Wagner churns out 1,000 pairs of custom skis a year
By Heather Sackett
Published: Sunday, February 2, 2014 6:06 AM CST
Pete Wagner first came to Telluride in 1998, lured by the same thing that attracts countless others: a winter of skiing powder and steep lines.And, like so many others, one season of ski bumming was just the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the San Juan Mountains. To make a go of it in the region he fell in love with, Wagner became an entrepreneur. Fifteen years later, Wagner is the CEO and founder of Wagner Custom Skis. Housed in an old gas station in Placerville, the company crafts skis of any size and shape, personalized to each skier’s preferences.“This business was really just a dream of how can I apply my skill set and interest in a business that would culturally fit into Telluride,” Wagner said.
Wagner came to the ski industry by way of golfing. An engineer by training, he wrote software for the design analysis and manufacture of golf equipment. A golfer would hit a ball and Wagner’s software would record data about the club head speed and ball trajectory and determine the perfect combination of clubs for that individual golfer.
It was during this time that Wagner, who grew up in what he jokingly calls the skiing Mecca of Dayton, Ohio, bought a new pair of skis. They had received favorable buyers guide reviews and seemed to be the right width and length for him. But after skiing on them for three months he tried a different pair and realized he had been crippling himself by skiing on the wrong equipment.
“It got me thinking why nobody in the ski industry was doing anything like people in the golf industry were,” Wagner said.
He began converting his golf software to work for skiing, but found there was no market for it. Ski shops, in a trend that continues to this day, purchased mass quantities of just a few types of skis and then dumped the surplus at end-of-the-season sales. And that was how they liked it. No one was interested in customized skis. So Wagner went to business school and invented his own model.
“It was identifying a skill set that I have — engineering and computer design — and how can I apply my unique skill to something I’m passionate about and how can I help other people by sharing my skill set and passion,” Wagner said. “It’s turned out to be the ski company.”
In a business model that is totally different from the vast majority of the ski industry, Wagner churns out about 1,000 pairs of skis a year, each one completely different and constructed according to the specifications of individual skiers.
To begin the process of creating a pair of skis, customers fill out a simple online questionnaire (your skier DNA, Wagner calls it) with information like height, weight, preferred terrain, the type of skis currently used and future goals. Then someone from the custom design team sets up a phone call or Skype conversation for a consultation and comes up with a design recommendation.
The design team tweaks the skis’ length, width, sidecut, tip and tail shapes, camber and rocker. Wagner crafts skis for the hard-packed groomers of the Northeast, big mountain lines of the West and the deep powder and spines of Alaskan heli-skiing. And with a graphic designer on staff, customers can outfit their skis with topsheet art of everything from Bob Dylan to fish, bears, a downtown Telluride streetscape, a classic wood veneer or solid color. Customers walk away with their personalized skis in just three weeks.
“Our approach is that we go through the same steps every time but every ski is completely different,” Wagner said. “It’s more common for us to make a daily driver or one-ski quiver, but we also make some really freakish skis just because people give us the freedom to, which is pretty cool.”
Since Wagner Custom Skis opened in 2006, the company has expanded to 11 employees and ran at an exhausting 100 percent of its production capacity for nine months of the last year, Wagner said.
The garage with the red star on the front houses a high-tech ski factory: a Santa’s workshop of milling machines, stone grinders, waxing equipment, tools and an army of apron and respirator-wearing, ski-making elves. The building is a model of efficiency. Even with all the machinery, Wagner said the electric bill comes to about $150 a month thanks to energy conservation measures like solar panels on the roof and lights on timers. A true engineer at heart, Wagner says it’s just good business to use as little material and energy as possible.
A pair of Wagner Custom Skis isn’t cheap — they start at $1,750. (Wagner also makes custom snowboards and does the design and production for Winterstick Snowboards.) But for skiers who want the best performance from their equipment, customization is a necessity, Wagner said. He compared his workshop to the race rooms of professional skiers who have a team of specialists working to get the equipment dialed in perfectly. While just a few years ago only racers were having boots custom fitted, the practice is much more mainstream now, with even average skiers who want a more comfortable boot seeing a professional fitter. Custom skis are the next logical extension of that, Wagner said.
“Some people think that maybe they aren’t good enough for custom skis, but now people realize it’s for anyone who wants to be more comfortable,” Wagner said. “It will help you perform better. It’s a really smart thing to do.”