Chris Prior Interview
By Jack Michaud
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One indicator of a sport's maturity is the spawning of small boutique manufacturers of specialty equipment for discriminating enthusiasts. In the early nineties, after the "big" snowboard companies had established their names, and big ski companies began taking hold in the industry, the word hit the slopes that a new kind of snowboard company had evolved to supply riders wanting to push the edge of the envelope. The word was that a small Canadian maker was offering custom hand-crafted boards not only to the racing elite, but to anybody wanting to ride (and pay for) true pro-stock hardware. The word also spread that the boards were performing at a level significantly above the standards of the day. Prior Snowboards, established in 1990, quickly earned the mystique of a brand name known by the in-crowd, the cool kids, the hard cores. It's eleven years later, and Prior has moved to a bigger factory, but the mission is the same. We've had a chance to catch up with Chris Prior to get his thoughts on the move, his first customer Mark Fawcett, some gossip, and just to get his story...
Bomber Online: When and where did you start snowboarding?
Chris Prior: Ah, that would be Whistler mountain in '89.
BOL: What was your first board?
CP: A Gnu Kinetic
BOL: When did you and what caused you to realize that you needed to build boards of your own, and that they could be better than what was on the market?
CP: I made high performance windsurfers before I got involved in building snowboards, so I did know a bit about the various composites available and I also knew how to build molds using the same techniques as I did for the windsurfers. It's very basic really, just vacuum molding, but it works well. So having that, I just had to do a little reading and research to figure out how to mold edges to the board, but that was pretty easy. And it basically went from there, I made my first board, it had a foam core, and I still have it above my office here.
BOL: What sort of board was it?
CP: I actually modeled it off a Burton Air, which was really popular back then, I pulled a mold off the Burton Air and used that as my vacuum bed.
BOL: Did you originally set out to create a whole new snowboard company, or did you just want to build boards for yourself and friends?
CP: Well I'd been dabbling in the windsurfing world for a while and I like to build things. I like to be creative, I like working with people who are professionals regardless of what field they're in, and I'd been doing that with windsurfers but my initial thought in getting into snowboards was pure pleasure. I needed an outlet and I wanted to build boards for myself. I quickly hooked up with some top alpine snowboarding athletes that I knew through various other sports, and their ability was far exceeding the available product at the time. Their learning curve was so steep, snowboard manufacturers had no idea what they were doing as far as how to build product that would keep up with these people. So I stepped into a little niche there, I was quite fortunate to meet those people who allowed me to do so, especially since it fulfilled my own personal satisfaction with building fancy toys. And it went from there!
BOL: Can you name some of those first people to seek your product?
CP: The first person to come was Mark Fawcett, and of the notable types, Shannon Melhuse came, Eric Baldwin, Mike Kildevaald, Tom Lyman, Jeremy Jones, and a bunch of really good riders, alpiners that I was working with that didn't quite make it to the top five that would have made cash at the time so unfortunately they couldn't pursue it. But there were at least fifteen or twenty good riders. I worked with Mike Jacoby closely.... you know I can't even remember all the names because at the time, not coming from snowboarding, I didn't know a lot of the names, but I worked with a lot of them. And it got too busy too quick too! (laughter) I also built boards for some big mountain backcountry riders like Jim Zellers, Tom Bert, and Steve Klassen.
BOL: Were you manufacturing windsurfers full-time before starting Prior Snowboards?
CP: Yeah, I did windsurfers full time, I had a little garage that was set up as a custom sailboard shaping shop. I also did sailboard repairs. So it did give me flexibility in the winter. Winters I mostly spent in Barbados surfing for four months, five months, but when I started snowboarding, that went down to two months, and now I haven't been back there for many years.
BOL: Did you ever race?
CP: Windsurfers yes, but not snowboards, I never really had an inclination to. I just enjoy the sport too much to want to worry about the whole racing end of it.
BOL: What is your educational background?
CP: Umm, I went to the University of Rip, Slash, and Tear at Silver Sands Beach in Barbados. (laughter) No seriously I went to an all-boys boarding school in Montreal from grades 9 to 12, and before that I lived in Africa and went to an American school there that was basically set up for ex-patriots, people who live overseas. And then I went to a community college in Montreal as well, spent about a year and a half there and then got into the windsurfing racing, world-cup.
BOL: How did you learn to build a windsurfer?
CP: I learned while I was living in Barbados, a friend of mine has a surfboard factory there, and he made windsurfers as well. I was always hanging out there, helping out with air brushing graphics or laying up laminations, building fins, so I got the basics there. Then I got hooked up with an individual in Vancouver named Rob Mulder who has a company called Robert's Sailboards, very very high end sailboards, and I worked with him for a while. Then I decided to do my own thing and build snowboards, and it went from there.
BOL: What have been some of the bigger hurdles or growing pains you've had to overcome along the way?
CP: Probably the biggest growing pain has been trying to reach the potential the company has by taking it from a garage operation to an actual functioning, returning business. Building cool shit in a garage is one thing, but to actually take it to the next level is a huge challenge, a challenge I've been trying to do for the past two years. It seems I've finally gotten myself aligned with the right people and the right location, that was a big hurdle.
BOL: I believe for a number of years you private labeled boards for Sims for Mark Fawcett to compete on, is that correct?
CP: Yep, we built a lot of boards with Mark while he was riding for Sims before they started making the Burners. He would come to the garage and we would do the prototyping and Sims would pay the bill for all his race toys. We built boards for Rossignol, Moly, Aunt Mable's, Vision, a whole bunch of people, um, Option, who back then were called Never...
BOL: Never Summer snowboards?
CP: No, just "Never", but they changed their name to Option because of Never Summer. I built Tina Basich's freeride prototype a few years ago... some custom freestyle boards for Devun Walsh who is a pretty well known freestyler.
BOL: Did you mind making boards for Mark only to see them carry the Sims name?
CP: Oh not at all, that was my business, to build custom boards. I would work night and day to accommodate Mark and what he needed to get the job done, so that I could get paid, and it worked out well.
BOL: Who should we watch for on the podium from Prior now?
CP: Well, there are a lot of guys out there riding my customs, but as for people actually on the Prior logo, there's a racer named Darren Chalmers, he's doing really well, he's a thirty year old from Whistler. He went to the previous Olympics and he's qualified for next year, and he's starting to hit the top tens on a consistent basis. There's also a racer called Ryan Wedding, a young Canadian kid, really good hockey player. He's 18, 220 or 230 pounds, and he charges hard, I think he's a good contender.
BOL: You've just moved to a new factory, what were the driving forces behind that decision?
CP: Basically, I needed to make the most of what I had accomplished up to a point and to try to turn it around and make a living out of it. There's problems with trying to do numbers, you know, mass quantities. It's practically impossible to do it cost effectively in North America and be able to compete, even though I had a pretty good size factory in North Vancouver and could do decent volume. So I've hooked up with a friend who just graduated from getting his MBA and he drew up a good business plan, with analysis of market history and how we could best benefit from what we had, and we decided that we should move the operation to Whistler where we can do a lot of testing and be close to customers. So we're setting up shop right here. It's a very international resort, there's a lot of clientele just walking through the area.
BOL: Have you always been doing freeride and freestyle boards, or was there a time when you were just doing alpine?
CP: No, I've been doing freeride all along. It's just very difficult to make any headway in that market because you have to spend a huge amount on advertising and pro-riders. But we've been doing big powder boards, swallow-tails, you name it, it's all part of the picture.
BOL: What do you think of split-tail alpine race boards?
CP: It's a nice ride, from my experience I enjoy them on harder, icier conditions, the back end doesn't wash out as much especially on longer boards. On shorter boards I don't think it's quite as critical, but when you get up to 195, it keeps the back in it, gives good edge hold and sharper turns.
BOL: What sort of board do you usually ride?
CP: I have two 185's, one's a little softer with more sidecut, I'll ride that on harder days. The other is a bit stiffer with a little less sidecut that I ride in softer snow. Then I have a 168 freeride board with a soft set-up. So basically whatever the conditions are, I'll choose my toy.
BOL: Can you tell me the radius on the two alpine boards?
CP: Yeah, one's a 15.7m and the other is a 14m.
BOL: Is that 14 your stock 185 shape?
BOL: I understand you use birch and aspen cores, why do you prefer those over the more ubiquitous maple and ash or other woods?
CP: We're getting our cores out of Quebec now, but out west the more frequent woods are maple and spruce, so that's what I was using, the long grain woods with good resilience and good memory. Maple's a hardwood as you know, and I was using that down the edges of the cores. In Quebec they don't have those specific woods, but it's really just a matter of taste, kind of like choosing Coke or Pepsi, they're very similar.
BOL: Okay, now we'll get into some nitty-gritty questions...
CP: Fire away! (laughter)
BOL: In the past you've had somewhat of a reputation for, shall we say, "lengthy" delivery. Do you have any comment on that and will the new factory remedy that situation?
CP: Oh it's already been remedied, that's already been fixed in this new factory. It just boiled down to being way too busy with not enough help.
BOL: Have you been hiring?
CP: Well we've completely revamped the shop, the new setup is very clean and efficient, we have a new showroom and a business manager who also does the marketing. I'm down in the shop, running the production, designing boards, where I should be. So it's completely revamped. Previously, I used to have to try to do it all myself. It - was - just - killer! Not only physically, it sure was draining, but also on the business. I agree, there were some lengthy delays, and unfortunately I think the few people that experienced them were more vocal than perhaps they should have been, but the fact of the matter is that it's fixed.
BOL: There have been stories and/or gossip spread by some with supposed inside information about a failed investment opportunity that could have bolstered the company, but that dissolved after poor sample products were received, can we get your version of that story?
CP: Ah but of course. It has absolutely nothing to do with failure, I was talking with an individual back east by the name of Steve Cloyes, a very nice gentleman. He's a stock promoter from New York, and I have utmost respect for him. We talked and touched lightly on the subject of doing some business together. But given his background and our situation, it just wasn't right, we weren't ready, he wasn't ready. We just talked and that was the extent of it. In the mean time he bought some boards, and at a very good price I must say, and we just had a very casual talk about potentially investing, about the industry and bringing professional riders on board, about projections of where cash would need to be spent to make it work, but it never really involved more than that, nor should it have. That was it.
BOL: There was no batch of sample boards that went out that performed poorly or fell apart or anything like that?
CP: I did get some of the boards sent back and for the most part it was just normal wear and tear. There were a couple that had some delam on the tail, and I know why, we've fixed that. The press we used was very new at the time and those boards were some of the first five or so to come off. It wasn't like it was a big ordeal, there were just some adjustments that needed to be made. I think basically one of the individuals, one of Steve's sidekicks, I think he was the most ticked off out of anybody because he perceived it as something it wasn't, and so he was the most disappointed and has been the most vocal. It just wouldn't have worked to have Steve on board, he does his work at home in New York on the computer, he doesn't know much about the snowboarding industry and such. It was a very mutual decision not to pursue it. You can't go into these sorts of things half-heartedly and just hope for the best.
BOL: Do you think it had anything to do with Fawcett having to look elsewhere for a ride?
CP: No, I think Mark had Sims backing out of the alpine world, because it's a tough market for them to compete in. Alpine boards take a beating, regardless of who makes them, and there's going to be returns, and the amount of effort that a company like Sims has to put into the alpine campaign, with all the follow-ups involved, warranty concerns, customer relations; they have to look at their bottom line and see if it's all worth it for them. It seems that they've decided that it would be in the best interests of the company if they move away from it, which is really unfortunate, those Burners are awesome boards.
BOL: So what keeps you in it, have you found a way to make money at it, or is it just a passion?
CP: Well we have a pretty good setup here. Our game plan, as far as marketing is concerned, is direct sales, we have a fantastic web-site now where we can take orders, and people can mix and match graphics and bases. And if people want to take it further and specify the shapes, we can do that too. So we are able to produce a smaller number, but sell direct, keep up the customer service and stay afloat. I think a lot of companies can't market that way because they're already entrenched in the traditional distribution route, through distributors and dealers. And Whistler is such an international community, it's ideal for testing and launching products.
BOL: What do you think of Mark's move to Burton?
CP: I think it's a good move, Burton is really an incredible company, not just in their boards, but they represent a lot of other snowboarding business as well. But from a financial point of view, he has to do it. He'll bring a lot of credibility to the Burton product, he's got a lot to offer them. If Burton listens to him, they're going to come up with a real serious product. This I can assure you from the amount of time I've spent working with Mark, dialing in his shapes and such. If the R&D department listens to what he has to say, they'll do numbers for sure. One thing about Mark, he would come up to my factory and if he didn't have his hands in the epoxy or cutting material, he would get a broom and sweep the floor. He's definitely a giver.
BOL: You were the first "microbrew" snowboard company to surface after the wave of "big" snowboard companies swamped the deck. You embraced alpine snowboarding, offering personalized attention, hand-craftsmanship, and full-custom capabilities. Now you face competition from the likes of Coiler, Donek, BS, PureCarve, etc. What makes a Prior snowboard different and/or better?
CP: I think the way we're going to compete basically is for me to look at myself as my own competition. My focus now is on designing the product with better materials, that's what my forte is. I've got a lot of good ideas that up to now I haven't been able to put into play because I've been having to try to balance the books and deal with marketing and the wealth of other areas of the business. So now I think we'll be able to vamp up the quality and performance by leaps and bounds. My partner is as focused as I am at making this a success, so it's all very exciting.
BOL: How many people work for you?
CP: We're four right now. We have three on the floor for the most part, and my partner Dean runs the administration, marketing, general management, that's how it's setup right now.
BOL: Is there a camaraderie or rivalry among you and your fellow boutique board builders?
CP: I've only met Bruce Varsava just through windsurfing, and I've never met the Donek guy, Sean? But I think things are pretty easy going, maybe a little competitive.
BOL: Is there room for all of you in the market?
CP: I don't see why not. Alpine's pretty small, but I think it should work out. It's going to be whoever makes good boards, you know, you've got to be competitive but it's good competition.
BOL: Any predictions as to what new technologies alpine snowboarders will be able to enjoy in the next five to ten years?
CP: Glass fibers are developing on a continual basis, so there's going to be new and better composites available. But I think the biggest improvement someone can put into a board is to nail that perfect combination of flex and sidecut and get it all working together to make a performance product. Shapes will continue to be refined, as well as boot and binding technologies.
BOL: What can we expect from Prior in the Future?
CP: We're just going to be continually dialing in and testing different shapes, flexes, materials, and that's going to happen more rapidly now that we're in Whistler. We're going to be testing new topsheet materials, there's some new materials out there that are great for graphics while being durable, I think that's one area where snowboards are always behind the ski industry, we can improve that.
BOL: What are your goals for your company? Yourself?
CP: The company's goals are to get to the point where we're turning out a good amount of boards with a very efficient setup, to have everything in place with the marketing, we've got a fantastic demo center set up down here. I don't want to give out any numbers because then people start to judge you, but I just want to get this thing up and running efficiently and make a comfortable living off of it. That would be something I would really enjoy. As for myself I'd like to snowboard more and get back into surfing in the summer.
BOL: Who gets your deepest gratitude?
CP: My deepest gratitude... I suppose I owe a fair bit to Mr. Fawcett, he's been a pleasure to work with, he's a good friend. And my business partner now, Dean Thompson. I'd also like to thank Fin for the Bomber site, it's very entertaining, some of the talk there; I've learned stuff about myself there that I didn't even know! (laughter) But it's all in good fun