The home-grown advantage
In a world where big companies eat smaller companies, it's nice to have Options
By Andrew Mitchell
When Kevin Sansalone won the Westbeach Classic Big Air contest in 1998, he became the biggest unsigned free agent in pro snowboarding.
It was less than a year after he had left Santa Cruz; a long-time sponsor didn't believe in him as much as he believed in himself. At that moment he could have signed on with any board company he wanted, naming his own terms. He could have chosen a giant in the industry, with deep pockets and a huge stable of pro riders to make movies with. That's when Kevin Sansalone's sense of style kicked in.
"It's the whole hometown thing," says Sansalone. "I grew up riding these mountains. They open earlier and close later, so I get almost too much riding time. My friends and family are here, all the people I care about. This is where I live. I could have signed on with a mega company, but that's not my style."
Before he stepped up to the Westbeach podium to collect his prize, he signed on with Option Snowboards, a small Vancouver-based company with 86 employees and 1997 sales on the sunny side of $6 million. Compared to the Burtons and Sims of this world, it's a Chihuahua. His only term was that Option had to get him a place in the 1999 X-Games, which they did, and which, incidentally, he won. Santa Cruz had refused to enter him in either the X-Games or the Westbeach Classic.
"It was hard being a free agent," he says. "I still worked hard on my own, and somehow I weaselled my way into the Westbeach contest. I had been talking to Option before that and they knew I wanted to go into the X-Games. They made it happen."
He has never regretted his decision. "The relationship I have with Option is amazing," says Sansalone. "They really got to know me in a short while. I work hard for them and they work hard for me. When I went in to design my board, they gave me 100 per cent control over the design and graphics."
Johnny Q, an Aussie ex-expatriate and a civil engineer is the Product Engineer for Option Snowboards and, since the Westbeach Classic, Sansalone's best friend and roommate — that's the kind of company it is. Together, they went through 12 different prototypes to get the Sansalone board where they wanted it.
"I knew what I wanted the shape to be and the look, but we had to get the guts just right," says Sansalone. "Which was fine with Johnny. We can both sit all day and talk about nothing but snowboarding."
One of Sansalone's nicknames was borrowed straight from Hollywood, and considering his aggressive riding style and underdog status going into pro competitions, it's only fitting that it should also be connected to the decal on his board. A.k.a the "Italian Stallion," Sansalone's board features a grey horse with a glowing red eye, rearing up in defiance. Look for it at Whistler this year, because it's been a huge seller.
"I went up on Sunday afternoon to ride, got up a little late, and in a short period of time I counted nine Kevin Sansalone boards on the hill," says Sansalone. "And I lost count of how many other Option boards. I know when you drive a Toyota, you tend to notice other Toyota's more, but I saw tons of Options out there."
In the Snowboard world, a dog-eat-dog buffet, being seen is incredibly important. Over the past few years, Morrow and Ride went belly-up before being consumed by ski industry giant K2. Limited Snowboards was lunch for Voillant, and later Gen-X. Even Salomon, a leviathan in the winter world, wound up on the Adidas dinner table with some fava beans and a nice bottle of Chianti. Staying alive and independent while the snowboard industry consolidates itself is Option's goal. Signing Sansalone is a step in the right direction.
"This year has been unbelievable," says Geoff Power, CEO of Option Snowboards. "We're virtually sold out, not just here but in Europe. People are asking for Option, and I think Kevin Sansalone has a lot to do with it."
Power is a familiar figure in Whistler; he started The Grocery Store and is still part owner of Tapley’s Neighbourhood Pub. The fundamental ingredients that have contributed to the longevity of those businesses is being carried over to Option.
Power is good at building product lines that outperform the competition in side-by-side comparisons, marketing the NFA (No Fixed Address) clothing label, and growing Option’s reputation for manufacturing high-quality, nearly indestructible snowboards. He wants to take Option to the top.
"Our ambition is to grow this company," says Power. "We want to grow our existing brands, and we are looking into potentially acquiring other companies — but only if they complement our existing products."
When Option first began making snowboards in 1992 under the name Never Boards, there were between 200 and 300 other companies fighting for a market that is one-tenth the size it is today. That number is quickly diminishing as snowboard companies form strategic partnerships with larger companies, merge and consolidate resources with one another, buy each other out, and in many cases, go bankrupt. By the time the dust clears in the not-to-distant future, Power expects that there will only be 10 snowboard brands left to choose from.
Sansalone is a believer: "I'm sticking with Option. It's a natural progression of business that one company takes over another as the market gets saturated. There may be a lot of good ideas out there, but there's not enough customers out there to support them all. Option boards are the best out there. We don't need help, and we're not looking for it. We'll be the survivors."
For Option, there's never been a better time to make their move. Sansalone gives Option marketing power they've never had before. And the boards are quickly gaining attention in the marketplace. In Couloir Magazine's annual comparison of new model snowboards, for example, three of five testers chose Option Signature boards as their overall favourite for 2000, and another gave it top honours in the 'Religious Experience' category.
For Power, the Couloir ratings are a confirmation of Option's core philosophy: "Option has always been a company driven by product, not hype." In a sport that's driven by brand names and image, it's exactly the kind of low-key, product-focused publicity that Power hopes will catch the attention of serious boarders.
"What a lot of (snowboard) companies don't seem to be aware of is that there is still room to innovate in this business," says Power. "Everybody who works here rides. These are people who have a personal interest in making a better board, or better bindings or a more comfortable jacket to ride in. There's a passion in it."
Q, who has been with Option for four years, compares the atmosphere at Option to that of a tight family. "We spend a lot of time together. If someone has a party every one shows up."
For Q, that atmosphere, and the shop's proximity to Whistler, will supply the motivation that Option will need to take on the world.
"The riders in Whistler demand the most out of the boards," says Q. "They're our biggest critics. We've got the toughest terrain, it's deep and it's steep, the runs are long, the season is long — your board has to be able to withstand it. Every design comes out of Whistler, our backyard."
The result is an offering of snowboard products that the competition is taking seriously, even if they consider Option too small to pose a threat to their market share.
"It's no secret that the major companies are taking our boards apart to see what's inside," says Power. "Everybody does it. We take their boards apart ourselves, so we know that some brands have been borrowing our technology.
"But the hard reality is that what they're borrowing is our old technology. They can look at this years' boards all they want. We already have our '01 products designed and ready to go into production."