Adventures In Exporting
It was somewhere over Greenland, somewhere between the screams and cries and quick hits of stashed booze that Annelise Loevlie found her China distributor. At the time, she had no idea that she and her airline seatmate, Weir Er Qiu—friends call him Wei—would one day be in business together; she had no expectation of living that long.
Loevlie, CEO of Colorado-based Icelantic Skis, was completing the last leg of a trade show triangle that had seen her go from Salt Lake City to Munich before heading back to Denver on a nonstop flight to attend the Snowsports Industry America (SIA) show. Founded by childhood friends in 2006, Icelantic has always seen overseas sales—and European acceptance—as critical to their success. While the innovative nature and handmade craftsmanship of their product usually took care of acceptance, maintaining sales proved challenging—especially when it came to finding reliable distributors.
In the early days, the process was hit and miss, the biggest miss being when Loevlie signed up Austrian distributors without ever meeting them in person. The distributors had said, and written, all the right things, so right that Icelantic sent them a huge shipment of skis. Six months later, the distributors were nowhere to be found.
“Luckily, we had gotten prepayment, but they just went MIA,” Loevlie says. “Long story short, we didn’t do our ground check. It turned out they had made a lot of promises and burned a lot of bridges. What I learned from that is that it’s easy for someone to sell you passion but you can’t overlook professionalism.”
During the flight, Loevlie could not overlook how cool Wei remained when the plane was hit by violent turbulence causing it to drop hundreds of feet in a matter of seconds. That unleashed a torrent of wails and terror that, along with the turbulence, would last for hours. Loevlie attempted to maintain her cool with intermittent visits to a small bottle of wine she’d kept hidden in a seat pocket and focusing on, of all things, the screen image on Wei’s phone.
“It was this weird Chinese cat all glammed out in bling,” she says. “I decided it was a spiritual deity or something, I connected with it and decided we’d be okay. So I just sat on my hands and continued sweating.”
But Wei, Loevlie says, remained “peaceful,” sitting in the middle seat, watching an action movie, pretending not to notice Loevlie’s perspiration on one side or the prayers of the elderly woman on the other. At the time, Loevlie thought Wei might be one of the last people she’d ever see in her life. Gratefully, he wasn’t.
As fate would have it, Wei would be one of the first people she’d see at SIA.
“When he approached my booth, we both knew,” Loevlie says. “We smiled and laughed and hugged.”
Soon, they were talking business. Wei said he’d been following Icelantic for years and that pursuing an agreement to distribute the skis in China was the main reason he’d come to SIA. Loevlie was impressed with his knowledge of the company as well as the possibilities in China, where an emerging middle class has increased the demand for such Western leisure activities as skiing. But she had also seen how he reacted under pressure, had taken note of his confidence and assuredness. It turned out some of her most critical groundwork had been done in the air.
“We battled a storm together at 33,000 feet before signing the contract. We both liked that fact.”
The partnership has proved successful and the fact that Wei pursued Icelantic represented a sea change for the small company that, in its infancy, had to cold call distributors to try to convince them to carry their product and its revolutionary design.
Company founder Ben Anderson knew he wanted to design and sell skis from the time he was 14. Loevlie grew up with Anderson and had become close with him when she was selling him candy out of her school locker in the seventh grade.
“I had become a major sugar pusher and he was one of my best customers,” says Loevlie, who was born into an entrepreneurial family, her parents having founded concrete manufacturer Shotcrete Technologies.
All Anderson had ever talked about was starting his own ski company, so it came as little surprise to Loevlie when her friend called her and said he’d dropped out of college and was starting Icelantic. Loevlie, who was studying at the University of Vermont, agreed to come and work with him and other childhood friends once she graduated.
Anderson’s innovative design went contrary to the then-popular wisdom that said speed and stability derived from a ski’s length. He had found that he could make his skis faster and more stable by creating a shorter, wider design, one that valued surface area above all.
While Anderson played the part of mad scientist, it fell to Loevlie to sell Icelantic internationally. The first place the company had to go was Europe, not only home to the biggest manufacturers, but where she knew acceptance would go a long way to selling their skis in all other parts of the world. Though she’d studied business at Vermont, formal education was far less valuable a teacher for her new venture than the years she had spent traveling with her mom and dad as they grew Shotcrete.
Loevlie grew up as a “gypsy child, always traveling for business,” and had watched as her mother Mary Jane attempted to sell skeptics on Shotcrete’s innovative spray concrete. Loevlie was selling more than a new ski—she was selling a lifestyle; one that valued quality and creativity, since each of its skis were not only handmade but displayed original artwork.
As groundbreaking and well-made as the skis were, Loevlie knew from her time traveling with her parents that people go into business with other people, not products. She knew she would be tested by a male-dominated, European-based industry that was skeptical of American products to begin with—and this different-looking one specifically. There was always a test, she says. Her Russian contacts may test to see if she could hold her vodka, while Swiss counterparts may test her mettle by whipping out a magnifying glass to go over every inch of the ski.
“No smiling, no laughing,” says Loevlie, who is usually doing one or the other, often both. “Being an American company selling skis in Europe, quality and service were always the first hurdle. But, in the end, it didn’t matter as much where it was from as it did how well it was made. To do that, I had to show them. I skied a lot, which is another thing they wanted to know. I had to show them I could ski, that I understood the product and the culture.”
She showed them and Icelantic overseas sales soared. Ironically, the company that now sells in nearly 20 countries has a smaller percentage of overseas sales than when it was in its infancy. That’s only because sales in the U.S. have grown, helped by Icelantic’s acceptance overseas. Sales are strongest in Russia and Japan where, Loevlie says, “Made in America” has proven a key selling point.
“They’re really into American products,” she says. “We’ve found that all over the place. The fact that it’s made here really says something about quality.”
Icelantic skis are manufactured in a factory run by Never Summer Industries, a like-minded, Denver-based snowboard manufacturer that believes in overseeing every step of the creation process, from its local supply chain to construction.
Once made, skis are put on a pallet and moved to the company’s third-party warehouse run by the Colorado Distribution Group. In the beginning, production was always an issue. Sharing production time with Never Summer meant Icelantic was sometimes unable to fill full orders all at once and would have to ship orders in intervals. But Never Summer’s move into a new, larger factory this summer has enabled Icelantic to be much more responsive to its customers’ needs.
“The production schedule was always a big hurdle for us,” says Jon Mueller, Icelantic operations manager, who notes there is always at least one Icelantic employee in the factory to monitor quality control. “The Never Summer move has made things much more efficient for us. We’re producing a lot more product on-time and are able to ship full orders where, in the past, we may have had to wait and ship a couple times. Now we can send an entire order out with one shipment.”
To protect their handmade product, skis are not only bubble- and shrink-wrapped, but loaded into custom-made crates designed to mitigate damage. Icelantic moves all product domestically and into Canada via UPS. Orders to Europe are shipped from the East Coast, usually New York, on an ocean barge. Mueller said that the company will use different freight shippers depending on costs and, most importantly, “who can guarantee the skis get over on time.”
Asian orders are either shipped out of Los Angeles or Seattle or, depending on the size of the shipment and the time that is needed, moved by air freight with the added costs billed to the distributor. Mueller says that acting locally with suppliers, manufacturers and warehouses has proved critical to Icelantic thinking globally.
“It streamlines a lot of this process and has made it very convenient for us,” he says. “It not only supports our ethic of supporting local brands but it makes real sense for us as a business.”
That business is still very young, like the kids who dreamed it up, and still has many markets ahead of it. It has done so well identifying and selling in its present ports that Icelantic was recently honored with the Presidential “E” award for export excellence, the nation’s highest award for companies contributing to the growth of U.S. exports. The award was especially meaningful to Loevlie since she accepted it while standing next to fellow honoree and CEO of Shotcrete, Mary Jane Loevlie.
“Some of the best advice I ever got from my mom is that you will never know until you try,” Loevlie says.
Though, as she says, Icelantic is still in its “toddler years,” the company has grown not only in sales but reputation. Loevlie now sits on SIA’s board of directors. When she was selected to run the company last year by Anderson, who decided to focus on the company’s image and products as its chief branding officer, he said he “couldn’t think of a better person to take Icelantic to the next level.”
Today, a growing client list and her duties as CEO means Loevlie does not travel as much as she once did. That’s good and bad, she says. While she doesn’t miss the turbulence, she grew to really love the challenge and adventure of forging new relationships with business partners. Still, she’s gotten much better, sharper about those relationships, what she wants and who she is looking for in them.
“I’ve kind of evolved over the years,” she says. “Not super-consciously, but I find that while I’ll always want to see that someone I’m in business with has all their ducks in a row, I still have to like that person. I don’t want to be in business with a square-jawed numbers person.”
The lesson she learned over Greenland taught her it was okay to trust her gut—“I’m a bit of a hippie and Wei is Chinese so we both believe in fate, that relationship was meant to be”—albeit a fate that is thoroughly vetted. She’s developed her own way of looking at business and people and finds it’s still a rather high-flying experience for her, even if most of it is done from her office.
“Since I’m captain of the ship, I’ve found that deep breathing and a lot of medication helps keep us on a good course,” she says, cracking herself up. “Actually, what’s most important is that you define what you want and where you want to go and then be really conscientious about being sustainable, whether it’s everything that goes into the product you’re making or, just as important, the people you do business with.”