Friday Interview: Pete Wagner

The man behind Wagner Custom makes the case for dropping $2,000 on your very own pair of made-to-order skis

Pete Wagner.     Photo: Courtesy of Wagner Custom

"Wagner Custom skis has the most sophisticated fitting system and the best track record for creating perfect-fit skis."

The argument for dropping two grand on a pair of skis usually goes something like this: Why waste time and money burning through several pairs of boards to find the perfect ski, when you can create your very own dream ski? Handmade, customized skis hold up longer. They’re environmentally friendly and support local economies. Custom planks will help you ski at your highest potential. Convinced? Not yet? Read on.

Pete Wagner, 37, jumped into the custom ski game in 2006. Others—Folsom, Montana Ski Company, 333—soon followed. An engineer by trade, Wagner, who originally hails from the alpine mecca of Dayton, Ohio, parlayed the skills he had picked up working at a golf equipment company creating design-and-fitting software into making custom skis. He developed an algorithm that determines “Skier DNA,” a profile comprised of a skier’s terrain preferences, past ski purchases, height, and weight, among other criteria. Wagner, along with his team of 11 craftsmen, then uses this information to create a customer’s perfect ski. Want a fat ski that carves groomers? Light-weight touring boards that will power through crud? Looking for the one ski quiver? Don’t know what you want? Wagner has you covered.

From his solar-powered factory—an old gas station—in Placerville, Colorado, Wagner now cranks out over 1,000 pairs of custom-crafted skis per year, making Wagner Custom one of the most successful boutique brands in the business. Here, Wagner talks about the future of ski design, why to drop $2,000 on a pair of skis, and “Skier DNA.”

Considering the expense, why buy a pair of custom skis?
The world’s biggest ski factories have “race rooms” in which a team of engineers builds custom skis for their top athletes (people like Lindsey Vonn and Ted Ligety). They do this to help their athletes ski at their absolute highest potential. Wagner Custom is basically a “race room” factory for recreational skiers. We are a small team of engineers and ski builders who help people ski their best and have more fun by making sure they are on their perfect-fit equipment.

If your equipment is dialed in just right, you’ll ski with improved balance, comfort, control, power, and efficiency. This translates into more intuitive and effortless skiing and more fun. Of course, you can spend less money buying a nice, quality, mass-produced set of skis that were made in China. But if you want a set of skis that will last longer, support ski town culture, and will help you ski your best, then you should consider a set of custom skis.

What's the hardest part of making a ski for someone?
Getting the right feedback from a person about their skiing history and goals.

What's the most common complaint you hear about mass-made skis?
They are typically made in China and Eastern Europe.

What's the most common request you get from customers?
The one-ski quiver.

What's the most absurd request you've gotten?
A 165mm waist ski.

What's the most common top sheet people want?
We do a lot of hand-finished wood veneers.

What's the average price for a pair of Wagners?
They start at $1,750.

How long does a pair of Wagners last?
It’s hard to quantify. We have customers who have logged over 500 ski days on one set of skis.

Why did you launch Wagner?
During the winter of 2000, I was living in Telluride, Colorado, working long distance for a golf equipment company in San Diego, California. I was creating design-and-fitting-system software for golf equipment in the mornings and evenings, and skiing during the days. I bought a set of telemark skis that seemed great: They were the right length and width, and made by a good company. I mounted them, skied them, and didn’t think much about it. After about 70 days on them, I tried another set of skis and realized that I had been crippling myself with skis that were much too stiff and demanding for me.

I was spending a lot of my time developing software and fitting systems for determining the perfect equipment for golfers and I wondered why nobody was doing fitting systems and customization for skis.  At that point, I began converting my design software from golf clubs to skis.

How did you launch Wagner?
I thought that maybe I could sell my software to a ski company. After some research, I realized that the ski industry had consolidated into a handful of large factories. None of those multi-national companies were interested in my software.

In 2003, I moved to Boulder to get an MBA at the University of Colorado. As an academic exercise, I did a feasibility study on my custom ski business concept. Making several assumptions, I determined that there was likely a market for custom skis and it was possible to make money. I then created a business plan, set up a prototyping shop, got an advisory board together, and raised some start-up capital. In 2006, I moved back to Telluride and set up the Wagner Custom ski factory in Placerville, just a few miles downstream from Telluride Ski Resort.

How did your previous career as a mechanical engineer help you with the process of ski design?
While getting a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering at U.C., San Diego, I started working in the golf industry as an engineer. Eventually I got into design engineering and started creating software tools for design, analysis, and manufacturing of hi-tech golf equipment clubs. This lead to creating fitting systems for golf equipment in which we’d analyze a player’s swing, then determine his or her perfect-fit equipment. The golf industry gave me great experience in manufacturing and design engineering for hi-tech sports equipment. And, I had a proven model that combined a fitting system with design software and a composite material manufacturing platform.

How are Wagner skis different from other custom skis?
From what I can tell, Wagner Custom skis has the most sophisticated fitting system and the best track record for creating perfect-fit skis. Our proprietary Skier DNA fitting system allows us to match skiers to their optimal skis. Our agile manufacturing process enables us to go through the same steps every time we create a set of skis, but create a unique set, based on length, width, tip/tail shapes, camber/rocker, materials, flex pattern, overall stiffness, and graphics.

What's Skier DNA?
Skier DNA is a person’s unique profile regarding physical information (height, weight, age), where they ski (location and terrain preferences), past equipment feedback, and skier goals.

Who is your typical consumer?
There are two types: People who live in ski towns or near ski areas who ski a lot of days. They are generally great skiers who have a vision of their dream ski. They come to us because we can turn their ski vision into reality. Two: Skiers who don’t live close to the mountains, but who travel for skiing and want to maximize their experience during ski trips. They want to be on the right equipment and spend their ski vacations having fun skiing, not demoing skis and trying to figure out their equipment. They come to us because we’ll guide them through our fitting process and get them on their ideal ski, so they’re dialed in before their trip begins.

Talk about the Wagner factory.
The Wagner Custom ski factory is a recycled gas station from the mining days. We put a large solar thermal array on the roof that heats the factory floor and keeps all of our materials at a consistent temperature. We use 21st-century CNC (computer numeric controlled) machines to precisely fabricate the ski components (bases, steel edges, wood cores, structural layers, and p-tex sidewalls). We use expert craftsmen to then assemble the parts, press the skis, and accurately tune them. It’s a combination of modern computer-controlled manufacturing equipment and old-world craftsmanship.

How can you expand your business while remaining true to your mission and make a profit?
We’re a small shop. It generally takes three weeks for us to build a set of skis. When we get busy, our customers sometimes need to wait longer than three weeks to get their skis. We won’t sacrifice quality, service, or attention to detail. It might just take a little longer to get your skis, however.

What's the future of ski design?
Ultra-light, ultra-stable skis.

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