Mar 13, 2013
Three Decades of Domestic Manufacturing and the Mavericks who Made (and broke) the Mould.
Words and Photos by Brian Peech
Much has changed in the 35 years since Mike Olson crafted his first snowboard. The board sports industry has seen staggering growth in a relatively short period of time, surf companies now answer to stockholders, core shops compete with mall chains, and snowboarders, once banned from resorts, are becoming Olympians.
While most brands have long since moved production off shore to cheaper labor markets, there is a place, tucked neatly along the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, where lies a modest factory. Flanked by lush old-growth, sparkling lakes and mountains of varying shades of gray, it’s a place where the motivation to be intimately involved in the manufacturing process is unwavering, where time seems to stand still and where, on any given day (if it’s not a powder day), you can still find Olson and his partner Pete Saari dreaming up new ways to buck convention.
This is the story of Mervin Manufacturing—the last holdout of the great North American board builders.
Mervin co-founders Pete Saari and Mike Olson say they still feel the same passion for board building three decades on.
St. Bernards And Honey Wax
Sometimes You Gotta Get Your Hands Sticky
It’s 1977 and Mike Olson—teenager in a small, working-class, Northwest town, son of a commercial fisherman, carefree skateboarder—had just begun eighth grade. Like most of his classmates, he’d seen early incarnations of the snowboard—Snurfers, he calls them—as well as the offerings from toy manufacturer Coleco at the local hardware store. Like most of his classmates, he really wanted one.
Eventually, while pouring over the pages of an early Skateboarder Magazine, Olson came across a picture of Bob Webber, who had been making snowboards a little more advanced than what could be found in the J.C. Penney catalogue.
“I was taking a shop class and thought, ‘I need to make something that looks like that,’” Olson says, his eyes wide with the animated, boyish excitement he’s become known for. “And I did, I made one out of door skins, polyester resin and fiberglass. It actually had steel edges on it, which rusted the day I took it home. The board worked horribly.
“My neighbour, Siggy Hartman, had a steep hill in his yard and a big St. Bernard that would chase us,” he continues, his hands carving out the scene in the air. “I remember standing up on the hill with this St. Bernard staring at me. And the board wouldn’t slide. My board wouldn’t slide!”
Olson figured, years later, the board’s lack of performance was likely due to using ill-suited wax he’d received as a gift.
“I had no idea,” he says. “I put some wax on that a friend had given me for my birthday that had a price tag of, like, $2. Back then, that was a lot of money, so I saved it for a special occasion. It was like honey; it got all over my hands. I had no idea it was cross-country ski wax.”
The following year, needing another project for class, Olson decided to try again. This time, he added fiberglass fins, waterski bindings and rubber straps to the board. He waxed it with proper ski wax and hauled it up to Mission Ridge, a local ski resort east of the Cascades.
“I took it out at the end of a ski day, thinking it wouldn’t work, thinking I’d stick to the snow again,” he says. “I hiked up some hardpack and started going down. I was blown away that it was fast, and I blew right through a little snow bank of powder thinking that it was going to be a challenge. I was not intending to hit the powder, but once I hit it, the board lifted and just worked.”
The next day, Olson didn’t bother with a lift ticket. He and his brother took turns hiking sections of powder, putting his new creation through its paces.
“I was already a skateboarder, so I didn’t really have to learn how to make this work, I just cranked some turns,” he says. “We were just blown away. And, well, the rest is history.”
As Olson made his way through high school, he continued making boards in woodshop, but soon found he could make them better at home.
“I didn’t have any equipment at home, but I had time. So at night, I would actually make the skeletons of these boards, these cores. I would lay them out and laminate them up at home, then bring them to class to fiberglass them,” he says.
“I was using the school system to make my boards, and I made them all the way through highschool.”
A Northwest Inferiority Complex In A One-Horse Barn
The Birth of Mervin Manufacturing
Pete Saari is the VP of Creativity at Mervin. His salt-and-pepper stubble betrays his underlying youthfulness. He’s quick to laugh and holds himself almost aloof, more like a teenager than a man who helped build one of the largest snowboard brands in the world. He certainly doesn’t take himself too seriously. He wears a trucker hat emblazoned with the word “Bitchin’” in big bubble letters that can be read from across the room.
“The first time I saw snowboarding was in old copies of Surfer Magazine,” he says. “I thought it looked like fun, but I just really didn’t connect with it. I was mostly a skateboarder and a skier at the time. I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t really access it.”
Around that time, Saari ran into Olson, a surfing buddy, while searching for waves on the coast. He had been making his own surfboards by then, and Olson was now making his own surfboards and snowboards.
“Mike would drag me up the mountain and say, ‘You’re not skiing, you’re gonna snowboard,’” he jokes. “And I was like, ‘Oh, OK. Alright, I’ll do it.’”
Saari became hooked. But at that point snowboarding wasn’t even in its infancy—its parents had barely even met.
“When we started snowboarding, people looked at us like we were nuts. Like, you’d show up at the hill and you stood out like a sore thumb. And at that age, I didn’t necessarily want to stand out.”
Eventually, Olson needed help building snowboards and asked Saari to join him.
“I jumped at it. I was in college, and I knew I wanted to be involved in skiing,” he says. “While this wasn’t quite skiing, it was board building and I wanted to build boards.”
Olson had started up Delbert Pumpernickel Gravity Harness No Guarantee snowboards, and had been at it about a year when the two began working together to create Gnu. (Olson originally liked the name Wildebeest, but a marketing teacher had once suggested a brand’s name should be short, like, three to four letters. Looking up “wildebeest” in the dictionary, right next to it was “gnu.”)
The brand was released under the company Slope Tools Inc., a name Saari admits was likely borrowed from Lance Collins’ Wave Tools surf brand. Years later, the brand name Lib Tech came to Olson at 3 a.m. after a night of building boards. He’d written “Liberace Technologies” on a sparkly topsheet, a nod to the flamboyant pianist. Unable to secure trademark for Liberace, Olson and Saari settled on Lib Tech.
Through various business dealings, Slope Tools faded away and Mervin Manufacturing was born around 1988. “The company was named after our good friend, Mervin, who we used to go surfing with,” says Saari. “He was the first guy to get married and kind of fall away.”
Olson had been finding work where he could to help finance his lifestyle, as well as his business endeavours—whatever it took to keep churning out and carving on his boards. “In the early days, we started out in Mike’s garage,” says Saari. “Mike used to clean the gutters of this old woman’s house, and she rented us a one-stall horse barn that had some power to it. He’d go in and layup the boards and I would rout out the shape
and slots for the edges. It built up from there, and eventually we ended up in a small business park.
“We’ve always been in Washington,” Saari continues. “We grew up in the Northwest with kind of a Northwest inferiority complex. I always thought the ski magazines would only run shots of Tahoe, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Mammoth. So we always thought, ‘Our snow’s good, too, but they don’t ever show pictures of it, it must not be that good.’ I’d wonder what really good snow was like.”
This isolation, or inferiority complex as Saari describes it, proved to be one of the key ingredients to Mervin’s success.
“It’s like when we started surfing up here, we didn’t know that the waves were rideable,” he says. “We didn’t understand it. And the same went with snowboarding. There was nothing around to tell us if we were doing it right or that snowboards would actually work—we sorta had to make up our own world.”
The Big Kitchen In Sequim
Last Stop for Down-Home Cooking
Mervin Manufacturing employs over 180 people at its Sequim, WA (population: 6,606) factory, with three shifts handcrafting boards nearly 24 hours a day. Recently, the company opened an office in the Freemont area of Seattle, which houses another 20 employees and one mini-ramp. Although Mervin is a global business, operating its European hub out of Prague with reps and agents in nearly every country worldwide, its heart and soul remain in the Pacific Northwest.
Norm Nelson, Efficiency and EnvironMENTAL Dude (his official title—it’s on his business card) is going on 17 years at Mervin. Originally from the East, Nelson sports a thick beard and looks most comfortable in a pair of shorts and Sorels. He boasts a love for salmon fishing that’s found him completely at home here. He’s the guy who keeps a pocketknife at the ready and can damn well fix anything with it.
Nelson believes in community. So when the local college approached Mervin, one of the top employers in the area (the town named a road in the company’s honour), to help create a composites program at the school, he jumped at the opportunity. He now sits on the curriculum-forming board.
“The program will teach kids, or retrain displaced workers from the logging industry or wherever else, so they can then find employment,” he says. “We can move it on down the line and bring up everybody. It’s not just about stockholders or certain little parts, it’s about bringing everybody up at the same time.
“We feel like we’re part of the community,” he continues, “So we need to function as a part of that community. We need to be actively involved. We need to be hiring people from the community, investing in the community, and they’ll invest in us.”
But keeping everything in-house has its strategic advantages, as well.
“We can go from an idea to a prototype to actually riding on the hill in a day or two,” Nelson says. “Then, if we like it, we can make 72 of these boards a day. We have our own wood core shop, our own presses, our own side sanding machines, our own tooling for all the presses; so if we want to try something different, like an asymmetric core with a couple different species of wood, we can do all that. We can control every part of the puzzle.”
Nelson has given hundreds of tours of the Mervin factory over the years, and he’s still taken aback by the reaction to the plant.
“Whether it’s somebody who’s toured a bunch of factories, somebody who’s been in the industry, or somebody who’s never seen any sort of factory—snowboard or otherwise—it’s always interesting to hear all the different perspectives, like, ‘I thought it would be noisier, or dirtier, or smellier.’ But the biggest thing I hear is, ‘I can’t believe how much handwork is involved. I didn’t realize how many people touched it.’ It really is handmade. There are no robots.”
“We can actually build on an idea without having a big tooling charge,” adds Saari. “It doesn’t cost us $20,000 to try a new snowboard. So that opens a door that’s closed to a lot of people. Once you open that door, you can have a lot of fun.
“Keeping our manufacturing at home, keeping it local has always been really important to us,” Olson says. “A few years ago, no one really cared when we said, Handmade in the USA. It just really wasn’t that much of a selling point when there wasn’t a focus on outsourcing. Now, with the economic downturn, it’s all of a sudden been in the spotlight, and for anyone that makes their product at home in North America, it really does help sales.”
In the late ’90s, as the majority of snowboard brands—if they hadn’t already done so—started moving production to China, Mervin resisted the pressure.
“I remember having some magazines come by for interviews,” recalls Olson. “And they’d look at us and go, ‘Are you guys crazy? You’re not sending your product offshore to these cheaper labour markets? You’re going to go out of business.”
But for Olson, letting go of production just wasn’t what Mervin was about.
“It was more than the pride of making it here in America. I do love that, but in that era when everyone was going offshore, it wasn’t like I was clinging to, ‘Yeah, let’s make ’em here, because it’s made in America.’ That’s cool, and I appreciate that, but the real reason was that we like to make our own boards. We really, really love making every type of board.”
Mervin’s decision to keep its operation domestic
has more to do with the DIY ethos coursing through Saari and
Olson’s DNA than good ol’ fashioned American pride
Saari also says the decision to keep it domestic stems less from national pride and more from an intrinsic need to be intimately connected to the product, and the freedom to tinker.
“We’ve had a lot of pressure over the years to build things in China,” says Saari. “But, for us, it really just wasn’t part of our program. We aren’t a marketing company. We started as a board-building company that physically builds boards, and that’s what we still are today,” he continues. “Rather than go to China, we’ve just worked harder to be more efficient in our factory, to buy our materials more efficiently, to run a tighter ship here.
“It always has a cost, but we only sell to the one part of the market,” he explains. “We sell to the high-end part of the market because that’s where we fit price-wise and brand story-wise and quality-wise. We don’t touch the bottom part of the market, where a lot of the Chinese boards end up. That’s usually a tough market; it’s really competitive and there’s not a lot of margin. We decided we’d rather be smaller, do lower volume, but make money on each board and be able to do it ourselves.”
Mervin dabbled in making boards in China once, when demand for product outgrew its output capabilities, admits Saari, “but it turned out nobody wants boards from us built in China,” he says. “They looked at us like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ So no one even bought one.”
If there was any lingering doubt Mervin’s decision to keep its operation domestic has more to do with the DIY ethos coursing through Saari and Olson’s DNA than good ol’ fashioned American pride, one need only look at the sticker adorning every board that leaves the Mervin plant.
“For import/export we had to have ‘Made in the USA’ stickers on our boards,” explains Olson. “Shortly after George Bush stole the election in 2000, I remember walking into our purchasing department in Seattle and asked, ‘Can we change that to “Handcrafted Near Canada”?’ I drew up the sticker, and from that point on we’ve been Handcrafted Near Canada.”
“We have a big kitchen here where we can cook up snowboards,” Saari continues. “And we’ve developed a culture in the shop, where if someone gets an idea, it doesn’t get shut down. It doesn’t matter who it is. There’s just a joy in going, ‘Hey, we’ve got an idea. Let’s build it.’ I think that’s what we all still get off on: having a new idea, or working with a team rider if they’ve got an idea, and going, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s build on that, let’s do it.’ That’s still the joy that keeps Mike and I coming to work every day.”
Bananas And Magne-Traction, Oh My!
When Things Go So Right You Want to Lie About It
Sometimes all it takes is one idea, at precisely the right time, to launch a series of events that catapult a business to previously undreamt success. Mervin called this idea “Banana.”
After years of mashing wild concepts together, Mervin introduced what, in 2006, was possibly one of the strangest-looking snowboards the industry had seen in years. Rocker between the bindings, flat-to-mild cambers running from the inserts to the traditional contacts, Banana technology looked nothing short of a gimmick, a wavy board no one had necessarily been asking for. Add to that the serrated edges Mervin was now calling “Magne-Traction,” and you had a creation more suited to Pee Wee’s Playhouse than a snowboard rack.
But if Olson and Saari knew one thing, it’s that Banana worked. It worked really well. All they needed was to get it under the feet of snowboarders, and the rest would take care of itself.
“In 2008, right around the time pretty much the whole world—unless you were India or Brazil or China—went into an economic tailspin, I almost felt guilty because, for us, the opposite happened,” Olson says. “People would ask, ‘How’s the business doing?’ I almost felt like saying, ‘Yeah, we’re struggling,’ because everyone was struggling. But the opposite happened for us. That’s when we struck gold with Banana and Magne-Traction.
“All of sudden, we hit massive growth,” he continues. “When everyone was downsizing, we were adding new buildings as fast as we could out here. We couldn’t get any more building permits, so we were going to our neighbours, asking, ‘Hey, can you build us a new building?’ As of last count, I think we have 17 or 19 buildings we’re in now.”
It was time to quickly re-evaluate the business, and according to Saari, with growth came a certain amount of pain. “You have new hires, you have to train people. Suddenly, all these systems that worked well when you had five guys don’t work well when there are 20 guys, and those don’t work well now when you have 50.
“You just have to grow, and usually that comes with pain. You’ve got to re-evaluate yourself, whether you like it or not, and re-evaluate your processes and just be more on it,” he says. “I think in any industry, or for any rider—if a rider gets big all of a sudden, they’ve got more people asking for them, they’re suddenly in demand more than they can deal with and they get headaches. But those can be good headaches if you can step back from them and re evaluate.”
Diversification Into (not so) New Markets
The Sweet Irony of Dreams Realized
It’s 2012, and Mervin has seen sustainable growth year over year for the past eight. What now? Bugger off to a Tahitian island and celebrate over a few hundred banana daiquiris? Not quite.
Coasting isn’t a word in the Mervin vocabulary. Instead, Olson hunkered down to finally realize his lifelong dream of introducing a domestically made, ecologically responsible surfboard to a market steeped in traditional shaping methods. This was the year of the Waterboard.
“Surfboards have been probably my biggest obsession from Day 1,” says Olson. “I used to go to the local library with my brother, and we’d get these old surf books from the ’60s, and I became obsessed with wanting to surf.
“I was already building my own skateboards, and I’d started experimenting with these crude early snowboards in shop class, but I really wanted to build my own surfboard. But at that time in the Northwest, nobody even realized you could surf. It wasn’t a concept,” he says.
“I’d asked my dad about the waves. He just looked at me and went, ‘Yeah, there’s waves. I think we have some of the biggest waves in the world.’ And I asked, ‘Why can’t you surf our coast?’ And he says, I’m sure you can.”
It was hard to get a surfboard in the Northwest in the ’70s, so out of neccesity Olson set out to make his own. While the idea to mass-produce boards was decades off, the seed was planted. “What we’re doing now is nothing like anything else that’s ever been done with a surfboard,” he says. “A lot of what we’re doing could not have been done even two years ago. A lot of these materials, these processes, didn’t exist yet. I’ve had to wait for certain pieces to fall into place in the industrial world. And now we have them, and it all came together. And it’s still evolving,” he continues. “There are materials that I’m evolving into that still don’t exist, that I will have in two years that I don’t have now,” says Olson, who is decisively tight-lipped about the details, even refusing to allow Mervin’s sales reps a tour of the surf factory.
Olson hunkered down to finally realize his lifelong dream
of introducing a domestically made, ecologically responsible
surfboard to a market steeped in traditional shaping methods.
This was the year of the Waterboard.
“So far, it’s going incredibly well,” he says. “Our biggest problem is that we have more sales than we know what to do with. We didn’t know that was going to happen when we entered the market. I thought a few retail shops would just order a few boards to see how they’d go, but a lot of shops ordered 20, 30 boards. We even had a shop order 70 boards as their first order,” he says. “So we instantly got caught with our pants down.”
According to Olson, unlike the skate market, in which Lib Tech had seen some success but also received a lot of resistance in the Orange County and San Diego territories, the surfboards have been well-received in the heart of the industry.
“The industry really is based in So Cal, and that was our hardest market to crack with skate. Because you have all the brands headquartered there, and doing everything they can to not let you succeed in their market,” he says. “And of course, in surf, to some extent, we’re probably going to face a little of that, but it’s a little different than the skate market. To be honest, it’s a kinder, gentler industry than the skate industry.
“So far, the feedback we’ve gotten from almost all the industry heavies, they’ve given us a big kudos,” he says. “They love that we make it ourselves, that we’re not offshoring it, and that we really are making a change. How can you say anything bad about it, really? It’s more environmental, we make it ourselves, and they surf great, they really do. That’s the bottom line—they just feel really good.”
While crafting surfboards wasn’t a new thing for Olson or Saari, it wasn’t as intuitive an addition to the Mervin arsenal as Narrow Ass Snowboards, or as most people call them, skis.
“The first experimental skis we made right when Salomon was getting big in the early ’90s,” Olson explains. “They entered the ski market, and they claimed it took something like six years and $6 million to build their first ski, and it was going to revolutionize the ski industry. And it did.”
“So we set out to make a ski equivalent to theirs, and claim that we can do it in one weekend for under a thousand dollars. And we did,” he says. “We made a couple dozen of them that year, for trophies at Mount Baker.
“We kind of sat on that for a few years,” he continues. “And then, just recently, with all our good buddies who ski bugging us, we went, ‘You know what? Let’s make some narrow-ass snowboards.’
“We sold them as individuals,” he adds. “Some people bought them over the Internet and were real surprised when only one showed up.”
It was only logical for Mervin to apply Magne-Traction to the skis. Whether the technology will see the success in the ski world as it has in snowboarding is yet to be seen.
“I think the ski industry doesn’t really understand or know about that yet,” Olson says. “We haven’t really marketed it that hard. But I think there’s still a little revolution to be had in skis.”
Saari agrees. “I think we have something to offer skiing with Magne-Traction,” he says. “There’s no other ski company that offers serrated edges, and I think there’s a place for that in the ski world. I think some day, someone’s going to win a World Cup race on a ski with serrated edges, and I’m kind of waiting for that day.”
But the real motivation behind branching out into the ski world is, in typical Mervin fashion, less about diversifying the company or quarterly sales reports, and more to do with something a little more down-to-earth.
“We got into skiing ’cause we’ve got friends at Mount Baker who ski,” says Saari. “And we always promised them we’d build them skis. It took us, like, 10 years, but we finally got around to doing it.
“Plus, it was one of our childhood dreams to make skis. It felt like a dream I wanted 20 years ago. But when we finally arrived at it, it felt like I didn’t really want it anymore. But it’s still fun to make them. I look at the ski and flex them and theorize about them. And seeing people’s faces light up, like our buddy’s, Tory Bland, when we get to make him skis. It’s the same joy you get when you make someone a nice snowboard. That’s part of it, I guess,” he says, seemingly oblivious to the scope of the brand he’s helped create. “Mostly, it’s just to please our friends.”
The United Bank Of Quiksilver
Not Your Typical Corporate Takeover
In 1997, years before consolidation of brands was commonplace in the action sports industry, Quiksilver acquired Mervin Manufacturing for approxi- mately $4.4 million, and assumed nearly $3 million in bank debt. What few people know is the merger wasn’t the familiar big-shark-gobbles-up-small-fish story we’ve grown accustomed to.
“When we started working with Quik in ’97, a lot of people assumed that Quiksilver came to us,” says Olson. “I mean, that’s fairly common nowadays: big company comes to a small company and says, ‘Hey, we’d like to buy you.’ But that’s not how it happened at all—we came to them.
“Peter and I luckily foresaw the crash of the snowboard industry in the later ’90s,” Olson says. “There were over 400 brands in North America, snowboard brands claiming to make boards, which meant most of them outsourced their boards already. And we knew there was going to be a crash. Other brands were kind of in denial. They’d talk about growth, growth, growth, but we knew it wasn’t happening.
“We had zero financing,” admits Olson. “Our financial backing was all through bank loans. We had three bank loans with no collateral. We didn’t have a rich uncle to sign on it. The banks used our inventory as collateral, so if we ever made one mistake, we were done.”
At the time, U.S. Bank was keen to cash in on the fledgling snowboard industry, even using adverts depicting a skier jumping from a cliff with the slogan, “This takes guts, but do you have enough guts to start a business?”
“I think Morrow, Ride, Sims—we all used U.S. Bank,” says Olson. “They were really pushing to help finance the snowboard industry. But of the four brands banking at U.S. Bank, we were the only one that really didn’t have any collateral. And so when we saw the crash coming, we knew we were going to be on thin ice.”
Mervin had been keeping itself operational in the off-season by producing snowboards for brands like Luxury out of Canada and Hazmat out of California. But as the market started getting tight, these brands were running out of money. Many were selling boards to Japan when the yen was strong, and as Japan started to come on hard times, Mervin’s OEM business began to dry up.
“There were over 400 brands in North America,
which meant most of them outsourced their boards already.
And we knew there was going to be a crash.
Other brands were kind of in denial.
They’d talk about growth, growth, growth,
but we knew it wasn’t happening." —Mike Olson
“That’s when we called Quik,” says Olson. “We used to do Christmas exchanges with them. They gave us clothing and we gave them snowboards. So we cold-called them. It was definitely scary. At the time, they were about a 100 million- dollar company, which blew my mind. I couldn’t even believe we were talking to that big of a company, but it was the best thing we ever did—and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“Their culture is definitely different than ours, and we’ve had to adapt,” says Saari. “But that’s part of business and part of growing up; you have to adapt. They’ve got their system, we’ve got ours. We want to preserve what makes us work and still grow and be able to work with them. So it’s just an extra challenge.
“But no matter how challenging it is to work with Quik,” he continues, “it’s still 10 times better than working with a bank or being an independent, because we’ve done it both ways.”
“The beauty with working with Quiksilver is they let us run our own business,” explains Olson. “They let us do what we want, and they’ll help us when we ask for help. In all reality, though, we’re still fairly autonomous and run the business as we always have, but we can sleep a little better at night knowing that we don’t have to go back to the bank three times a year to keep discussing our loans.
“We all have the same goals, really,” Olson says. “The guys at the top of Quik are still in love with standing sideways on any type of board. [Quiksilver CEO] Bob McKnight loves to snowboard, loves to surf; he’s passionate about it. And when we get together, to be honest, that’s what we talk about.”
It Ain't Easy Being Green
Or Being a Decade Ahead of a Movement
Tombs of articles exist today dedicated to breaking down the business of being green. You can’t buy much today without being struck by an environmental message. But it hasn’t always been this way. No that long ago, Mervin wasn’t only struggling to get its environmental message out to consumers; it was also fighting to create an environmentally friendly factory.
Mervin uses fast-growing, sustainably harvested trees for its wood cores, choosing to work with FSC Pure Certified suppliers whenever possible. The company also uses a proprietary, water-based graphic printing process, allowing the company to recycle all of its scrap plastics.
“That adds up to be tons of plastic a month,” says Nelson. “Right now, our plastics go onto a commodities market locally, but we’re trying to close the loop on that recycling. We’re going to be bailing that plastic into dense bails that weigh about 1,400 pounds a piece to send back to our plastic supplier, so the scrap material we cut out as base material will then get ground up, recycled and come back to us as sidewall material.
“We also do a Bio Bean plastic top sheet on some of our boards,” he continues. “It’s a topsheet derived from castor bean oil, so it’s a non-food-based renewable. And we’re looking into doing a polyethylene base material that’s made from sugar cane, but we’re just in the testing stages now. And all the epoxy resins that we use are super low VOC (volatile organic compounds). You smell that when you come into the factory—or don’t smell it, I should say.”
Saari thinks his upbringing has a lot to do with the decision to keep it green. “Mike’s dad was really into boats, and he had traveled all over Canada and the inside passage,” he says. “So he was out in nature all the time. And my dad was a climber and a hiker, so I’ve been dragged all over the mountains and grew up going to the beaches here. So I always had the outdoors and environment in mind.
“We kind of came of age in the ’70s, during the first environmental pushes. There was the gas crisis, and the first round of solar power, and the first round of wind power” he continues. “There were some hippy times in the late ’60s when we were really young, and I think that kind of set the tone for part of our environmental spin on things.”
But it wasn’t all patchouli fumes driving the green initiative; self-preservation also played a role.
“Mike and I built surfboards,” says Saari. “And building surfboards is a toxic process if you use polyesters. We’d both had some bad experiences with chemicals, so when it came to building snowboards, we knew we were going to be doing it every day, and we were going to have to put a lot of time and energy into it. We just knew we didn’t want an unhealthy environment.
“But as it went on, we had to kind of fight to have an environmental factory,” he says. “In the ’80s, it was kind of looked at as ridiculous. We’d say, ‘Hey, we used renewable woods,’ or ‘Hey, we used non-toxic resin,’ or whatever it was, and nobody cared. And to the people that were helping us financially, a lot of times it didn’t really matter,” he explains. “These days, it matters, people do care. But we definitely had some times where it felt like we were out on that environmental limb and nobody cared. Some people did, but sometimes the people who mattered didn’t.
“We grew up in the era of Love Canal and all those big toxic spills,” Saari continues. “And we wanted to do every- thing we could to stay away from that sort of thing. But mostly, it was to have a healthy environment for our crew. I guess, we always wanted to build boards the way you’d dreamed they might be built, even though a lot of times that’s unrealistic,” he says. “But then, we’ve always been a little unrealistic.”
If It Looks Mom-And-Pop, It's Becuase We Did It Ourselves
When a Brand's Image is Actually Based on its Realities
There’s and old saying about pornography: It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. The same can be said of Mervin’s unique approach to advertising. Part tribute to DIY zine culture, part Technicolor nightmare, the non-sequacious messages and bizarre images seemed to have no place in the tech-obsessed and streamlined world of snowboard advertising. But Mervin’s sense of what strikes a chord with consumers proved once again the boys from the Northwest, whether they knew it or not, were more in tune with their customer than many gave them credit for.
“Our marketing is definitely a little different than most other brands,” says Olson. “And to be honest, in the past I wouldn’t have completely understood why. But we just didn’t know,” he admits. “We didn’t know that you could outsource marketing. Other brands, a lot of them started with a big pile of money, so they’d hire a big marketing agency to do ads and so forth. We didn’t have any money, we had to do it ourselves.”
“The first ad we ever ran,” he continues. “I just went to the printing shop, back when they’d lay transparency over transparency. I just stood there and came up with an ad over a guy’s shoulder.”
“If we’ve got that mom-and-pop vibe, it’s because Mike and I have always done everything ourselves,” says Saari. “First of all, we couldn’t afford to have anyone else do anything for us. And then we always enjoyed every aspect of snowboard building: making ads, building boards, going out and riding them.
“While you’re building a board, your mind kind of drifts to what the ad is going to look like,” he continues. “Or while you’re riding, you’re thinking of it, so one thing fuels the other. And once you know that, when you do come up with an ad, that you can actually run it, you start thinking of that stuff more and you start writing it down and scribbling ideas and you get inspired.
“Both of us grew up reading surf and skate mags,” Saari continues. “And we know what used to pull on us and inspire us and make us want things. We’ve always had a healthy skepticism towards marketing. We’ve always kind of made fun of ourselves and the whole process of it.
“We do the ads in part to sell a product, but mostly just to please ourselves and maybe make a rider happy, or make ourselves laugh,” he says. “And hopefully, if we laugh, someone else laughs.”
“I’ve heard it said before that some of our ads are a little too light-hearted, or maybe too fun, so sometimes the message of our technology is lost,” admits Olson (who at one point hired the same designer who’d created some of the first controversial ads for World Industries). “I used to hear that more in the 1990s, when we were going over the top on some ads, but we also had technology that maybe people weren’t learning about.
“I used to have reps that would go, ‘Come on, can’t we just have a technical ad?’ And for us, that just wasn’t fun,” Olson says. “But now, I think our technology message, most if it’s getting out there. However, once again, some of our environmental products, we’ve made up whacky names, and I think some people think it’s a joke.
“I’ve had people come up to me at trade shows and go, ‘You guys are so funny. You come up with all these fake things in your boards.’ The stories sounded too spectacular,” Olson says. “But we really are using vegetable products in our topsheets. But we had given it so many whacky names over the years, nobody cared.
“But I think if people really digest what we’re doing— we have fun and pick a whacky name—but really, there’s a lot of mojo with what we’re trying to describe. But we’re not ever going to drop having fun with it.”
A Pinch Of Paranoia, A Dose Of Desparation
The Ingredients to Succeed and Make Time Stand Still
A strange thing can happen when a company sees massive, sudden growth. Once there’s been a taste of the sweet fruits of success, it can be tempting to pluck the orchard dry. But Olson and Saari have resisted the urge to expand outside their means, and Mervin remains relatively humble in that regard.
“A lot of brands, it seems like they’re motivated by sales, sales, sales,” Olson says. “What do we have to do to get more sales? What product lines do we have to venture into? We’ve never really been that way. Unless we have a better idea, we don’t want to venture into ‘me-too products.’ We work the opposite end,” he explains. “We go out there and innovate, and then hopefully the market likes it.”
Saari admits sales sometimes take second seat, but it’s always lingering in the back of his mind. “We’re doing this because we really want to play— more than even build boards. But it’s a competitive market out there, and a big part of what fuels us is neither Mike nor I grew up with money,” he says. “We were going to have to make our own way in this world. I mean, we weren’t destitute, but we were like anybody coming out of school in the ’80s. The economy sucked and there were no job prospects. So part of the deal for us was a bit of desperation.”
“When I went to high school, I was in the free lunch
program, so I’ve never forgotten that. I’m still a little bit
paranoid that this could all disappear someday, and I won’t
have access to any snowboard or any surfboard
I want to go out and ride." —Mike Olson
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve never been motivated by money,” Olson says. “I’m motivated because I want to ride the boards the money’s kind of worthless if you can’t. It’s why I get so excited I can barely sleep at night. I still lay awake at night and get up early because I can’t believe we get to make and ride these boards.”
“I think in a lot of ways I feel like I’m still living my dream,” says Saari. “And the way it unfolded—starting with surfing in Washington when there were no surfers and we got to create our own surf culture and find our own surf spots, and then snowboarding unveiled itself at the time, and we got to build our own boards and be a pioneer of a sport—that’s a rare thing. And to get to watch all that, and meet all the people, the great riders that have come up—I don’t really think about it that often, but I do think I have got to live a lot of my dreams.”
“I think part of our magic is that both Peter and I are both incredibly passionate about surfing, snowboarding and skating,” Olson says. “And because both of us still feel like we’re little kids. We don’t feel like ‘Oh, our business is mature enough now, let’s just let someone else handle it. I don’t really feel like anything’s changed—I still feel like we’ve got to grind it out every day—I don’t feel any different than I did in 1982, to be honest.”
“I guess both of us started down low enough in the world,” he continues. “When I went to high school, I was in the free lunch program, so I’ve never forgotten that. I’m still a little bit paranoid that this could all disappear someday, and I won’t have access to any snowboard or any surfboard I want to go out and ride,” Olson says, rummaging through a box in the corner of his office, a small cluttered room wall-papered with yellowing snowboard posters, racks of patched up surfboards and momentos from different eras of a truly fascinating life. Whatever he’s looking for, he doesn’t find it.
“Which is why now I gotta go fix that resin dispenser,” he starts for the door. “Any other company would have someone else fix that resin dispenser; it’s, like, one of the gnarliest jobs in the whole business.”