Volant ski managed to cut a niche in the crowded ski equipment market once before. Can it do it again?

Dave Lyons thought he'd been nabbed for speeding when a Montana trooper waved him off the freeway last winter. But it turned out that the trooper, whose cruiser was mired axle-deep in mud, simply wanted a tug from Lyons' Hummer, the military mule turned civilian terrain-buster. Lyons is the northwest district technical rep for ski maker Volant Inc., and his Hummer, emblazoned with Volant graphics, had come along just in time to lend a hand to the stuck trooper.

The officer's rescue was another episode in Volant's marketing program. Volant has eight Hummers on the road--specifically to gain notoriety for itself at ski demos at big-name resorts. Plus, it doesn't hurt to be able to help out a law man when he needs a pull (AM General, the Hummer manufacturer, provides the vehicles to Volant in a joint marketing deal.)

Original thinking is a Volant hallmark that dates from its founding in 1989, when former Olympian Hank Kashiwa, Volant's president, attracted investors with a plan to make stainless-steel skis. Now seven years into the venture, Volant, of Wheat Ridge, Colo., near Denver, remains the world's youngest manufacturer of downhill skis for the mass market. It also is the smallest, selling between 30,000 and 35,000 pairs in the 1995-96 season.

As Volant approaches the 1996-97 selling season with its new PowerKarve model--a so-called "shaped ski," which is expected to be the big thing on the slopes--its task will be to repeat its earlier success at capturing market niches populated by skiers who want easier times on the slopes. But it has some big hurdles to overcome.

For one thing, it's hardly alone in taking on the new market. The "hourglass" or "parabolic" skis, which have a contour said to make skiing easier by making turning simpler, are already made by K2, Elan, and other heavies in the ski business.

For another thing, there's no guarantee that the shaped ski on which Volant is betting won't turn out to be just a fad. "Over the years I've seen a number of revolutionary ideas come and go," observes David Scott, a former ski-company executive and shop owner who now operates International Ski Rental System/North America, in Boulder, Colo. "I'm not prepared to say that this one is the ultimate."

The situation cuts to the heart of Volant's dilemma: compelled by its small size to chase, rather than establish trends, it has to commit precious resources to fad-driven markets that might never materialize. And when the markets do take hold, Volant has to beat out larger, well-financed competitors whose sheer size and presence give them much more influence.