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Pioneering Hart skis in Summit County

Janice Kurbjun
Summit Daily News
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
ALL |

Pioneer Sports is living up to its name and being the first and only to carry Hart Skis in Summit County.

The store has primarily operated as a ski and snowboard rental shop and apparel dealer, but now hundreds of Hart Skis line the walls in preparation for the 2011-12 ski season.

“We don’t want to be everything to everybody,” owner Thom Rowland said. “We wanted to do something unique and exclusive.”

Sales and marketing vice president Johann Furr said Rowland’s Pioneer Sports shop in Frisco will have the largest inventory of Hart Skis outside of other states. Stores in Steamboat, Vail, and along the Front Range carry the skis, but Rowland will have exclusive rights to carry the product in Summit County.

The brand is known for its high-end performance materials and hand-crafted excellence. They were born in a St. Paul, Minn. carpentry shop among cribbage boards, chess sets and wood or metal card games. The Hartvig brothers teamed their ski engineering and manufacturing skills to bring the seamless metal edge to skis in 1955, pioneering the modern ski.

It was a well-loved brand in the U.S. by the mid-1960s, dominating the ski market in the U.S. with global brand recognition. But the company’s peak happened not long after, when Beatrice Foods bought the company and, without expertise in the skiing arena, ran it into the ground, Furr said.

A few years later, a Hartvig grandson bought the rights to the company and, with investment assistance, began plotting the brand’s comeback.

What draws Rowland to the product is not only nostalgia for him as a 45-year-old skier who remembers the height of Hart Skis. It’s also the company’s willingness to go against the flow. As other ski companies outsource product manufacturing overseas, Hart began working with Never Summer Industries in Denver about three years ago to build some models. The rest were still manufactured elsewhere to turn a profit as Hart officials reinvested in American engineering expertise and manufacturing know-how over time. About a year ago, the company began moving into the vacant K2 manufacturing facility on Vashon Island, Wash., and is re-employing out-of-work K2 experts as well as those who had moved on after K2 moved out.

“There was a huge amount of expertise that was idle,” Rowland said. “Their vision is to be the Harley-Davidson of skis … the true U.S. brand of skis.”

Furr said roughly 50 percent of Hart Skis are now made in America, and the goal is to have 70 percent in production in the U.S. in three years or less. It may take five years to get everything back on American soil, but that’s driven more by financial responsibility and working within cash flow than by the complexity of the ski structure.

But moving production does require extensive training and pre-manufacturing work to not compromise quality. The skis use materials like Kevlar – the bulletproof vest material that dissipates impact in Hart’s mogul skis – and carbon, both of which are complex materials to work with. There’s also a “ramp-up” period for each model, including tooling, creating molds and more.

“We don’t want to bring production back and build an inferior ski,” Furr said. “It’s more involved than it would seem.”

Maintaining quality and using American expertise means a pricey product. The skis range from $899 to $1075 for most models, with some as low as $699 and $389, according to Hart’s website. But Rowland doesn’t think that will inhibit buyers. The competitive mogul and freestyle skier will tap into the inventory, as will middle-aged expert skiers who know and appreciate the brand.

When Rowland met Furr at last year’s SnowSports Industries America Snowshow in Denver, they realized they had similar goals. Hart was the first brand to come to Rowland’s mind when he sought to build his store’s reputation (he has two pairs of old Harts from his father-in-law decorating the store).

“It gave us the opportunity to have an exclusive arrangement with a legendary brand that dominates in the world of mogul skiing and is building a presence in all-mountain and big-mountain skiing,” Rowland said.

Meanwhile, Hart Skis wants to build the brand’s American-made, exclusive-ski image. Being the only brand in a store mimics Harley-Davidson’s path – and Furr wants to see if it will work. Being at the heart of Summit County in Frisco also allows Hart’s models to be demo’d by an array of skiers in an area that revolves around the industry.

“It’s not a small commitment for either party,” Furr said. “They could have gone with any other ski company … we’re excited they chose us.”


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