VASHON, Wash. (AP) -- Drew Krah spends his free time, his lunch time and often his work time skating.
Krah, a San Diego native who spent 10 years as a Boeing engineer, now works for K2 in its research and development division, designing skates.
At this company in Vashon Island, 20 minutes by ferry from Seattle, employees are outdoors enthusiasts who take advantage of their jobs to personally test the equipment they produce.
''The best thing about working here is the freedom to innovate and try new ideas,'' said Krah. ''Plus, you get to use yourself as a guinea pig.''
K2 is a leading designer, manufacturer and marketer of sporting goods and recreational and industrial products, including K2 and Olin alpine skis; K2 snowboards, boots and bindings: K2 in-line and ice skates; K2 comfort and BMX mountain bikes; Stearns sports equipment; Shakespeare fishing tackle; and Dana Design backpacks.
K2 was born in the 1960s when brothers Bill and Don Kirschner, who made animal splints and kennels, decided to look for new uses for reinforced plastic. The two started making skis in 1964.
Starting with 250 pairs, they grew to 1,600 pairs by 1967, enough to warrant a separate company, K2, named for the world's second largest mountain (so-called because it was the second mountain in the China's Karakoram range to be surveyed) -- and the two brothers.
By 1968, their success was sealed when the company's new racing ski finished first in a World Cup giant slalom. It was the first World Cup victory on American-made skis.
K2 was the first to produce multiple widths of snowboards for riders with different-sized feet and weights, and in 1994 it invented soft-boot in-line skates -- skates that fit like a hiking boot instead of a plastic ski boot -- a design that is now the industry standard.
This innovative and integrated approach is the key to the company's attracting employees dedicated to and invigorated by their jobs.
Chosen in 1999 as one of the ''100 Best Companies to Work for in America'' by Fortune Magazine (ranking 52nd), K2 encourages its employees to use the equipment at any time and annually sponsors a mountain day, when employees are whisked to the mountains for free ski and snowboard lessons.
More than a third of K2's engineers are former Boeing employees who combine their interests in engineering and outdoor sports and who spend much of their time testing the products.
Take Anthony DeRocco, 37, the vice president of winter products research and development.
A Seattle native who started skiing at age 11, he came to K2 after getting his master's in science and mechanical engineering at the University of Washington and working as an engineer of stress analysis for Boeing.
DeRocco was attracted to K2 by the outdoors equipment and spends 50 to 70 days a year snow testing skis. He hires people with the same dedication and enthusiasm level he has.
''We want to get outdoors people in here, because if you're going to be dedicated to sports you're going to be dedicated to your job here,'' he said.
''These engineers are so consumed by the lifestyle, they're always thinking about how to improve the product.''
DeRocco said Boeing and K2 use similar analyses of structure, tests and technology but their development cycles differ widely. At K2, the cycle is annual.
''Every year we have to bring something new and innovative to the table. We commit to getting out in front, and we do it,'' DeRocco said, citing this year's introduction of magnesium used in snow bindings.
Product tester Bruce Jahnke said he learned to be thorough and detailed in his time at Boeing and so feels less likely to overlook things.
''I love being able to get outdoors and combine it with my engineering and technical background,'' Jahnke said. ''Now, I can help design a product that I really like and that I'll have fun with.''
Extensive testing is done on each product before it moves into production. Each product is tested mechanically and on the field to replicate field use.
''We want to know what happens to the product under any set of conditions,'' said Jeff Mechura, ski product manager.
Each new style of ski is given 2,500 test runs before it even hits the production lines.
In one test -- similar to crash tests performed by auto manufacturers -- the ski is put in ''the slapper,'' which creates 2,000 pounds of force as it slaps the ski against a steel platform to determine how it holds up.
Each product undergoes the same sort of rigorous testing. For example, a bike frame is run through 250,000 pedal strokes to see how it holds up before it moves into production.
The company believes that testing and innovation have been keys to its success, with an average growth rate in the past five years of 12.5 percent.
''Innovation is the center of this company,'' said Dodd Grande, 41, director of skate engineering. ''Though it's sometimes difficult to be an innovator -- the marketplace might not always be ready for the idea -- the creative pot always has to be stirring.''
The company's Web site is http://www.K2sports.com.
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