When Klaus Obermeyer arrived in Aspen, Colorado, in 1947, the first chairlift had opened on Aspen Mountain less than a year earlier. His friend Friedl Pfeifer, along with industrialist and Aspen Institute creator Walter Paepcke, had just created the Aspen Skiing Company, which today still operates the ski areas there, as well as surrounding hotels and restaurants. But back then, Aspen was a post-silver-mining slump-town; entire homes were being off-loaded for less than $500.
It was an opportune time for a winter-sports enthusiast, low on cash, but with eyes wide for a new venture. Pfeifer urged Obermeyer, a native of Germany and one of eight instructors at the new Aspen Ski School, to use his down time productively. Obermeyer recalls he said: "When you have no work, figure out how to make skiing more safe--and more fun."
Within a year, Obermeyer was selling jaunty wool neckties to his students, and Sport Obermeyer, a small company selling a range of gear to help athletes stay warm, was born. The private company, which now employs 50 people, sells its gear online and through about 700 sports and specialty stores around the U.S. and Canada. While a lot has changed in 73 years, one thing hasn't: Klaus Obermeyer is still the chief executive. He's a daily fixture in the office, he reviews all the company's new products, he attends board meetings, and he does press. He's a legend in the industry and in the greater Aspen area, where, at the age of 100, he can still occasionally be spotted heading down the slopes.
The early years
Skiing back in the 1950s and '60s was an oddly formal exercise. Men often skied wearing a suit jacket and tie. Klaus's first product did little to add comfort to the situation, but by selling a little $1.75 scarf/necktie hybrid called a Koogie tie, he made enough money to develop products that helped skiers stay on the slopes longer. (The Koogie ties sold well after Gary Cooper donned one for a press photograph.)
Next came the industry's first puffy down parka, and then a sunscreen lotion marketed toward high-altitude skiers, and high-tech ski poles made of tapered aluminum. Obermeyer fancied himself an inventor, and moved production from his attic into a warehouse in 1961. Over the course of several years, he'd come up with the first sturdy mirrored wrap sunglasses, the elastic-stretch turtleneck, and a double-layered ski boot, the only invention he says he patented. "All of the products were needed," he says. "There was no ski industry. It was invention from necessity."
Obermeyer was as obsessive about developing the business's culture as he was about its products. "We made a really fun company," he says. "We all love the outdoors. We are all a family. Sometimes we play tennis. Sometimes we barbecue for lunch. And no one has an ego--in fact, there's a potato sack at the entrance with a sign that says, 'Deposit your ego here.'"
The company is known for outstanding health benefits, and for offering employees a variety of options for staying fit right on campus, including a running track and a solar-heated lap pool. Its most famous policy is the "six-inch powder clause": If there are more than six inches of new snow on the mountain, staffers all go use their corporate ski passes. Sometimes Klaus declares it so even if there are only five fresh inches.
Maintaining a beloved brand
While the skiing and snowboarding industry has been on a fairly steady upward trajectory in the past couple of years, participation has declined over most of the decade, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. Between 2013 and 2017, consumer retail sales of ski equipment also dropped by 19 percent, while snowboarding equipment fell by 7 percent.
Sport Obermeyer has carved out some niches that help it maintain a foothold in sporting goods stores and outdoor specialty shops around the country. Its products are high end, but without luxury price tags. Its womens' ski pants are popular items. And its innovative children's jackets, pants, and snow bibs are designed with pant legs and sleeves that can lengthen by two inches--not just to fit the kid longer, but also so they can be passed on.
"They make arguably the nicest snow-sportswear around--in that family-affordable price range," says Gordon Geiger, the chair of the board of the National Ski and Snowboard Retail Association and the owner of Geiger's, a sports store with three locations in the Cleveland area. "It's well made. The stuff lasts generations, practically."
Over the years, some members of Klaus Obermeyer's family have worked for the company--but none aside from his wife, a designer, have stuck long-term. His four children have widely disparate interests and professions, and only one of his grandchildren, Laura, is involved in the business. If there's a succession plan, Obermeyer is tight-lipped about it. He makes clear, though, that an exit by way of IPO i s not an option. "It would not be any good," he says. "We don't want anyone else telling us what to do."
He jokes that now that he's 100, he should finally take up golfing, but he has no designs on going anywhere. To help plan the company's future, he takes business inspiration from aikido, the martial art he practices:
"When a problem comes, be nice to it, because it tries to teach you something," he says. "Look at problems as teachers: Get to know them very well. Make it so the problem is an opportunity rather than a negative thing."