Matt Olson, on snowboarding's cutting edge

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

SEATTLE (AP) -- Mike Olson made his first snowboard at Sylvester Middle School in Burien as a project for his shop class.

Back then -- 1977 -- the industry didn't really exist, he said.

''I was trying to make projects that the teacher had never seen before to get an 'A,''' he said. ''Everything I made that year was something I could ride.''

His initial design, Olson said, was primitive, but over the years he tinkered with different concepts. In 1984 Olson dropped out of college to become a full-time snowboard maker.

''I quit on my third day of junior year,'' he said. ''I thought, 'The timing's right.' It seemed like a golden opportunity.''

A year later, Olson talked his friend Pete Saari into joining him, and together the two built Mervin Manufacturing, a profitable business that now has almost 90 employees and turns out 56,000 handmade snowboards a year.

Mervin is one of just a handful of major snowboard makers that still manufacture in the United States, according to Dave Wray, West Coast field manager for SnowSports Industries America, a McLean, Va.-based trade organization.

''Of those companies that do produce boards in the United States, no one is producing them at nearly the capacity that Mervin is,'' Wray said. ''Mervin's production technique and technology are completely unique to the snowboard industry.''

At Mervin's Seattle facility, a sprawling collection of low-rise buildings near the Ballard Locks in Lower Magnolia, Chris Crittenden, who supervises production, proudly showed off the company's equipment.

''When we started making snowboards, the tools that we needed didn't exist,'' Crittenden said. ''The sport didn't exist. We built and designed all of our equipment ourselves from the ground up -- the molds, the presses, everything.''

During a tour through Mervin's production floor, some of the company's quirks -- and it has many -- are obvious. For example, the company's employees use bright orange fishing weights to hold the steel edge to the board's base material while the glue dries, rather than using a piece of specialty equipment.

But Crittenden and Saari say the company's quirks help it run more efficiently.

The fact that Mervin has stuck with high-end boards helps make domestic production more affordable, Saari said.

The company's boards, sold under the brand names Gnu and Lib Technologies, retail for between $300 and $499. Last year, the company began manufacturing a third brand, Supernatural.

The average snowboard sold for $290 at specialty retailers and about $170 at a big chain stores last year, according to SnowSports Industries America.

After spending a few hours with Saari and the Magnolia-based crew -- the company has a second facility near Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula northwest of Seattle -- it's clear that Mervin is not your average business.

The company offers its employees, almost all of whom are snowboarders themselves, a package of perks, including free lunch on Thursdays and $200 to use toward a season's pass at a local ski area.

The company has a distinct culture, and it's one that has been recognized by others in the industry, including SnowSports Industries America President David Ingemie.

''These are real passionate people, real fanatical people, in a very positive sense,'' Ingemie said. ''They eat, sleep and breathe snowboarding and making their products.''

That passion, and the company's cutting-edge technology, Ingemie said, helped the company survive during the mid-1990s, when many other snowboard makers collapsed.

After Preston-based Ride Inc., which has since been acquired, sold its shares to the public in 1994, snowboarding was suddenly in the spotlight, Ingemie said.

He estimates that as many as 400 companies were making snowboards, though he says some of them were small, garage businesses.

In 1997, Mervin sold out to Quiksilver Inc., a publicly traded company headquartered in Huntington Beach, Calif., for $4.4 million and the assumption of some debt.

Still, Saari said little has changed at the company, which also makes skateboards, since the acquisition.

''We approached them because we needed a new financial partner,'' Saari said. ''They've pretty much left us alone. We're a profitable business, and we achieve the things we say that we're going to achieve.''

As snowboarders and skiers are getting ready to hit the slopes, Mervin is winding down its production of this year's models. Saari said the company ships most of its boards between August and November.

At Snowboard Connection, a specialty store in Pioneer Square, owner John Logic says Mervin's boards finish as top sellers every year.

''They have a sublimation process that makes their graphics come out brighter and clearer than any other boards,'' Logic said. ''Their artwork really connects with their customers.''

And Logic, who is familiar with the company's management team as well as its products, said Saari and Olson have managed to succeed in the industry even though they've gone against the tide. ''I'll put it this way,'' he said. ''I don't think either Mike or Pete colored inside the lines as children.''


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