Obermeyer still jacketing Aspen, six decades later
December 29, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoASPEN The founding of the Aspen-based ski apparel company Sport Obermeyer is the stuff that legends are made of.The core of the story is well-known to many Aspenites: Klaus Obermeyer created the company in 1947 as a way to help keep ski school students in town longer [to help ski school students endure the mountain weather?] so he and other instructors at Aspen Mountain could earn a living.Obermeyer applied a can-do approach as an enterprising 28-year-old ski instructor. His students got cold, so he supplied turtleneck sweaters and puffy parkas. They got fried by the sun and cut their ski trips short, so he created a high-altitude sun block.The company’s early struggles aren’t quite as well known. Sport Obermeyer didn’t soar from day one. Klaus didn’t dare quit his day job at first. He kept working as a ski instructor and “at night I worked on the business,” he said.He worked on a shoestring budget because he had no choice. Obermeyer recalled seeking $5,000 for a start-up loan from a well-known executive at the original Aspen Bank. The executive was skeptical of the business venture and the idea of backing it with a loan.Obermeyer recalled he was working in his small shop in the Cowenhoven Building at about midnight one winter’s eve when the banker came by and saw him toiling away. That industriousness was enough to sway the banker. He invited Klaus to come have a drink that night at a local watering hole and informed him he would approve the loan.
Obermeyer continued to work as a ski instructor for 12 seasons until he was sure his fledgling company could fly on its own. By then, he said, it cost him money to teach rather than work on ski apparel.Obermeyer hired his first employee in 1956 or ’57, he said. Martha from Munich knocked on his door looking for a job. Timing was everything. Klaus happened to be using his miner’s shack in Aspen as the company warehouse. Stockpiled clothing filled every nook and cranny and spilled out the door into the front yard. Martha took over the packing and shipping and was a hell of a good cook, too, Obermeyer said.Sport Obermeyer celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. It now employs about 50 people in design and marketing at its headquarters in Aspen.At 87, Klaus is still instrumental in the company he founded – even if he won’t admit it. “I do very little work,” he said, as a smile lit up his face. “I just like to keep everybody happy.”The hierarchy is flat at Sport Obermeyer rather than shaped like a pyramid. They need a potato sack at the door with a sign saying, “Please deposit ego here,” he laughed.For the record, Klaus is the president and chief executive officer of the company. His team includes daughter Susan Obermeyer-Strauss as creative director and a son, Wally, as vice chairman of the board of directors.
Despite his efforts to downplay his role, Klaus has figured out how to keep his company growing for 60 years. The keys, he said, are to be flexible, watch the many factors that affect fashion in the ski apparel business and always strive to improve.”We are lucky that we can live in our laboratory,” Obermeyer is fond of saying. (The company applies the six-inch powder rule – employees have a green light to go skiing when there are six inches of fresh snow. Sometimes, he said, the measurement is made diagonally.)On more than one occasion, Obermeyer has made it clear the success in the business in any given year is more in the hands of Mother Nature than anyone. “The business is good where there is snow,” he said.This season is no exception. Sales in the Northwest are “phenomenal” due to heavy snows; sales have been “good” in California and the Rocky Mountain states; “okay” in the Midwest; and “horrible” in the Northeast.Sport Obermeyer’s share of the domestic ski apparel market continues to grow, despite the fickle nature of the weather. To assure continued growth, the company relies on the Internet to guide customers to the closest retail outlets that sell Obermeyer products. It does not, however, sell its products online directly.A central theme in the company’s philosophy always has been to nurture good relationships with retailers. Obermeyer said he prefers working with small, specialty shops where the staff tends to be more knowledgeable and attentive to customers.
Another key to growth is tapping into international markets. Russia has emerged as a strong market, as has Chile. Hong Kong, somewhat surprisingly, is a strong sales location for ski wear because purchases there are duty free.Somebody stole the Obermeyer name for ski wear sales in Argentina. “They put out cheap stuff,” Obermeyer said. “It’s nothing we can be proud of.”He is proud of how his company emerged from its humble beginnings, and that it has remained independent and based in Aspen. Sport Obermeyer’s success has made it the apple in the eye of suitors.”I could sell this three times per week,” Obermeyer said. “When you sell it, you never know what the hell they’re going to do with it.”While there are no promises the company will remain locally-owned and independent once it outlives him, he takes solace in that a “very good team” is in place to keep the legacy intact.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.