Unity Snowboards, a Summit County original
This feature on Silverthorne, Colorado, based Unity Snowboards and company founder Pete Wurster was first published in the winter 2014 edition of Explore Summit magazine. It also appeared in a weekend edition of The Denver Post, as well as in the Summit Daily News and Explore Summit Weekender. Excerpt below. A link to the text for the full story can be found here. Photos and story by Sebastian Foltz.
In a world where snowboards and skis come off assembly lines in massive numbers, it’s hard to be the little guy. Almost every year new independent ski and snowboard companies enter the market, and almost every year others fall out of it.
But for nearly 20 years, one small company has held its own in the highly competitive world of snowboard production, and its building process from start to finish happens right here in Summit County.
Founded in 1995, Unity Snowboards is the brainchild of Pete Wurster and former partner and childhood friend Paul Krikava; the entire company runs out of a small section of a two-story warehouse in Silverthorne.
Wurster — now sole owner of the company since buying Krikava out in 2001 — recently took a break from base-grinding some new splitboards in his shop to chat about what it takes to stay relevant year after year.
“For me it’s just a labor-of-love thing,” he said. “I love working with my hands.”
But it’s also a meticulous process that didn’t come overnight. Wurster, now 42, said it took him and his five employees about six years to get truly dialed in to a point where they’re now at their most efficient, and cost effective.
This year the company produced 1,000 snowboards across its six models, down from about 2,500 in 2008, prior to the market bottoming out.
While he’s currently enjoying what he called an acceptable profit margin, Wurster would like to get back to that 2,500 mark in the future. He’s hoping to continue to expand on direct sales from his website in order to do so.
He attributed the market’s struggles in part to industry-wide overproduction, but said he believes it’s rebounding. And with the recent push toward increasingly creative designs, he thinks snowboarding is in a good place.
“It’s a cool time in the industry. You can do some funky-looking things and nobody’s going to laugh,” he said. Unity’s popular surf-inspired Whale powderboard might best fall within that description.
At 1,000 boards, his current production rate equates to churning out about 20 snowboards a day during the summer months. Then it’s all research, design sales and demo touring during the wintertime.
“It is an assload of work,” he said of the process, also cautioning any prospective ski or snowboard builder.
“I would say don’t do it, and I have many times to lots of people and none of them listened to me. And all of them are no longer in business.”
Beyond simple attention to detail, Wurster said volume of production is vital to success in the industry.
“You’re not going to survive if you’re only doing 100 or 500 skis a year. You’re not going to make any money until you make 1,000.”
Surprisingly, in a country that takes pride in the “Made in America” and “buy local” mantras, the U.S. accounts for only about 20 percent of Unity sales. The other 80 percent is international, much of it in France and Russia.
“I think the industry is in a healthier position abroad,” Wurster said. “My international business is very strong.”
Unlike Europe, the American market’s tendency toward tent sales and bargain hunting has put Unity a little out of the running against cheaper, mass-produced boards, he said. His boards range in price from $475 to $900, which he charges for his line of splitboards.
“Everybody likes the idea but when it comes time to pull out the checkbook, they don’t care as much,” Wurster said of the consumer tendency to go for bargains rather than quality.
But for the added cost — which in the independent snowboard market is commonplace — Wurster says you get the quality of a board that’s going to outlast the mass-produced competition. He said his boards are designed to make it through more than 100 days of riding, whereas the low-budget boards won’t.
“Our boards are known for being strong. A lot of the bigger mass-produced boards weren’t designed for that kind of use.”
He personally oversees and helps build every board his company produces.