All photos by Alexa Miller
The minivan floats southbound on Interstate 95, the eight-lane highway that connects every major city and byway between Maine and Florida. Beneath the gray New Jersey sky, the road looks like a cast iron skillet with tiny toy cars. Richie Fredericks pilots his Chrysler Town & Country minivan slow enough to avoid the cops but fast enough to make me nervous.
Richie, 78, bought the 10-year-old van two weeks ago after he lost his beloved Honda Element in a flood in Ocean City. A New Jersey native, he has lived in Ocean City, a beach town known for its boardwalk and pizza parlors, since 1988. He spent the previous 20 years in Sugarbush, Vermont. He loved Vermont, but Jersey suits him: the accent, the striper fishing, the short trips to Atlantic City. During the flood, he was trying to help his wife, who was stuck. Saved the wife, lost both cars, just like that.
Richie talks fast, a skill that helps him at his job driving up and down the Eastern seaboard and Mid-Atlantic states selling skis for Fischer. After starting out in retail at Philadelphia's old—and since defunct—Mogul Ski Shop in the late 1960s, Richie became a rep a few years later and has been selling ski equipment for more than four decades since. He's sold skis in nearly every state on the East Coast and spent a year in California. ("That didn't work out," he says, "because the retailers were buying Mercedes Benzes and boats instead of paying their bills.") It's hard to say, but he estimates that in his career—which includes stints at Atomic, more than 20 years at Elan, and 10 at Fischer—he's sold around 60,000 pairs of skis.
When he started, the ski industry was the place to be, especially if you were a rep. Today, customers can see new product year-round on the internet, but back then sales reps alone had all the sexy new equipment. They drove from place to place, skiing along the way, sharing their secrets with shops and wide-eyed customers, making friends and good money. In some cases, a rep could pull down a half million dollars a year selling just one brand, then spend the summer surfing in Mexico.
It's not so easy anymore. In 2017, the future of the ski industry is more tenuous. Equipment continues to evolve to make the sport easier across all disciplines, but a range of factors, including high cost and lack of accessibility, not to mention erratic weather due to climate change, has cast a shadow on its long-term viability. Retail shops have struggled to find an answer to internet sales, while corporations push brands to meet quarterly goals and please investors. In the past year, the ski world saw America's most iconic brand—K2—sold after its corporate owner threatened to unceremoniously shut it down, along with many other popular wintersports brands. Armada—independent since it was founded in 2002—was bought by another corporate giant, Sweden-based Amer Sports. Big brands are also exploring what many smaller ski brands already do well: Cut out the middle man by selling directly online, a move they see as inevitable but that could further jeopardize shops and reps.
Richie estimates that in his career—which includes stints at Atomic, more than 20 years at Elan, and 10 at Fischer—he's sold around 60,000 pairs of skis.
For Richie and other reps, surviving means being creative, innovative, and showing the most American of traits: good old-fashioned hustle. He is one soldier in an army of sales reps across the country, the unsung heroes of the ski world operating behind the scenes to make sure that beautiful new skis and boots find their way to shop floors and into skiers' hands every fall. Rarer still are those who work territories like the Southeast, where skiing isn't exactly part of the culture and where shops and ski areas might be 200 miles apart. But that's Richie's turf. He drives 40,000 miles through the region every year, along with hopping a few flights to Florida, to make sure he understands what skiers and retailers there want. Convincing a few more shops to carry Fischer translates to more customers, which means a better bottom line for his brand, the shops, and himself.
Richie, who had been a cop before the excitement of the ski world lured him in decades ago, is a handsome man who looks well shy of his 78 years. Crystal clear blue eyes reveal attentiveness, his smile turns up easily, and curly light blond hair gives him a boyish appearance. He's fit and lean but doesn't work out. His only vice: Southern sweet tea, a thermos of which rattles around the cup holder. During his ski bum days in Vermont, friends called him "Richie Good Guy," a smooth-talking son-of-a-gun who could get whatever he wanted.
Left hand on the wheel, he holds the other up in the air while telling stories about the crazy days of the Snowsports Industries America tradeshow, when it was held in Las Vegas back in the '80s.
"…We leave there and go to the Round Bar. Of course, all the young foxy hookers show up. Here we are, each one of us has a hooker, and we go up to the room. My friend says, 'Anything these guys want to do is OK with me,' and he takes a handful of chips and throws them on the bed… I mean, it was insane. Insane!"
In the back of the van, Richie has more than a dozen freshly tuned skis, a pile of boots, a pop-up Fischer demo tent, and a roller suitcase. Crowning the stack is an old blue sleeping bag and his pillow in a white cotton case.
We're driving to Snowshoe, West Virginia, to attend the last dealer demo of the season. It's Richie's final chance to secure orders from three key accounts. If he can nail down those shops, he'll have a successful year. He doesn't know exactly where he'll stay for the night, but that's never held him back before. As he keeps telling stories while weaving down the interstate, it's clear he's the type of guy who's seen just about everything in the ski world and rolls with what's on the table.
In 1990, the global ski market produced around 6 million skis annually. Today, it's about 1.8 million.
"We had a sales manager once who was more of a used-car salesman: What can I do for you today, boys? What's up? What are we doing today?" Richie impersonates, bobbing his shoulders up and down for effect. "We all had these little cubicles at the show, and these guys walk in and say, 'We have this piece of paper for Richie. But until we give him this paper, you have to do something for us.' And the sales manager says, 'Anything you want.' So they clear off the table, and they take a big bottle out and do a big bull's-eye of cocaine in the middle of the table. They say, 'You do that, he gets this.' The guy says, 'Well, I don't do that.' 'OK, come on, let's go give it to somebody else.' 'Whoa whoa whoa,' he says. 'OK, give me the thing.' So he grabs the straw"—Richie starts cackling over the steering wheel—"and he does this great big ole fuckin' thing. Two hours later, we had to help him out of the show, and they handed me an order for 2,500 pairs of skis."
Those days were of another era in skiing, and they are long gone. Now, selling skis is a struggle. Richie is constantly on the lookout for new ways to keep his business up. Whether that's maintaining personal relationships with his 45 different outlets across the territory or keeping pace with the latest trends, Richie knows that it's a hard road to navigate, but he keeps on driving.
According to the latest figures, the U.S. winter sports market, in 2014-15, generated $4.5 billion in revenue, up 2 percent from the year before, with sales of skis generating $525 million, down 9 percent. So though it certainly faces challenges, the business of selling skis is still sizeable and ski reps play a vital role. But it's undeniable that the ski market and its consumers have shifted.
In 1990, the global ski market, consisting of just a few dozen ski companies, produced around 6 million skis annually, says Lib Tech president and CEO Anthony DeRocco, who spent more than two decades at the helm of K2. Today, it's about 1.8 million, with more than a hundred companies vying for a piece of the pie.
More competition can be a good thing for consumers. The retail price for a top-end ski, despite advancements in shape and technology, hasn't changed that much over the years. As the cost for just about everything else in skiing—jackets, goggles, burgers, lift tickets—has gone up, skis have remained relatively stable. All-carbon models and customized shapes aside, you can still find an excellently crafted ski for less than $800. And the majority of skiers still buy their equipment at specialty shops. In 2015, brick-and-mortar shops brought in $2.25 billion in sales, versus $1 billion for online retailers, according to SIA.
Still, Richie estimates that around 40 percent of the retailers he used to work with between New Jersey and Florida are no longer in business. "They're gone!" he exclaims.
"It's really confusing right now how to stay in it," he says. "With everything going on with skis, boots are saving it." He's right: You can't try on a ski boot online.
The road to Snowshoe is long and rural with nary a straightaway. The route travels through numerous bucolic valleys, where cows outnumber humans and silos are the tallest structures. The two-lane highway cuts through thick woods and follows a picturesque trout stream called the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Richie is hauling ass because he's about to run out of gas and nothing is open on this exceptionally pleasant Sunday evening.
Snowshoe's base village sits, strangely, at the top of the mountain, leaving the hotels and restaurants ravaged by wind, rain, fog, and snow. Shortly after arriving, Richie is dismayed that the closest place to stay is at a friend's house at the bottom of the winding access road. He has to set up his demo tent—at the top—by 7 a.m. I had reserved a hotel room in the village and invite Richie to stay on the couch, which sits next to a large window providing stunning views of the Allegheny Mountains. He gladly accepts, making us roomies for the next two and a half days.
That night, Richie rolls out his sleeping bag and pulls on a pair of light blue pajamas. I feel a pang of guilt allowing a man who's nearly twice my age to sleep on a couch. I briefly consider offering to trade him, but, hey, that's his deal. The next morning, Richie is up before the sun. He didn't sleep very well, he says. Snowcats drove by that big window all night long.
About 175 people show up for the demo that day, with one dealer driving 400 miles away from Ober Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Old friends and some new ones come up to the tent to see what's new. Richie, wearing leather gloves and a salt-stained cap from Marietta College, where his son rowed crew, turns screws on the bindings and de-burrs ski edges while cracking jokes.
A ski patroller with a big silver mustache approaches and offers up a contest to see who's older, him or Richie, obviously thinking he's the senior. The two men, chests puffed up, do the 'How old are you?' dance for a few seconds. The patroller states that he is 68. Richie graciously offers that he's got him by a few years, and the man continues on his way.
When the patroller is out of earshot, Richie smiles and stabs me with his finger, proud to be the oldest guy around and still doing it. That he is still doing it puzzles some of his friends, but Richie says he loves the job, the sport of skiing, and the camaraderie that goes with it. And besides, he feels too young to retire.
While Richie holds court at the tent, I catch up with Casey Straub, the 40-year-old manager of Alpine Ski Shop from Fairfax, Virginia, for a few laps on the Ballhooter chairlift. He's testing skis with one of his employees, 21-year-old Missy Ford. They are both shredders. Straub lived in Tahoe and Salt Lake City for a few years and even had a small part in the 1999 TGR film Uprising. He eventually moved back to Virginia because it's home, he says.
"Reps aren't just business partners. It's a personal relationship," he says as we drift up Ballhooter through heavy, humid air. "They drive by and stop in the shop and we'll do dinner. They are so important to what we do."
He says the demo is late in the season to be making orders, but the shop can still make changes if it wants to. "We're gonna pick up Fischer this year," he adds. "Their skis are awesome."
Another shop Richie is hoping to get is Freestyle, which has locations in Charlottesville, Virginia, and another at Wintergreen Ski Area. The owner, Sepp Kober, commands a lot of respect in Southeastern skiing. His dad was known as the father of skiing in the South, as he developed many of the region's ski areas, worked as a rep for numerous years, and started the Freestyle shop back in 1983. The reps know that getting into Freestyle is an important step to having a presence in the Southeast. Forty-three years old with a closely cropped gray goatee, Kober methodically tests skis throughout the day, coming by the Fischer tent a few different times. But like a poker player, he doesn't tip his hand either way.
The next morning, the Snowshoe village is a misty mountaintop. Despite the threat of rain, the Ballhooter quad still has a long line. The trails are white ribbons of manmade snow surrounded by grass and dirt, but they are full of Southeastern skiers at their finest. I ski to the lake at the bottom of the hill, hitting Jersey booters on the side of the trail. Some skiers are outfitted in camo. Two guys on snowblades are wearing furry bear outfits, incoming storm be damned.
At noon, the clouds open up and rain pours down. Within minutes, I'm soaked through, but most of the other skiers, including parents with small children, don't mind. They're on spring break, and they're getting their turns in.
Back at the village, reps have taken their tents down. If you happened to walk up, you'd never know there were hundreds of skis here just moments earlier. It reminds me of a carnival. Pack it up, pack it in, hit the road.
Richie looks tired, but in a good way. Kober signed on to carry Fischer. A big selling point was Fischer's line of Vacuum-molded boots. It requires an investment of close to $15,000 over three years from the shop to carry the necessary fitting equipment and software. It's a huge pill to swallow for any shop, but the idea—that industry folks say might save ski shops, if not the entire ecosystem—is to get people into the store with an innovative product.
By the end of the season, Richie will have increased his business by 23 percent. Of the three new Vacuum machines Fischer sold to retailers across the country during the season, Richie was responsible for two. But it wasn't enough. In June, he lost his contract with Fischer, who said in a statement they were restructuring sales territories. For Richie, it was an abrupt end to a 10-year relationship and, perhaps, a 40-year career. To not go out on his own terms hurt him deeply. "It's devastating to me," he said.
In the hotel room, Richie rolls up his sleeping bag, packs his clothes into his duffel, and walks out into the rain. He needs to get back to Ocean City to see his wife and will switch up his route along the way to visit his mother-in-law, who lives in a retirement home in Charlottesville. At the van, there's a kid standing there, dripping wet, with a pair of boots slung over his shoulder. He asks for a ride and Richie tells him to hop in. Richie then closes the door, starts the engine, and drives off.
This story originally appeared in the September 2017 (46.1) issue of POWDER. To have great feature stories delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.