Waterbury's new snowboard maker hopes to shred corporate culture
A brand-new snowboard company based in Waterbury seems hellbent on putting the 'tude back in altitude. Rome Snowboard Design Syndicate, which debuted a three-board product line at a January 2002 trade show in Las Vegas, uses language as aggressive as the sport itself in its company "communiques." Consider this promo copy: "Lost in a post-consolidation hangover of stale corporate uniformity, the snowboard world needs a shot in the arm now more than ever. Launching this winter, Rome Snowboards plans to bust out a king-sized syringe, depress the plunger and corrupt the system with its line of 2002/2003 board designs."
Though railing against the "mainstreamification" of the snowboard world is part of the corporate -- make that anti-corporate -- identity at Rome, its founders honed their own skills in product design, marketing and sales at industry giant Burton Snowboards. Reacting to what they consider "unsettling trends" in the market over the last decade, Josh Reid and Paul Maravetz, both 35, set out to fill a "philosophical hole" with their own company. "The market had matured to the point of stagnancy," offers Dan Sullivan, 37, Rome's director of sales. He joined the company with 10 years of experience, including a stint with Dynastar's Original Sin line. Sullivan's grasp of the industry has already paid off: So far for this winter season, he's got 11 North American and seven international sales reps in more than 200 stores -- seven of them in Vermont.
Rome was conceived as a "designer-driven rebellion" intended to "give voice to the 100-day-a-year rider and other heads who organize their lives around snowboarding." Key to the company's development is that titular Design Syndicate, which solicits input from the amateur riders, dealers and local "heads" for aesthetic and performance features of the boards. To generate these ideas, Rome established the concept of "Dealer Councils" -- an annual series of events at informal locations such as coffeeshops and clubs across the country.
Feedback can also be sent in from the Rome Web site (www.romesnowboards.com) -- whose austere black, gray and white graphics and hard-to-read fonts provide clues to where this company's coming from. Josh Reid offers a few more.
SEVEN DAYS: I'm fascinated by the way you use language to set a company tone. For example, Rome's tag line, "Corrosion of the corporate... by any means necessary," seems crafted to simultaneously threaten the industry powers that be and suggest a conspiracy with the young riders that comprise the sport's demographic. Is that what you intended?
Josh Reid: That seems pretty accurate. It's a statement of change for, with and by riders. We are small compared to the powers that be, so "any means necessary" is a necessary approach.
SD: Have you gotten any reaction from any of those industry powers, such as your former employers at Burton?
JR: No, we haven't had any. There are some inaccurate rumors that we're actually part of Burton -- probably from some of our other smaller competitors.
SD: Who are some of the other smaller competitors?
JR: Elevation, Capita, Geenyus...
SD: What kind of reception have you had at your Dealer Councils around the country?
JR: We have done about 10 of them. This is our first retail season, so first we wanted to get their ideas. We're about to go on another tour. They've gone really well. Dealers like the opportunity to talk to the company and have us listen to them -- one of the founders is always present. A lot of them have been very animated on what the product looks like, performance, sales, etc.
SD: Whose idea was it to seek input from riders and dealers?
JR: That was kind of ingrained in all of us... in what we've done in the past. Paul and our other product designer had worked with athletes at Burton. I ran the testing branch... we talked with riders, and eventually got into consumer feedback.
SD: Can you give me an example of an idea that has actually been used?
JR: I think some general graphic conceptions in some of the new lines. Our discounting program idea came from a retailer here in Vermont. One of them suggested us throwing in an extra board for a certain pricing threshold, two for the next threshold and so on.
SD: Rome is a "designer-driven rebellion." Tell me how the products get designed -- starting with the three you currently sell.
JR: Sometimes it starts with concepts in-house, sometimes from a dealer council or a rider. Then it goes into a cyclical process. Paul is the engineer and sits down with the shape of it and comes up with different technologies -- we have unique glass and core components. Then there are several cycles of testing and refinement and making changes...
SD: How about the looks of the boards?
JR: One of our Vermont athletes, Greg Wilson, painted the four models of our middle-priced series [the Agent]. It's a realization of our Syndicate concept -- trusting riders and their perceptions. Our graphic designer took his paintings and applied them to the board. Next year's graphics are going through review by us, by the team riders and snowboarders close to the inner circles here.
SD: What sets Rome boards apart?
JR: Besides the core and the glass, the shape... not only looking down on it but the edge. They feel different when you ride them, when you're on top of them.
SD: Are the boards manufactured right there in Waterbury?
JR: No. We do all the engineering, and they're produced in Quebec City.
SD: How many employees do you have?
JR: Five -- and we outsource a lot of things. Two interns.
SD: It must take some serious bucks to start a snowboard company. Can I ask where you got your capital?
JR: We pulled it off just by talking to as many people as we could and found a group of private investors who understood what we wanted to do... Some of the investors had time in the industry, but most are outside of it. All private -- no corporate entity has invested in us.
SD: Speaking of money, how do the prices of Rome boards compare with those of some bestsellers in the market?
JR: Very comparable. It wouldn't do the brand any good to come in with a cheaper board. Our high-performance board, Anthem, is $469, about where Burton's high-performance model is. The Agent is mid-priced at $429. The Solution is $379 -- its performance is adequate; some of our athletes ride it -- but we keep the price low. It's a solution to not having a lot of money but still wanting to ride well.
SD: I read that your inventory strategy is to make only the number of snowboards that are pre-ordered for the season. Is that correct?
SD: Do you know how many are going out this season?
JR: I can't disclose that. It's where we want it to be. We have provided adequate inventory to 200 stores.
SD: Who are your "team riders?"
JR: Our pro team is Greg Wilson, from Vermont; a rider from California, Matt Downey; from Tahoe, Vic Lowrance; Jesse Fox from Whistler in British Columbia. Then we have our AmArmy -- the amateur riders.
SD: I assume you want Rome Snowboards to succeed. And if you do, it may be just a matter of time until a new generation thinks Rome is too corporate and mainstream. Do you have a plan for avoiding this, or do you think that's just part of the natural order of things?
JR: People ask us that quite a bit. I don't necessarily think it's part of the natural order. I don't think growth equals corporate mentality. I think we can grow and stay true to the ideals we have here. The syndicate is one of those -- as we continue to keep dealers and riders involved and keep some humility, that's one way to make it happen... Maintaining a strong internal culture will be important to maintaining a nonhypocritical, noncorporate external culture, too. m
Thanks to Jeremy Kent for assistance with this article.