From today's Denver Post:
Volant Sports, source of the world's only steel-capped ski, silenced its ski presses and laid off 95 employees Tuesday, the last of the major ski manufacturers to cease U.S. production.
"Usually you can't even hear yourself talk in here," Pete Turner, the Wheat Ridge-based company's head of research and development, said Tuesday as he stood amid the monstrous machinery that made Volant's unique stainless-steel skis.
Citing increasing manufacturing costs and today's wilting investment climate, Volant ended its two-month struggle to secure financing. Volant was competing against Goliath companies that in recent years have moved their ski production to Third World countries. Also, its patented steel-cap design, first offered by Volant in 1989, was expensive to build.
The future is uncertain for Volant, but for its employees, the end came Tuesday.
"This was what I loved to do," production employee Dave Toyzan said as he carried his own two pairs of Volant skis out of the shop. "I loved coming here every day. We all skied together, and we all worked together. This was really a team."
"Bottom line, the checkbook is empty," said Volant's marketing chief, Stephan Hienzsch.
For the past week, Volant's financial team explored a variety of financing options while employees were given a week of mandatory vacation and production was halted to save what little money was left. On Tuesday, the employees got a weekly paycheck and a severance check.
In the past 20 years, one ski factory has closed every year worldwide. There are five top brands today that account for 75 percent of the world's multibillion-dollar ski industry: France's Rossignol and Salomon, Washington-based K2, Bavaria's Volkl, and Atomic in Austria. The rest of the field is shared by Volant, Elan, Olin, Dynastar and several smaller Austrian companies. In the United States, Volant ranks as the fifth most popular ski.
With Washington-based K2 Skis' recent announcement that it is moving the last of its domestic production facilities to China, Volant's closing leaves the United States bereft of a major ski maker. The United States does have four boutique ski-makers: Evolution Skis in Salt Lake City, which makes 4,000 skis and snowboards a year, and the super-small Claw Skis in Maine, Line Skis in Vermont and Wolf Skis in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Volant has shipped about 80 percent of its remaining orders and will leave a skeleton crew working for the next week to handle unfilled orders.
The company's executives are courting potential buyers but decline to name names. While several options, including a full or partial sale to a new investment group, remain on the table, Volant's ownership team has pulled the plug on operations.
The checkbook belongs to California businessman Mike Markkula, a founder of Apple Computers who now serves as president of Echelon Corp., a company he founded that makes computer chips so household appliances can be operated through the Internet. Markkula owns most of Volant.
Hank Kashiwa, the 1972 Olympic ski racer who founded Volant with his brother Bryan and Markkula, said last week that the company's troubles were tied to Markkula's current financial situation.
Kashiwa said that Markkula stood to realize a "big tax event" if "certain things happen to the company."
Volant makes skis in the summer and fall, ships to retailers before the winter season, and collects payments in late winter. That cycle leaves financing gaps. This season, the gaps were not bridged.
"The market climate for capital and financing has become much more selective for all companies in all industries," said Dennis Orcutt, president of US Bank in Colorado and a major lending force in the ski world. "In an environment like this, the companies that are well capitalized will survive the peaks and valleys. And the companies need patient investors."
It appears that Volant's primary investor, Markkula, has run out of patience.
"The mandate to this point was to stop spending money," Hienzsch said.
Patented in 1985 by Bryan "Bucky" Kashiwa, Volant's unique steel cap design has garnered a loyal following of skiers who are drawn to the skis' unwavering ability to hug even the most unruly terrain. In 1989, the company made 3,000 skis. Last year, Volant sold 60,000 skis and saw about $12 million in sales.
For 12 years, Volant has fostered an almost fanatical following. That following will attract new investors, employees said Tuesday.
"Someone will buy it," said Steve Mancini, a three-year employee at Volant. "It's got too good a name."
Add that name to what Volant is promising to be a revolutionary design for the 2002-2003 ski line and there's even more confidence that the Volant brand will not die.
"This year was the first time in the company's history that I've seen all the company's resources dedicated solely to the ski product," said product manager Penn Henderson, citing Volant's short history manufacturing snowboards and an ill-fated retail website. "Those were major distractions. Our newest designs will be our best. Would have been, I guess."
The jewel in Volant's otherwise empty vault is a long history of research and development in Colorado's Rocky Mountains and a new ski design based on that history, said Turner.
"We don't want to give that up," he said.
"I'm confident that the brand will re-emerge," Hienzsch said. "From the marketplace point of view its a strong brand. The right investor should recognize the value of that brand. My message to Volant skiers? Keep the faith."