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The Future of Armada: The Good and the Bad

Sammy Carlson is just one of the many talented riders on Armada's team. Teton Gravity Research photo. 

Armada Skis president Hans Smith, who says he’ll continue as general manager of the brand now that it has been added to the Amer Winter Sports Group (Salomon, Atomic, Arc’teryx, etc.), says Armada will continue to do business much the way it always has.

“All athletes who are with us currently will be re-signed,” Smith said Thursday, hours after the $4.1-million deal was announced. “We started as an athlete-driven brand, and we will continue to be that.”

Smith sees his brand as a good fit in the Amer portfolio. “We’re excited about the deal and what it means to the company. We’ve been working for a long time to find stable financial backing, and now that we have it we’ll be around for a long time to come. We have a youth-driven brand, and we identify well in that category, so that’s a good segment that we can tackle very well in a very authentic way so that the other brands won’t have to. This lets us slot right in and do what we’re good at.”

Smith didn’t discuss details, but the deal presumably includes the acquisition of large amounts of Armada debt by Amer.

That wouldn’t surprise industry watchers, who surmise that if Armada was in a tough place and in need of rescue, it was cash flow, rather than brand equity, that was the problem.

The Amer acquisition comes in the wake of Armada’s relocation from its California birthplace to Salt Lake City, where the company’s headquarters and small-batch production/prototyping facility is described by those who have seen it as state-of-the-art in every way—and presumably very expensive.

And Armada made the Salt Lake move just as one of the worst winters ever was putting a pinch on ski and ski-apparel sales. Before a single ski could be made in the new plant, physical assets were already being sold off at deep discount, insiders say, and employees were being laid off.

Amer is a likely partner for Armada, given the long working relationship between the two. Many of Armada’s best-selling models have been produced in the highly regarded Atomic factory on an OEM basis. That includes the recent Invictus series, which seemed to prove that Armada had figured out how to make excellent skis (see magazine test raves) for real skiers skiing real resort conditions.

The Amer deal comes some 15 years after Armada’s 2002 incorporation. Though Armada is unquestionably a standard bearer of the sport’s indy-brand movement, it always had an advantage that most start-ups lacked: true star power. Smith got to know his co-founders—including Tanner Hall, JP Auclair, JF Cusson, Boyd Easley, and Julien Regnier—while working with them during his years at Oakley.

“These guys were the pioneers of the freestyle scene, and they just weren’t happy with the way they were being marketed or with the products that were being made for them,” Smith said Thursday. “For a while we all sat around complaining about it, and then we decided to stop complaining and do something about it.

“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished since then and flattered that company of such sophistication and resources and with such great portfolio of brands would want to add us to their mix. We always just figured things out as we went along, and I think everyone who has been involved, including our retailers and our founding and existing athletes, should be collectively proud of creating something so enduring.”

Still, Jason Levinthal, founder of Line Skis and now CEO at J Skis, sees it as a cautionary tale for anyone toying with the idea of getting rich by starting up a new brand in the capitally intensive business of ski manufacturing.

Levinthal started Line in his parents’ garage and grew it into a legit industry player before mounting debt forced him to sell to K2. He doesn’t want any would-be ski start-up entrepreneurs to assume that anyone walked away rich from the Armada/Amer deal.

“I had a lot of flashbacks this morning, hearing about this deal,” Levinthal said Thursday. “I sold Line because I was in too deep to carry it on on my own. And this looks like the same situation. It’s just so hard to make money in the ski industry.”

(Reached by phone, Levinthal was literally getting into his car to go meet with bankers.)

“It’s good to see that they’ll still be around—just good to keep up the variety of brands in the the industry, rather than, ‘Oh, I used to love those guys, but they don’t exist anymore,’” Levinthal added. “They’ve created an awesome brand and made a lot of noise, and they can be proud to have gotten this far.” 

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