In a sport where most icons are known for their on-snow feats, Tim Petrick has established himself as one of skiing’s most influential people without winning a gold medal or logging a film segment.
Over the last three decades, Petrick has risen done everything from teaching skiing to holding VP titles at companies including K2, Olin Skis and Booth Creek ski resorts. He’s currently the President of Rossignol North America, where he’s trying to return one of the world’s legendary ski brands to the top of the global market.
This is the first installment of our Business of Snow Series, a monthly column highlighting the personalities who make snowsports run and the unique challenges in working in the business of snow.
OTS: Tell me what you see right now as we’re doing this interview?
TP: I’m in the Rossignol Mountain Center in Kimball Junction, Utah, which is just outside of Park City. It’s a super handy location; I have a great view of the mountains of The Canyons, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley. I have the Olympic Jumping hill immediately across from me. It’s not a bad place to hang your hat. Great recreational opportunities here, obviously. Snowbird and Alta are less than an hour away, and we have a lot of great local skiing right here, so it’s a pretty fun place to be.
OTS: You worked in France for quite a while as well.
TP: When I first joined Rossignol in June of 2009, I was based in France. I lived there for a year and a half basically. I commuted back and forth, but I was responsible for global marketing and sales. I moved back over here at the start of 2011 and took over the office of President, which is responsible for North American sales.
OTS: After so many years at K2, what was it like to walk into the offices of a brand you had been competing against, and say hello to all your new team for the first time?
TP: I won’t kid you, it was a little weird at first when you’ve been competing very aggressively against a brand and suddenly you’re working for it. It’s a big change of gears. It took me probably six months to fully feel at home with the people who work at Rossignol around the world, people who I knew of, but didn’t really know. As I got to know them I got to realize that like every organization I’ve worked with in the ski industry, it’s populated by people who are really passionate about the sport. There’s a lot easier ways to make a living than to make it around skiing and snowboarding, but when you get through the competitive veneer, you realize that these places are populated by people who are really, sincerely interested in pushing these sports forward.
If you can run rockered skis on water-infused glare ice on the World Cup, you can certainly ski them on your average groomer that’s been power tilled to death and have no diminished holding power.
It’s been a wonderful experience being here, particularly in the United States. The year and half in France was a great learning experience, but a huge challenge given the language barrier. It’s difficult trying to manage people in your own language, let alone trying to manage them in their second language or your fledging French. The time over there was a challenge, but since getting back over here in the States, I’ve really been enjoying my life a lot.
OTS: Tell us about the Rossignol Group and the brands that comprise it.
TP: Rossignol has been making skis since 1907. Rossignol was started by Abel Rossignol, who was a furniture maker in Voirons, France, which is in the Isere/Grenoble region, which is right where the current offices are. Rossignol acquired Dynastar in the early 60s, Look in the early 80s and Lange in the late 80s. The brands in the group are Rossignol, Dynastar, Lange and Look bindings. It’s about a €200 million company globally; it has 1,400 employees around the world, and is sold in 35-40 countries.
OTS: Rossignol is steeped in history and ski tradition. How do you both celebrate that heritage and keep your brand fresh and modern?
TP: Some of the most legendary skis in the history of the sport were created by Rossignol. But the good news is that the company really hasn’t rested on its laurels and said, ‘we’ll just repackage the same old thing.’ We’ve got a number of skis in recent years that have come on board in a big way, like the S7 and the Avenger, and some of the women’s models like the Experience and Temptation. We’re getting great test results, we have great skiing product. It’s just a matter of trying to listen to the customers, and trying to build stuff that really works. I think the company has accomplished that.
It certainly fell on some difficult times with the retail community because the sell-through wasn’t good, the delivery wasn’t good, the profitability wasn’t that great. There are lots of reasons that the company faltered at the retail level, but at the consumer level, the brand has always had a mystique, an authenticity and a credibility. We’re going to post really great growth coming into this 11/12 season, and it’s because we’ve addressed some of the deficiencies relative to delivery, relative to profitability, relative to graphics and overall relationship with the customers.
It’s really never been a question of performance; after 100 years in business, we ought to be able to make skis. It was really a question of business practices, which the company has worked really hard at addressing, both domestically and internationally.
OTS: The last few years have seen some major changes in technology, with the S7 that you mentioned as a prime example. How successful has the ski industry been in communicating that technology to the public?
TP: I think it’s been something where everyone has been feeling their way on the whole rocker thing for the last couple of years. We’re going to put our best foot forward here as we come into the 11/12 season, as we explain the whole notion of rocker, and how rocker manifests itself in different kinds of skis, whether on a hard snow ski or a pure powder ski.
There's a lot easier ways to make a living than to make it around skiing and snowboarding, but when you get through the competitive veneer, you realize that these places are populated by people who are really, sincerely interested in pushing these sports forward.
We’re really working on trying to communicate it better. Do I think that there’s a lot of confusion out there? Absolutely. But despite that, I think the whole industry is rightly gravitating toward a technology that genuinely makes skiing a lot easier and more fun. There’s not a lot of disadvantage with a moderate amount or rocker in terms of holding power, and I think the proof of that is that if you can run rockered skis on water-infused glare ice on the World Cup, you can certainly ski them on your average groomer that’s been power tilled to death and have no diminished holding power.
And I think the sidecut thing is also a huge benefit that’s still being explored. Engineers are still trying to find a way to build a better mousetrap there. I don’t think that’s over. And design materials, selectively using specific materials, playing with weight, and even boots. There’s just so much innovation going on with the sport at so many levels. I just see the sport getting better and more fun every year.
OTS: Tell me about the product cycle, how a ski goes from initial design, to preliminary testing in the fall, to actually being on shelves in stores.
TP: The design brief starts out by trying to identify the performance target you’re looking for, the target customer and price range. Those briefs typically happen six to nine months before the first prototypes get on snow. The testing process can easily take nine months to a year before you really have the thing honed in, and you have it right. And then of course, you have to figure out how to manufacture it, because there’s a difference between making one-off, hand-made prototypes and having a manufacturable product that you can replicate consistently and have the same performance that you had in that prototype. It’s a tricky business, and one that really benefits from experience, technology and equipment that allows you to replicate the prototypes you’ve settled in on, so they work they same way.
OTS: How many iterations of a ski would you go through, from the first prototype that hits snow until you’re ready to start producing?
TP: I would say 10-15 would not be unusual. You’ll usually have a benchmark, either your own ski or some competitor’s ski. You’ll have one or two of those, plus you’ll have three of your own first iterations. Then you’ll pick the best two of those, and then go to the next test, where you’re still keeping the benchmarks in, and you have three to five alternatives. It goes like that. Sometimes you can do it in, say, 9 or 12 pairs of skis, and sometimes it’s 20. When it’s a really condition-specific ski, powder skis for instance, it’s very helpful to have powder, and of course, you don’t always have it. That can take some time and change your launch plans because you’re just not ready to bring something to market if you haven’t actually tested it in the right conditions yet.
The good news is that the stuff, not just from Rossignol, but from other companies is just so good. There are very few bad skis out there, whereas 15 or 20 years that wasn’t the case.
OTS: What does freeskiing in Sochi mean for Rossignol and for the sport?
TP: Putting those sports into the Olympics is just fantastic. I’m so happy that FIS has woken up to something that’s been going on for 15 years now. It’ll be good for the sport, it’s good for kids. The X Games certainly is an alternative and an important avenue, but the Olympics are important and they legitimize things. It’s going to be an aspirational thing for young people, and give them another route to go, other than X Games and more local competitions. It’s really healthy. The future of the sport clearly is about keeping young people interested and involved so they can be the future of winter activities.
OTS: What’s the biggest challenge facing Rossignol, and what’s the biggest opportunity?
TP: One of the big challenges that we have as an industry is really participation. Despite lift ticket sales that are posted on an annual basis, I just have the sense that the sport is not growing. It needs to grow. I think that if things aren’t growing, they’re kind of dying. While I don’t think that skiing and snowboarding are dying, I don’t think they’re really vibrant and healthy right now. If you look at hardgoods sales, you see a gradual decline on a global level. Some of that is a product of renting, but I don’t think it’s healthy. If someone is a renter, I don’t think they’re as committed as an owner. That whole emergence of rental, and the fact that I don’t think participation is growing is something that’s a concern to me as someone who’s been fortunate enough to make a living out of this business since I was out of high school basically.
In terms of opportunity, a big part of that is the ability to really effectively connect the dots through social networking and new media to be able to have a closer relationship with our customers and to be able to understand what they want and need better. We want to be able to tell stories about why our stuff is right for them. We’re very focused on that, and the potential of that is just starting to happen.
- Interview by Patrick Crawford
This interview is the first installment in the OTS Business of Snow series. To read the second installment with Senior Vice President of Aspen Skiing Company’s Mountain Division, David Perry, CLICK HERE».
Correction Aug. 27: Tim has had film segents: two in Warren Miller and several in PSIA and instructional videos. Sorry, Tim, to shortchange your film career.