than a cut above the competition and, in my experience, well worth the price of admission.
Wagner Custom Skis was founded by Pete Wagner in 2006 with the intention of creating the perfect ski for each individual skier and bringing them, “one step closer to mastering the mountain.” Since that time the operation has turned into a thriving business that shows no signs of slowing down. Housed in a converted gas station, the factory is solar- and wind-powered and churns away from the heart of Western ski country: Telluride, Colorado. Ironically, Wagner himself hails from Ohio and started out as a golf industry engineer. How did he end up revolutionizing the ski industry? I caught up with him recently to talk skis, business, and, of course, après beers.
“We try to do things the right way environmentally. This is similar to how we build our skis… it’s the best way we can do it. It takes more time and labor but it’s worth it to ensure we get it right and it’s perfect.”
Describe your previous role as an engineer in the golf industry. How did it set you up for success in the custom ski design market?
I was a mechanical engineer who wrote design code for Carbite golf and Penley golf for nine years. This work provided the foundation for my “Skier DNA” which set the stage to excel past other custom ski companies. We were doing some pretty advanced stuff in the golf industry—like frequency matching, where we would match the natural frequency of golf balls to club heads. This would create a trampoline effect that would launch the ball off the club.
My work in the golf industry allowed me to set up algorithms that I then used to create my Skier DNA. I took nine years of coding and transferred that into a fitting system design tool and manufacturing software for skis. This created a distance between us and other custom ski companies because we had a technological foundation that allowed us to be really good. It’s not easy to make a unique ski for a person that they like every time, but the Skier DNA allows us to do that.
What is the Skier DNA? How do you use it to create custom skis?
We take information about a skier’s height, weight and skiing background. This includes your ability as well as where you ski. We then translate that into a ski design that will be a perfect fit for the skier. Properly fitting the ski to the skier has tremendous benefits that improve balance, comfort, control, power and efficiency.
At a starting price of $1,750, why buy custom skis?
People buy them for performance reasons. They are looking for something specific and Wagner is able to execute it no matter where the customer is located. When your equipment is perfect for you, you can have more fun on the mountain and spend less time worrying about your gear.
Raw materials of the trade… and custom skis being made.
Why buy Wagners over another custom ski brand?
The main thing is the skier DNA. It gives us a huge advantage to execute at a much higher level than everyone else. It is easy to make a unique ski but not easy to be 100 percent accurate every time. We’ve created a science behind executing this and do it better than everyone else. If you want your ski equipment dialed in, we will nail it.
Is there a specific type of skier that buys Wagner skis?
Skiers that buy Wagner fall into two categories. The first is the people who like to ski and want to have the right equipment but are not close to a mountain. Therefore when they go skiing, they want to optimize their time having fun and not waste time trying to find the right skis. The second are the really good skiers who live in ski towns. These skiers have an idea of dream ski and Wagner can execute it.
What are some of the main differences between the skis you design for Eastern skiers versus those designed for Western skiers?
Eastern skiers ski on harder snow, therefore their skis are torsionally stiff. This will make them smooth and stable on hard snow and allow them to lock into a turn. They also involve metal in their construction. It is more like a race ski—narrower with metal. Western skis are wider and made with lighter materials to accommodate the powdery snow in the west.
The factory where it all happens… and a fresh pair in action.
How many skis do you sell per year? How long do people ski on them?
We sold 1,200 pairs in 2013 and we guarantee that you will love them. If, not we can either rebuild them or refund your money. In 2013 we had four sets rebuilt and none were refunded. The longevity depends on how often you ski. I recently spoke to a guy who we have built two pairs of skis for; he had 500 days on his original pair of Wagners and was still using them.
How do customers decide on custom graphics?
Basically you come up with a concept and identify images as a starting point. The graphic designer then takes the artwork and puts together a draft that they send back to the customer, who gives them feedback until the design looks perfect. Once that is the case, you sign off on the design and then we build skis. The ski building process takes about three weeks. We send photos to the customer as they go through the process. This gives them a connection to the skis. It keeps the stoke going.
What prompted you to get into the custom ski business?
I bought a pair of skis that I thought were good for me and skied on them for a couple of months. Then I demoed another pair that made me realize the skis I had originally were crippling me. At the time I was developing all of the golf coding to fit the clubs to the player, and I began to wonder if it would work for skis. I was in grad school and for my MBA project, I did a feasibility study on my custom ski concept. The analysis of the project said there should be a market for custom skis, and money could be made from this concept. Then I made a business plan, raised the capital and set up the ski factory. It was the right time and place.
From design to uncut ski to final product, customers can witness the birth of their dream skis.
How is your factory a representation of your vision for Wagner skis?
My factory is funky. It’s an old gas station from the mining days that has been repurposed. We’ve made modifications like adding a solar thermal system to the factory floor. We also buy wind power to run the computer and manufacturing equipment. It’s a small green factory built to reduce the carbon footprint. At Wagner, we are trying to do things the right way environmentally. This is similar to how we build our skis… it’s the best way we can do it. It may take more time and require more labor but it’s worth it to ensure we get it right and it’s perfect.
What is the future of Wagner skis? What challenges do you predict you will face?
Our goal is to grow customization for skis and to be the leader in that space. Our challenge going forward is brand awareness. How does a small company compete against multinational corporations? Another challenge is global warming. This all could be for nothing if ski mountains can’t open because of the weather.
We are pretty well conditioned, all things considered. Other companies make models in January through March and show them off at a ski expo and then take orders for the skis for the next season. They produce them over the summer and sell them on credit. With this model, there is the potential for overproduction. We don’t do that at all. In our process, someone comes to us with their design in mind. We build the ski that is unique to that person. There are no worries about overproduction and extending credit or people not liking the ski they bought. We get it right every time. I understand that we are treading against tradition, but that’s how we do it.
You must be a pretty good skier yourself to run this operation. What’s your number one skiing tip?
Go do it. Skiing is a great way to spend time with family and friends and for some reason, it is easy to find ways not to go. It’s such a great way to enjoy fresh air with friends, so do it. Try to get more days in than last year.
Finally, what’s your favorite aprés beer?
Telluride Brewing Company Facedown Brown.
Lighting was less than ideal, but here’s a quick clip of the author’s own Wagners in action in Vermont.