Breck’s Rocky Mountain Underground welcomes 5 years with new factory, new branding
January 5, 2016
The guys at Rocky Mountain Underground never planned to launch a business. It just sort of happened.
"We always joke that this wasn't supposed to be a company," said Mike Waesche, co-founder and current CEO at the Breckenridge-based ski manufacturer. "Every skier wants to know how to build skis and we were just dumb enough to try it. We were literally building skis for beer at one point. That's how business minded we were: 'Sure, bring a 30 rack and we'll get you a ski.'"
What a difference five years makes. On a completely dead morning in off-season I swung by the RMU flagship store on Park Avenue in Breck. I'd walked by the store plenty, just like hundreds and thousands of skiers this winter, but for whatever reason I'd never ventured inside.
When I finally did I was pleasantly surprised. It was nothing like I expected, whatever that was. It's warm and welcoming, with low lighting, wood accents and tasteful displays — not your typical ski shop. Waesche and CFO Dave Schumacher were prepping the store for the thick of ski season, lining one wood-paneled wall with backpacks, poles and other backcountry gear, and the other wall with pair after pair of freshly pressed skis.
Schumacher welcomed me inside and took me straight to the ski display. He showed me the carbon North Shore, one of RMU's first models to feature carbon rods between layers of yellow aspen core. It's a beauty of a ski, even with no snow to ride at the time, and it was already making waves thanks to partnerships with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. RMU pressed a handful of custom CAIC carbon skis this season and will split proceeds with the organization. Earlier that week, the first pair rolled off the company's Canadian press in time for the earliest round of CAIC fundraisers.
"We were in, what?" Waesche said, looking at his business partner. "Maybe six different places on a single day in October?"
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It's a testament to the company's direction after five years in the rapidly growing — and increasingly cutthroat — boutique ski industry. Waesche, a graduate of Colorado State University, took a page from the New Belgium Brewing book and started collaborating with other Colorado companies right away, including custom topsheets for the insanely popular craft brewery.
"You look to your mentors for what they do," Waesche said. "We're putting our own twist on what people like New Belgium have done, and they've done it right. They have a very cool thing going on."
And, like New Belgium, RMU has remained employee-owned through the growing pains. Schumacher estimates that the company has grown by as much as 40 percent every month for the past few years, expanding from a few ski bums pressing skis in a garage to about 20 total employees across the state and world, including a European office in Munich and soon-to-be Canadian office in British Columbia.
But growth doesn't mean RMU is now a mass-producing shell of its former self. Look at something like the CAIC benefit ski: Waesche and Schumacher can press a small batch of custom skis on nearly a moment's notice, putting someone else's name on one of their handmade models (retail around $999) to auction off for upwards of $1,400. It's guerilla marketing at its finest. And it's working.
"I think our company is all customer driven," Waesche said. "The ones we have, they've been with us from the beginning. We have a lot of brand loyalty, and I think that comes from us listening to everyone and really staying with the company."
Rockies to the core
The founders' core mentality has helped guide RMU's growth from the beginning. About two years ago, just before they decided to move production from the Denver Never Summer factory to the Canadian factory, they also decided to branch beyond hardgoods to experiment with hoodies, hats and even a dry-bag for fisherman and rafters that doubles as a backpack beer cooler.
The idea wasn't to sell as much as possible in the name of profit, Waesche said. After a few years, he and the others wanted to evolve and become and outdoor brand, not just a ski manufacturer.
"Whenever we did clothing, we thought about this mountain community that we live in," Waesche said, pointing to the Charlie Boy jacket that Schumacher was wearing, named after the CEO's dog. "We didn't just want to create something with our brand name. We wanted uses. We wanted something for skinning, something for cold days, something for living in the mountains."
It makes sense. Since pressing their first pair of skis for beer, Waesche and his business partners have moved away from park riding and into the backcountry. It's also influenced their ski design, leading most noticeably to the carbon inserts in the North Shore and the Carbon Apostle, a hard-charging version of RMU's flagship men's ski.
"This is about what we want to ski, what we want to do on skis now," Schumacher said. "I'm 28, Mike is 29, so we're not really out trying to pull corks and triples. We're getting into the touring, going out and exploring."
Back to CO
Now, that exploration is leading right back to Colorado. The majority of RMU skis are still pressed in Canada, but beginning this season, the company moved into a warehouse space next to the Meier Skis factory in Carbondale. RMU's specialty skis like the carbon Apostle are still made in Canada, but Waesche says that the long-range plan is to slowly bring most production back home.
"As we grew bigger, it made sense to bring the manufacturing back in house," said Waesche, who's aware that this mentality flies directly in the face of the norm, which says overseas production is a must with growth. "It's all North American-made and that was important for us. It's a great selling point, that were keeping work here, keeping jobs here."
It begins with RMU's current workforce. This summer, seven part-time employees moved to fulltime when the company started pressing skis in Carbondale. Most of them had little to no manufacturing experience, but that was hardly an issue. Neither did Waesche when he was making skis for beer in a garage.
"This wasn't supposed to be a ski company, right?" Waesche said. "That was never expected. But as we grew, as we learned that people liked what we were doing, it came together. We want to grow the business, but at the same time we want to be seen as a company that supports the cause, supports skiing."
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