An independent snowboard company quietly racks up millions in sales
There are those who get Rome Snowboards and those who don’t. Those who do include a server at a Waterbury watering hole called The Reservoir. She’s balancing truffle fries, a Heady Topper and an even more obscure Vermont microbrew on a serving tray while a black order pad adorned with “Rome SDS” stickers juts out of the back pocket of her jeans.
Across the street at the Blackback Pub & Flyshop, yet another Waterbury watering hole, a middle-aged man with a plumbing and heating company logo on the left breast of his tan polo shirt jumps into a conversation at the bar. When he’s told the worldwide headquarters of Rome Snowboards is less than a mile away, in a nondescript building on a dead-end street before the bridge across the Winooski River, he gives that little head shake often used to express mild confusion. He’s never heard of Rome. He’s blissfully unaware that Rome is carving out enough of a worldwide market presence to support about 140 unique products — a line that fills a catalog as thick as a sandwich.
Rome’s high-profile/no-profile dichotomy exists on the mountains and in the marketplace too. A huge percentage — the vast majority, actually — of the estimated 7.6 million Americans who ride their way down the slopes each year do so atop snowboards made by companies other than Rome. Snowboarding, like many recreational lifestyles, spawns intense brand loyalty, and millions of riders are perfectly content to use better-known brands than Rome.
But clearly there are enough snowboarders who get Rome, which exudes the cultish vibe of an indie rock band: anti-corporate, uncompromising, restless, and somewhat dark and edgy. While not the biggest brand in snowboarding, Rome’s boards are usually among the top-selling models each year, according to industry reports, and they routinely rake in awards from snowboarding magazines. As a privately held company, Rome guards its revenue figures closely, but the business-listings website www.manta.com estimates annual revenue at between $2.5 and $5 million, a range found in other published reports.
Both 46, fit and avid snowboarders, the two met as out-of-state students at the University of Vermont in the mid-1980s, when snowboarding was virtually an inside joke. It was such a fringe, underground activity in the Reagan years that snowboarders had to sleuth around like members of a clandestine fraternity to find others who partook in the sport.
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That is essentially how the two met. After the fun, frolicking and studies at UVM ended, they went in different career directions. Their passion for snowboarding led them both to take jobs at Burlington-based Burton Snowboards in the 1990s.
And this is where the narrative needs to jump into what’s known as a “frame story.” It is not entirely possible to tell the story of Rome Design Syndicate without discussing Burton Snowboards — the Vermont-based snowboard giant that dominates the snowboarding landscape. If we compare the snowboarding industry to, say, the soft drink industry, Burton is both Coke and Pepsi combined. Jake Burton Carpenter started his business — his most ardent supporters would contend he started the entire sport — in southern Vermont in the late 1970s. It’s now a company with annual sales loosely projected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. When we start talking about Vermont-based snowboard companies, Burton is not just the elephant in the room, it’s the whole circus.
Further muddying the picture: Maravetz and Reid are both former Burton employees. Their careers overlapped at Burton for four years before they left in 2000, starting up Rome in 2001.
Complicating things more is this persistent rumor that’s lingered around the snowboarding world for years:
Jake Burton, as the story goes, was the silent backer of Maravetz and Reid, a strategic move designed to give him a seemingly independent, nonmainstream brand and even more of snowboarding’s market share.
Cool rumor. Not true.
Had they had Burton’s backing, said Maravetz and Reid, they would have gladly used his money in the early years when Rome’s first boards were being made in Quebec City. In those formative years, they each packed boards into rented trucks late at night, driving them through U.S. Customs at the border in the dark morning hours and shipping them out of Waterbury by the light of the next day in an effort to make sure retail shops across the globe had the product in time to capture crucial pre-snow sales.
“At first,” said Reid, “what might have been a blurred line between us and Burton probably helped us open a few doors. That was not intentional, but it worked to our advantage.”
Yes, Maravetz and Reid worked at Burton. Yes, Rome and Burton are both Vermont-based snowboard companies. Yes, folks at Burton know Rome and vice versa. But Burton and Rome are wholly different companies.
The decision to start, and stay, in Vermont was a conscious one. Other states have wooed Rome, and Utah was strongly considered, but the company has stayed here even though, as Maravetz and Reid admit, running an international business in Vermont presents some challenges.
“One of the key components of the brand is to be close enough to a lift that opens early enough so that everybody here can snowboard a lot, and still work a lot,” said Reid. “Here in Waterbury, we’re a half hour from Stowe, where there’s a lift that opens at 8 o’clock in the morning. When you can ride before you go to work, it makes it very easy for people who are passionate about snowboarding to work in snowboarding.”
Vermont has other selling points for working professionals. The quality of life in the Green Mountain State is often highly rated. Having an accessible, cost-effective airport certainly helps, while quality public schools for their children and employees with the hard-driving “East Coast work ethic” were key for two East Coast guys too.
“But really,” said Maravetz, “being close to a mountain and being able to wake up and ride before heading to the office means a heck of a lot.”
Rome has a full stable of pro riders, the kind who star in videos and photo shoots of gigantic backcountry jumps, nighttime urban rail grinds and spinning, twisting runs through resort terrain parks.
Rome has found a sweet spot with retailers too. Their innovative “% for Snowboarding” program kicks back a certain percentage of online sales to local shops and rewards them for having programs in place for growing snowboard participation — movie nights, for instance, or sponsoring a rail jam or competitions.
“What Rome brings to the marketplace is a diversity, a unique perspective,” said Kelly Davis, director of research for the Virginia-based SnowSports Industries America. “Diversity brings in more consumers to the marketplace. It’s nice to have other companies in our industry that are run by smart people with a passion for snowboarding. That’s important.”
Having survived the great economic downturn of the 21st century, Rome must now inspire sales in a sport where participation rates have slowed.
“Snowboarding had a significant growth spell between 2003 and 2008,” said Reid, “but it’s sort of hit a plateau right now. When we wrote our business plan, we had this idea that as our generation — really the first generation of snowboarders — started having children, there’d be more growth. That has yet to come.”
If we rank snowboard companies by market share, Burton is the undisputed No. 1 seed. Rome, depending on the specific product category, may be somewhere around a four, five or six seed. Taking more market share is part of the plan.
“We want to stay true to who we are as a company,” said Reid, “but we don’t think that’s incongruous with growth. We want to be a company where people who want to work hard and ride a lot come to work. We think we can be that company and still sell a lot of boards.”