The Jed Duke Interview: Part 1 // Ski Interviews
So how did you get started in the ski industry?
I grew up ski racing. I raced in New Hampshire here for the Mount Washington Valley Ski Team and at King Pine when I was even younger. Then I went on and raced NCAA Division 1 for St. Lawrence University. So I've always been a skier, I've always been super passionate about it, my entire life. After college I went out on a ski trip with a buddy. We decided to load up the Volkswagen Jetta with 200,000 miles on it and put all of our junk on the roof and go do a tour around the country. We stopped at Snowbird in the Spring time, where I happened to meet up with another ski racing friend of mine, Craig Wingard who's actually the Volkl Salesman in California. He's a few years older than me and was the head of promotions at Tecnica and Volk at the time. So when I saw him I said, "Hey, you got anything for me? Because I'm pretty much a ski bum at the moment." He said yes, and I started out here, in West Lebanon, NH, working for John Stahler in the lowest position in the entire company.
I was the race room guy, just kind of tuning skis and doing whatever needed to be done. That was what... 16 years ago? So I've worked my way up. I was a tech rep, I ran the race department for Tecnica and Volkl, and I was the Volkl product manager for 6 or 7 years. Then Tecnica and Volkl Split apart and the Tecnica group (which also owns Nordica) needed a ski brand, Nordica skis needed a factory to build their skis, and Blizzard was struggling at the time. So they bought the Blizzard factory and I became the first employee for Blizzard in the U.S. There was a small little band of us; six of us that started. And then away we went. We came together with Tecnica, and five years later here we are. I believe that Blizzard is actually the fastest growing hard goods brand in the industry right now, so we're having a pretty good time.
What is your position at Blizzard?
My title is the Director of Sports Marketing for Tecnica U.S.A. and Blizzard Sport U.S.A. I've got a couple of hats though. The other hat is that I'm the head of product development for the U.S. for both Tecnica and Blizzard.
How much influence is your input and opinions from the U.S. considered in Austria when they're making product?
I have a really special relationship with our factory because a lot of the guys that work in our factory; the head of product development for boots and for skis, and the guy who was the general manager for Blizzard several years ago when we started the project, these guys all came from Volkl. So I had already worked with them, forever. And when the Tecnica group management bought Blizzard, they brought me over in the U.S., and then these other guys in Europe, and they said, "Look. You guys know what you're doing with the products. You've done a fantastic job with Volkl in the past. We'll give you the resources, it's your deal, you guys figure it out, and build some good stuff."
So they pretty much just let us go, which was great. Within reason of course. But you know, we all just kind of collectively decided we've gotta get back to the fundamentals of quality skis. How to build skis using the right materials. "We've gotta have wood cores, we've gotta use titanal, we've gotta have sidewalls; they're durable, they perform better, and that's gotta be our foundation to start. We have to be quality, and we need to build good stuff." And the engineers that were at Blizzard had been there for a long time, and they'd proven with their race heritage that they know how to build good skis. And it all came together and we had a great test team. It's myself, a guy from Switzerland named Andreas Allmen who's a great guy, and another guy from Italy named Stefano Mantegazza. We're kind of the three headed beast that tests the ideas.
Where did the idea of Flip Core come from?
The idea of Flip Core actually came from one of our athletes, Arne Backstrom who unfortunately is not with us anymore. But Arne was first and foremost, an incredible guy and an incredible skier. He also had an engineering mind and he was always thinking outside of the box. He was always thinking about how he was going to improve his experience on the Mountain. He was coming up with things that were going to allow him to do things better. So one day, Arne and our salesman Clem Smith were in California talking; those two were as thick as thieves. So Arne said to Clem, "I think Rockered skis are built sort of upside down. I think we should build a ski upside down. It just makes sense, just flip everything over and do it like that." And so Clem called me and said, "Hey, you know what, we've got this idea. Let me just fly it up the flagpole and see what you think." So Clem and I talked about it for a while, and then I talked to Arne about it for a while. We drew some pictures and we kind of messed around with it. And then I went to Andreas in Europe and pitched it at him.
At that point in time we were starting to work on a collection of new freeride skis. Kind of the way we've approached everything, is that we don't want to just build "need to" products. We want to build products that will make a positive influence on their category and positively influence the consumer. We really wanted to make something new and special. So anyways, I showed it to Andreas, and Andreas also has a real engineering type of mind, and the theory behind it made sense to him. So then we got our main ski engineer involved, this guy Andreas Brugger, who is also a great guy. He's the typical gruff, Austrian ski design guy who was like, "Aw you guys are crazy! You can't do that! You always come to me with these crazy ideas!" But then his mind started to work as well and he was like, "Huh, there could be something to it." So it all evolved for sure from the initial concept from Arne.
Roughly how long would you say from that conversation Arne had with Clem, to that first prototype being built?
Probably... 9 months, 10 months? I think it was less than a year, and we actually got the first prototypes.
Who got to ski the first one?
Stefano Mantegazza flew over and we had an athlete summit in Kirkwood, CA, so we had about 8-10 of our top athletes. Arne had just won the World Freeride Tour the week before which was great. We went to Kirkwood and Stefano had brought three pairs of prototype Cochise, so 108mm in the waist, in size 193cm. The immediate reaction from the athletes was like, "Wow, this is… this is different. This ski feels like almost a cambered ski, but when I wanna throw it sideways and shut it down, or when I want it to do exactly what I want it to do, I can do it." And one of the things that Arne said to us, that made a lot of sense was, "Hey, I'm a great skier. I can go 60 or 70 miles per hour whenever I want to do it. But the thing I really need in a ski is to go from 60 to 0 as fast as I can do it. And it's not going to hang up and catch, or get unstable when I need to do that." So that's some of the thought process behind it. But yeah, we first tried it at Kirkwood, it took about 10 months, and the skis immediately, out of the wrapper, the first ones that we tried; we knew that we were on to something.
How long until they hit the consumer from that point?
We tested them in March, and they hit the store in September. So pretty quick. We did a couple of different tests after that first day. Our main ski guy, Andreas Brugger has got some elaborate systems of being able to really nail down the balance and the flex of the ski in a short amount of time. We went through probably four loops of tests before we were ready to say, "go."
What would you say the biggest difference of Flip Core compared to other rocker technologies is?
The big difference is that they're much more stable, they have much better edge grip, and they feel almost like a traditional ski in terms of the length of the edge on the snow. They don't feel short necessarily, and they feel really smooth, really balanced, and really stable. Yet they still maintain that fun feeling, that easy feeling that you get from all of the rockered skis. So as I said to you before, we really try to bridge the gap and bring the best of both worlds together. We tried to solve the sum of the problems with Flip Core. And can we do it better? Probably. I mean, there's things to improve, for sure. And we're working on that as well, and I'm sure everybody else is also. Flip Core is still evolving.
Do you guys see Flip Core as still in its evolution and still changing and growing?
I think that rocker and how it's made and the shapes of the camber itself I think are completely a work in progress. I think there's lots for the consumer and the retailer to look forward to in the future. I think there's a lot of fun things to come that's just going to improve it.
Why did IQ Max leave once Flip Core came about?
The benefits of Flip Core for that upper end person, we felt outweigh the benefits of IQ Max. We like IQ for that sport performance skier and down. The skiers where the most crucial part, is that the ski needs to be able to bend a little bit in the middle. It's that whole flex that's really important for the control factor for that sport [erformance and down skier. They need to be able to be out of balance, yet still in control. And so that's where IQ really makes it smooth and easy.
So the two don't work together, but the benefits of Flip Core outweighed IQ Max?
For the upper end. And then the benefits of IQ outweighed Flip Core for that lower end stuff.
Do you feel rockers here to stay or is it a trend?
Nope, I feel it's here to stay. There's too many benefits in rocker to go away. It makes skiing easier. You notice I keep saying, "Easy, easy, easy." One of our brand philosophy's at Blizzard is to build the best performance product within each target group, that's also easy to use. It's critical for us to make the skis easy. Anybody can build a really high performance ski, but the trick is to build it so you can use it. So that anybody can use it, and you have a wide spectrum of skiers using that product. And the wider you can make it, while still maintaining the performance, the better the product is. Example A is the Bonafide, which is an incredibly high performance ski, that's pretty darn easy to use.
Do you still see a place for traditional camber?
I do in that I don't think we'll ever be 100% pure in the customer's philosophy. There will always be those people out there that's like, "I don't need that. I want this." And so, you could ask the same question about the boots. Are we always going to have some four buckle overlap boots? Probably. Because that customer, I don't think they're ever going to go away.
Alright, last question. In the history of skiing, what would you say is the single biggest breakthrough in technology to advance the sport?
(Long Pause) Probably a plastic shell ski boot. You know, going from a leather boot to a true boot, you got much more support, much more sensitivity, and better response. Without that, we couldn't be doing any of what we're doing today.
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