These days, ‘Canadian Made’ only seems to apply to the raw logs, bitumen and grain we gleefully export. Yet, in a corner of the Whistler, BC business park known as ‘Function Junction’ is something unique in Western Canada, and rare in North America – a ski & snowboard factory. So how does this experiment in local production work? Is there a market for more sustainable locally-produced snow riding devices? And most puzzling of all, why would any company in their right mind bypass the potential profit of cheap offshore production? I took a drive up to Whistler past peaks dusted with early fall snow to visit Prior and find out for myself.
A ride 20 years in the making
I met with General Manager Dean Thompson in the office /ski store upstairs from the factory floor. He explained that in 1990, when the company started in Chris Prior’s garage in Lions Bay, the Pacific Northwest was home to a number of ski and snowboard factories including K2, Ride and Morrow.
“Over the last 12 years, companies have consolidated and production has continued to move offshore.” Thompson says. “Almost no one is manufacturing locally now. K2 pulled out in 2000 and bought up Ride and a few other companies. During this time it was also bought by a bigger company who also owns Coleman (think camping stoves) among other non-snow related companies. But the Prior brand is still undiluted. That’s one of the things that originally appealed to me about the company.”
One of the secrets to Prior’s survival has been carving out a niche. In 2000, they developed their first splitboard, (a backcountry snowboard that separates into two skis for climbing up and reassembles for the single-plank powder ride back down) The splitboard market continued to grow and Prior is a major player globally. Skis came shortly thereafter and strong support from heli-ski operations and the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides helped solidify a strong backcountry customer base. Prior has now gone beyond their local roots, expanding their line and selling their pure Canadian brand online to customers and distributors in Europe, Scandinavia, Russia and Japan.
How sustainable can a ski or snowboard be?
Every Prior product begins with a wood core sourced from a small manufacturer just south of the border. (“One of the last holdouts from the old ski manufacturing infrastructure”, Thompson says) These are made primarily with apsen and maple, though Thompson says they are experimenting with some locally-sourced alternatives.
But making a durable, high-performance ride takes more than trees. Each is a multi-layered sandwich that includes non-renewable materials like fiberglass and UHMW Polyethylene. Topsheet graphics are also printed offsite, and when asked about the possibilities for recycled substrate, Thompson told me they plan to look at alternatives. “We have recently hired a product engineer,’ he added. “That will let us do a lot more work with our design and supply chain, and maybe put some positive sustainability pressure on some of our suppliers.”
Not that they have been idle.
“We actually tried using an experimental hemp-based fiberglass replacement a few years back.” Thompson says. “But it didn’t perform as well as we hoped.”
No word on whether they burned the rest of it.
Local Culture and the 20-Centimeter Rule
Perhaps the most sustainable part of the Prior brand is its engagement with the Whistler community.
Thompson elaborates, “We like to support local Whistler area talent when we develop our graphics, including using some great First Nations artists. It gives us a Whistler-inspired look that the rest of the world responds to.”
Prior is also involved with the Whistler Centre for Sustainability iShift Program and sponsors numerous local events and riders.
One of the most popular ‘community involvement’ policies is the locals rate. Anyone with a Squamish, Whistler or Pemberton address gets a substantial discount off the retail Prior price.
Growing a company in a mountain town does have its challenges, however.
“We’ve always respected the 20-Centimeter Rule,” says Thompson. “If there’s more than 20cm of fresh powder on the mountains, the factory pretty much doesn’t open ‘til noon that day. Unfortunately in the past, that has left a customer or two waiting at a locked door. So now we leave at least one or two people back at the shop.”
Presumably those who draw the short straw.
So what does Prior’s future hold?
Thompson sees lots of upside. “We have room for growth within our current space – we could pretty easily run more shifts. But it’s also important that we stay small enough to be efficient and let our people police themselves a bit.”
The biggest impression I was left with is that the Prior brand is all about authenticity. ‘Hand Crafted in Whistler’ is proudly stamped right on the skis and boards Prior makes, and North America’s biggest product testing range is right out the back door.
“Everyone who builds our product also rides.” Thompson concluded. “We are immersed in the snow culture almost year round.”
That’s one brand benefit no Asian factory can match.
The Green Briefs Two-Bits
As an independent brand, growing in a market not known for manufacturing, Prior is a great local story. Sales around the world also show the Canadian label resonates internationally. They are a ‘shop local’ option for enlightened Pacific Northwest skiers and boarders, with a mission statement that includes strong support for the community, the mountains and the environment.
Prior has already has a sustainability story to tell, and boosted engineering horsepower may let them make some more innovative advancements in that area. This might also provide some marketing partnership opportunities with other brands that share the sustainable living space. I’d love to see what brand stories develop in the next few years.
In the meantime, I will also be demo-ing a set of Prior Husume skis when Whistler Blackcomb opens, so stay tuned for the Green Briefs White Pow Sustainable Ski Review™ on those.
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