Mervin Manufacturing shreds up snowboard design
Meet Mike Olson of Mervin Manufacturing, makers of Lib Tech and Gnu snowboards and one of the innovators of the snowboard world, based at a small plant in Sequim, Wash.
Special to The Seattle Times
Snow Sports 2008
SEQUIM — Mike Olson got a lot out of his college education — all three days of it. In 1984, Olson dropped out after less than a week at Pacific Lutheran University to pursue his true passion: building snowboards.
He's really good at it.
His company, Mervin Manufacturing, is one of the last snowboard makers to build its boards in the United States. In fact, they make them right here on the Olympic Peninsula.
The firm he co-founded with surf buddy Pete Saari has ignored the mass exodus of manufacturers heading overseas and continues to produce snowboards that push boundaries in the winter sports world. Mervin's boards carry the Gnu and Lib Tech brand names.
"We have always taken pride in making our products here," said Olson, who built his first board in 1977, before most of the world had ever heard of a snowboard. Sitting in his office, which is wonderfully cluttered with projects and snowboard artifacts from different eras of the company, he explains the origins of his snowboard names:
"Gnu" came into being when he was taking a weekend marketing class that covered picking names for businesses.
"The teacher said to try and pick a name that's short, like three to four letters," he said. "I really liked Wildebeest, but that's definitely not three letters so I looked in the dictionary and beside it was 'Gnu.' " That first year he hand-built 36 Gnu snowboards.
The Lib Tech brand originated the next year when Olson was working on a skateboard design at Merlin's old production facility in Seattle.
"I pulled it out of the oven at 3 in the morning, and I saw this sparkly pattern on top and I wrote Liberace Technologies on it," he said, in reference to the flashy pianist. When Saari and Olson couldn't trademark the name, they settled on Lib Tech.
Handcrafted by snowboarders
Nowadays, Olson and Saari point to their centralized production in the U.S. as a key to their success. From milling their own wood cores to sublimating graphics, Mervin's production crew of snowboarders, surfers and skateboarders do it all under one roof — an anomaly in the snowboard industry.
Rather than waiting for months for shipments from other manufacturers, Mervin's crew is able to make design adjustments almost instantly, even machining their own tools and molds.
"We set ourselves up to be creative," said Saari. "If we get an idea we can make the shape and molds and do it right away."
In 1997, the pair sold Mervin to Quiksilver, the international purveyor of boardriding gear, but they haven't bowed to pressure to move production overseas, which intensified even further when Rossignol became a sister company through Quiksilver.
"They said no one cares where the boards come from," Olson said. "It turns out, in our case they do." A short experiment proved the point when they made a small run of boards at Rossignol's Spain facility.
"The shops wouldn't take them," said Olson.
"We knew it all along, but we had to experiment for [Rossignol]," added Saari. "We truly believe people wanted us to make our own boards."
From their new "banana" technology to wavy edges they call "magne-traction," Mervin is redefining modern snowboard design, which has remained fairly stagnant for nearly two decades. Banana technology — now being ridden by U.S. Open champion Torah Bright, Olympic silver medalist Danny Kass and all-mountain destroyer Travis Rice — is designed to put more turning control between the feet and to allow for better floating in powder by adding a pre-bent rockered midsection to the snowboard.
With Lib Tech sales up 81 percent and Gnu sales up 53 percent over the previous year, snowboarders have definitely taken notice.
"We can't build enough," said Olson.
Mad scientist meets surfer, Olson has pioneered numerous technologies over the years that are now commonplace in the snowboard industry, including deeper side cuts for carving on hardpack conditions.
At the Mervin facility, Olson has a private "shaping" shack where he experiments with top-secret materials and construction techniques. Despite having approximately 100 employees, Olson still hand pours the sidewalls on every Lib Tech Cygnus X1 snowboard model.
Besides new designs, Olson — along with Saari and others at Mervin — is passionate about making snowboard construction safer and easier on the environment.
"We've spent years and years creating the safest system for making boards," Olson said. With an aggressive recycling program, nonpetroleum based bio-plastics for snowboard topsheets, and even a biodiesel co-op on property that employees and local farmers can use to fill their trucks, Mervin is serious about fulfilling its claim as "the world's most environMENTAL snowboard factory."
"Our employees don't even need to wear masks," Olson said.
Most recently, Olson and Saari are excited about a new 10,000-square-foot additional facility that will house the sales, customer service and shipping departments, which are moving back to the area this fall from Quiksilver and Rossignol's "Mountain Center" in Park City, Utah. But Olson is most excited for logistical purposes.
"Rossignol could never figure out how to put candy in the boxes," he said, referring to Mervin's longtime practice of including sweets in their board shipments.
John Kinmonth is a Seattle-based freelance writer who enjoys snowboarding, surfing, and doing both of those with his wife.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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