Even among professional ski racers, Bode Miller stood out. He was capable of the outrageous both off and on the slopes. At the famous Streif downhill in Kitzbühel, Austria in 2008, he pulled off a now legendary skiing feat by rebounding off an advertising banner at 60 m.p.h. or so to stay on course. It's the kind of insane skill that made him a World and Olympic champion.
Like a lot of racers, Miller constantly tinkered with equipment, looking for every possible edge in a sport where a hundredth of a second matters. And he signed endorsement deals and worked with ski and apparel manufacturers-- which ultimately left him unsatisfied. Miller got money, but he didn't get equity. "I'd been working with companies my whole career, contributing my know-how and on-the-hill experience in product development," he says. "But after they got what they wanted, I was left with nothing."
Miller is, to say the least, an independent thinker and he considered starting his own business. But logistics stopped him in that, as busy as he was ski racing, finding the right people to hire would be difficult for him. "Headhunting is really the biggest challenge I've seen in that process," he said. That's one of the reasons he decided to buy into Bomber Ski and Aztech Mountain, a sportswear maker. "To be able to partner up with guys who are already in--and I can enhance some of the stuff that they're doing--is a natural win win for everybody," says Miller. He's also exchanged his expertise for a slice of equity at bag maker Esperos. For a company like Esperos, says Miller, "It doesn't make fiscal sense to pay people. Equity is a natural way to address it."
Bomber is controlled by real estate mogul Robert Siegel, who bought it from the founders at a court auction. Siegel envisions an integrated, high-end brand that will eventually offer a full line of goods and services to upmarket skiers. Bomber's only store in on Madison Ave. in New York City, where it lives next to couture brands like Gucci or Chanel. Siegel convinced Miller to buy in over a round of golf.
With Bomber, the plan is to give amateurs access to the hot skis that Miller got as a racer. As Miller explains it, the industry sticks to commodity skis, with competing brands now even being made in the same factory in China. Major companies such as Head, Miller's former ski supplier, custom make sport car-fast skis for their own racers, but didn't make them available to amateurs. Bomber is essentially making Porsches to the industry's Kias, customizable skis that sell for $2,500, two or three times the average price. "It's not like I'm reinventing the wheel; we've been developing good skis, but you couldn't buy them," Miller says. "The difficult part is to figure out how to make it work in the business model." Spoken like an MBA.
"The philosophies match," says Miller. "If you can improve something you do: if it costs you extra, you do it. That's the way these guys see it as well." Aztech is on an expansion push, having added four Asian markets last year and the company says sales grew 50 percent last year. "It's a brand new startup, and I got in at a good valuation," says Miller. "And startups usually need help from people who can do multiple rolls." As a guy who has won races in five different skiing disciplines, multitasking comes natural to Miller.
Miller plans to keep expanding his interests, which now include a horse breeding operation, built with the help of his friend, the famed trainer Bob Baffert. Long a horseracing fan, Miller got to thinking about how ski racing and horse racing are alike: elite athletes in what are essentially two-minute races held at a variety of tracks under changing conditions. "It's comes easy to me," says Miller of his entrepreneurial acumen. "That represented a huge opportunity, seeing how much money there was in this sport." No word yet on whether he's going into the horseshoe business, too.