Catching up with Nordica USA President Willy Booker
By John C. Davies
Passing idle Alpine chairlifts in the bosom of skiing heritage-into Kitzbuhel and past the Hahnenkamm finish line-Nordica U.S.A President Willy Booker and I conversed about the evolution of his brand over local chocolates and Haribo gummy bears. We were on our way to Innsbruck, from Mittersill, Austria, where Nordica produces 90 percent of its skis in an old Blizzard factory the company recently purchased and refurbished. Earlier that day, a Nordica team gathered on the Kaprun Glacier near Mittersill for a beautiful day of fall skiing as they tested a line of sidecountry skis it will introduce next year.
Booker has a long familiarity with the ski industry. His mom has managed the Loveland ski shop outside Denver for 30 years, and his dad is a ski instructor. Booker raced for Burke Mountain Academy and the University of Vermont and upon graduating, began working for Nordica. After eight years with the company, Nordica recently named Booker its president of U.S. operations. In embracing the growing freeride market, both in the U.S. and Europe, the privately owned Italian company has invested heavily. Nordica recently purchased a 42,000-foot research and development center in Treviso, Italy, a part of Nordica HQ, and the Blizzard ski factory in Mittersill, for which it has purchased state-of-the-art presses and finishing equipment. Last year the company introduced the Ace of Spades boot for park and pipe as well as freeride, followed by this year’s release of the Radict, a fat backcountry freestyle ski that features Nordicaâ€™s new Camrock technology. For 2011-12, Nordica will continue to evolve with a new freeride boot and the sidecountry line. Needless to say, Booker had plenty to talk about.
Powder: All right, Willy, tell us why we’re here.
Willy Booker: Nordica ski sales were becoming large enough that we needed our own facility, for a number of reasons. You don’t want other people building your skis because you’re showing your technology before the product comes to the market. It’s also huge in controlling your own quality. We have 100 percent control of our product. Austria also has the greatest ski-building heritage. This area is the cradle of alpine skiing.
So what’s going on at Nordica?
Well, Nordica is in a unique place. We are one of the historic ski brands in the industry, but the market has changed a lot in the last 10 years and the rate of change in the ski industry is incredible. From the product side, when years ago we had 200 centimeter skis with very little sidecut, and now you have skis that are 30 percent shorter with twice the sidecut, and then 10 times wider and now with rocker skis, the rate of change is incredible. But also, the consumers are changing, and Nordica has to change with those consumers to stay relevant.
Has it been challenging for Nordica to adapt to the changing market?
It has been difficult for people that have done the same things for many years successfully to change. It’s very difficult for people to try to find new ways to be successful. And that was a problem that Nordica had. And that’s one of the things that I’ve really tried to change in my role and the people that we have here in Europe have been fantastic in changing as well. You have to adapt and bring new products that are relevant to what people are doing today and that’s the fun part of the job, honestly. We were doing it today (on the glacier). We were up there testing a new category of skis that we feel the market is asking for in the future and it’s a difficult process because it takes calculation and risk and investment that doesn’t always come back to you. We’re building a ski that is almost two years out from when the consumers can buy them.
What’s the story behind the sidecountry line?
For the sidecountry line, we're really looking at the evolution of all-mountain skiing. The Powder reader is a good example. You get your Powder each month and you aspire to be where all those pictures are taken. Many are taken inside the boundaries of a ski resort, but most are not. We want to give people the opportunity to chase that aspiration. That's where the sport's moving at this current moment and more ski areas are opening up access to that terrain. And so we're trying to build products that will help people get there. So when they get to Jackson and they want to do Four Pines and Granite, they can get out there in a safe way and in a way they can enjoy.
We talked about how ski boots have been slow to keep up with the evolution of skis. Why is that and what is Nordica doing about it?
Ski design has changed drastically in the last 15 years. Skis are easier to innovate because ski molds are cheaper and it's easier to come up with new designs and test it, and if it doesn't work you can go in another direction. Ski boots are another animal. It's very difficult to build new boots. You might have an idea but making sure that it works and is comfortable, and then building the boot molds is very expensive. So it's more expensive but also more time intensive to build ski boots, and that's probably why ski boot design has been slower to change. Especially as the market has pressed inward over the last couple of years, the amount of money for investments is smaller.
But the end result is that you have skis that have really changed not just where we are skiing, but also how we are skiing. So it doesn't make sense that you would have a boot that was made for how we used to ski. We have to find ways to build new boots for the new style of skiing. A good example of that was the Ace of Spades, which we introduced last year. (Rory) Bushfield and (Peter) Olenick and Tucker Perkins and TJ Schiller, all those guys had input in that product and it really came differently than what your traditional ski boot would have been. The stance is different, the fit is different, the heel retention—which is so important—is different.
Obviously the market in Europe is a lot different than the market in the U.S. Is it difficult as an Italian-owned company to address the needs in the U.S?
You always have a communication issue. But I think (the markets) are closer right now than where they've been in a long time. We're on our way right now to Innsbruck with the goal of getting to Zurich to go to Freestyle.ch, which is a huge crossover freestyle event and one of biggest comps in the world. Europe is changing. You don't see 50 to 70,000 kids watching a ski race (like you'll see at the freestyle event).
What's Nordica doing to embrace this market?
We talked back and forth with our product team and our athletes about what's going to deliver the right performance in powder. We wanted a really modern all-terrain freestyle ski. And the result of that is the Radict. And it's got some unique characteristics. It's got camber and it has rocker in the tip and tail and a really unique shovel profile and a really progressive tip where the sidecut continues well past the point of contact, which is different than a lot of other skis out there. Now we're building a family around that ski and we'll have a couple of other skis that will have a similar rocker technology and similar sidecut and profile because it's working.
The Radict changed my definition of what I thought I could do skiing, which was cool. I never thought I would enjoy skiing switch in powder and I tried it and it was hard. Like, I had to do everything I could to ski switch in powder. And this ski, the first time I got on it, I flipped around, and I was skiing switch in powder like it was my job.
There are a lot of skis out there. What sets the Nordica skis apart from the rest?
I think we've got a unique philosophy in building skis. We' re always shooting for a really high quality product in the end that's going to make skiing a better experience. And that's why we didn't find the right way, right away. We built so many skis and many were good skis, but they weren't great skis. All of the skis we make are handmade, full wood core sandwich construction, and you've got to see it. When we say handmade, that's not an exaggeration. That quality really comes through in the performance of the skis.
We could buy a cheaper wood core. Many people probably wouldn't know the difference; you can't cut the ski open and look at the wood core. But if you want the best product in the end, you have to start with the best materials and then preparing those materials in the right way. Do you mill the sidewalls and the wood core separately or do you mill them at the same time? Well, there's a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it, and we don't skip any of those steps or cut any corners because it definitely sacrifices the quality of the product in the end. The end result is all about taking all of those steps to build a really fantastic product.