Words: Alex Buecking
Late one night in 2005 at a party in Bozeman, Montana, Eric Newman, a Montana State University student, announced over cheap beers his business idea for the semester—Montana's first custom ski company. The next morning, 47 of the 50 original investors woke up with terrible hangovers and, subsequently, backed out. Two of the three remaining partners would eventually step aside, making Newman the sole proprietor of the company.
A skier at heart, the college kid remained resolute. When the time came to name the Montana-based company, he learned the Iroquois word "Seneca" of the Seneca Indian tribe means "people of the big mountain." And Seneca Boards was born.
Soon thereafter, Newman and a classmate scraped enough pennies together to build their first press, and the first pair of skis ignited in flames. The project was further sidetracked in May 2008 when Newman broke his neck, sternum, and back in five places after coming up short in the park at Big Sky. The injury was a pivotal moment in his life, and a lengthy recovery gave him time to consider what it was, exactly, he was trying to get out of skiing. "I've learned to calculate risks better and have been able to apply that to business," he says.
Since the fiery first batch and injury, Newman, now 26, has recovered, graduated college, restructured his business in a new workshop in Belgrade (10 miles outside Bozeman), and upgraded Seneca Boards' infrastructure. A new custom press enables him to try ideas whenever a fresh scheme comes to mind, and he single-handedly produced 120 pairs of skis during the 2011-12 winter.
"When you do it yourself, you can change anything that you want overnight," he says. "You don't have to wait for someone else to approve it. You can go into your shop in the middle of the night, change out molds, try a new idea, and be on snow the next day."
This freedom, along with Newman's father and two brothers invested in the company as silent partners, is what enables Seneca's fully customizable ethos. He believes knowing his customers personally is what makes his skis different.
"I've sat down and had a beer or coffee with them, or chatted for a long time on the phone about what they're looking for. I know who they are—what makes them tick; what kind of boots they have; how long they've skied; what their girlfriend looks like—every detail about them," says Newman.
"They're the most durable skis I've ever skied on," says Bozeman local Pete McClane. "I've been in situations where I've nailed some rocks or a tree and expected to look down and see a broken ski, but there's not even a ding."
Seneca offers all-mountain, big-mountain, and park skis starting at $625, semi-custom skis from $750, and full-custom skis for $1,000. Newman says he likes to keep transactions on a personal level and sells directly through SenecaBoards.com.
"Just being able to ask Eric to add flex here, widen it there," adds McClane, "it's like having your own personal ski maker."
Due to the modest presence of industry, population, and isolated geographic location, Southwest Montana may not seem like an ideal location to establish and grow a ski company. But what the area lacks in convenience, Newman says, it makes up for with a strong sense of community. Through the Seneca Boards' website, Newman encourages skiers to stop in for a complimentary beer and help raise funds for Eagle Mount, a charity that aims to provide therapeutic recreational activities for people with disabilities and cancer.
"We earn our money just like we earn our turns," says Newman. "You only earn your turns when you hike for them, and you only earn your money when you have given back to your community."