Back in 1996, there was no Northwave–at least on the United States market. The brand was N Boots here in the States and it had a rep for being a solid, modestly sized, Italian snowboard-boot manufacturer.
Now, with Y2K upon us (and trademark issues resolved), Northwave has become a powerhouse brand in the U.S and proof that the triumvirate of shrewd marketing, quality construction, and design innovation still pack a punch.
But the brand and its parent company, Piva SRL, are hardly a pair of Johnny-come-latelies. For the past 30 years, Piva has been making footwear: hiking boots, ski-boot liners, and OEM snowboard boots way back when.
"It’s a toss up if we were the first real snowboard-boot manufacturer," says International Marketing Manager Dane Hjort, "but we were the first company to push development. We put a lot of snowboard companies on the map for having a non-Sorel-type of snowboard boot."
But it wasn’t until Japanese distributor Levante, who came to Piva in 1987 looking for an OEM boot manufacturer that things got rolling.
"Levante had been producing Northwave accessories in Japan–bags, gloves, leashes," says Hjort. "We saw where the snowboard market was going at that time, and saw all the technology and innovation we were giving to our OEM customers and said, ‘Enough is enough. We can do it ourselves and become a major player–if not the top player–in snowboard-boot manufacturing."
Soon after that, Piva bought the rights to the Northwave name and Levante became the brand’s distributor in Japan.
More Than Meets The Eye July is hot and humid in Montebelluna, Italy, the hometown of Northwave and Piva. The gray factory exterior, painted with black Northwave logo, stands in stark contrast to the slowly waving field of corn across the road.
It’s a somnolent, pastoral landscape. All in all, a pretty weird place to find one of the leaders of the snowboard world. But like many things about snowboard-boot manufacturing, there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
For instance, the factory serves as more of a finish line than a starting point for Northwave’s line of boots. Most of the planning–and much of the work–occurs elsewhere and months before the main factory kicks into gear.
Preplanning It was during the week of February 15, 1999 when key members of the Northwave crew first met to plan out the line of boots snowboarders will buy for the ’01/02 season.
Members of this first New Product Focus Group include Hjort, Product Manager Maurizio Molin, Think Tank President Ricardo Perotto, and Stefania Piva–head of the purchase department and heir apparent to the Piva family business. The focus group also includes General Manager Gian Paulo Casasna and Production Planning Manager Marco De Lazzari.
During this first meeting the group began deciding not only the number of models within the line, but also the feasibility of new models, which price points to hit, and what the distribution model will be for each boot within the line.
If it seems like they’re covering a lot of ground, they are. But this is only the first of five focus groups that will take place between February and July of 1999. During that time they’ll get input from Levante and from Northwave North America, the wholly owned subsidiary based in Seattle and managed by industry vet Bob "Gumby" Gundram.
Fortunately, the entire focus-group process has been slightly simplified with the formation of the Northwave snow division.
"Forming the snow division enabled everyone in that division to focus on snowboard boots, snowboard bindings, and the snowboard market itself–not factory issues or bike issues," says Hjort.
Heading the division is Casana, who was a co-owner of California Sports Distribution and part owner of Drake before it was acquired by Northwave in 1997.
"Gian Paulo Casana doesn’t need to micro manage what an ad will look like or what the color will be on a boot," says Hjort. "His expertise is in the systems management and he focuses on the bigger picture.
"When you’re small, everybody wants to be a part of everything–especially in a family owned Italian company," he continues. "But when you get to a certain size, you’ve got the let go. That’s what Gian Paulo really brought to the plate. He’s letting people manage their own divisions."
The Think Tank One of the most important divisions is called Think Tank. As the Focus Group homes in on the upcoming line, Think Tank employees come up with the designs. Housed in a two-story building close to the factory, Think Tank is guarded by three rather large German Shepherds at night.
This is the main domain of Product Manager Maurizio Molin. It’s Molin’s creativity that drives Northwave’s boot design and technical innovation, and his design team springs into action after the first focus group meeting in February and really starts cranking through the springtime.
Before coming to Northwave, Molin was a designer for an independent shoemaker in Milan. "He’d design custom shoes for the equivalent of royalty–people who would say ‘I need a pair of shoes to go with this suit because I’m going to this party.’" says Hjort. "But he also was a snowboarder, so he brought both his design skills and his sports background. He’s a very serious link between the riders and what gets designed."
But this isn’t only the product design area. "Think Tank is also where we design our tooling," says Gundrum as he leads the U.S. reps through a July tour of the Northwave facilities. "You can’t just order up an injection machine, you have to build it. Usually someone would send the part out to the tool maker and he’d make it how he’d want and it might work or it might not. It may not be efficient. It may be late. To get around that, we design absolutely everything here."
Designing and manufacturing all the tooling in-house is more expensive, says Hjort, but the tolerances are tighter and it gets Northwave a lot closer to the finished product. "In the short run it’s more expensive," he says, "but in the long run it’s probably less expensive because we have fewer problems, and it’s so much faster."
Getting Ready To Build Once the Focus Group has signed off on a particular boot, and after Think Tank finishes designing the product itself and the tooling needed to make it, production actually begins.
Northwave uses five different sub-assembly plants for snowboard boots–the majority of which are owned by Piva.
"We didn’t have room in our current factory to do everything under one roof," says Hjort. "But another reason for using our sub-assembly factories is that some of them were once our suppliers. When we grew and got financially stable we knew we either needed to go and start that same type of factory or buy one that was turnkey; one that we had already been using and one we were familiar with."
The whole process is similar to a funnel, as dozens of parts, made at the five sub-assembly plants, are ultimately routed to the factory itself. It’s here where the uppers are sewn and the midsole formed using an exclusive injection-molding process.
Into The Factory "We’re making boots from February to the end of September," says Hjort. "The majority of the product is built before we go on holiday in August. After the holiday, we’re building orders for the smaller countries and the markets requiring October deliveries. "
More than any other point during production, the sewing line defines snowboard-boot construct
ion. Mysterious bits of high-tech fabric are slowly transformed into snowboard boots by a team of seventeen attentive employees working a variety of whirring sewing machines.
A metal conveyor belt, separated into individual bins, slowly works its way around the sewing machines, carrying the necessary components of a snowboard boot–on this day the high-end Reset. Generally, four or five steps are dived among the seventeen stations.
It looks like a tough job, both monotonous and exacting. "It’s like any job," says Hjort when asked about employee burnout. "It’s the work environment that prevents burn out. We treat our factory employees incredibly well and with a lot of respect. They’re also compensated quite well. And they take tremendous pride in what they do."
The different sewing machines can be quickly swapped out, depending on which boot is scheduled for construction, and many of the employees along the sewing line are known for a particular step in the sewing process.
"Employees have a daily quota, and if that quota isn’t being met, the quality control people can tell where the slowdown is happening along the line," says Hjort.
Luciano Pivetta heads up Northwave Quality Control. "Every month," he says in clear but accented English, we audit the quality of what we are getting from our suppliers and from our subcontractors."
Two years ago the second rate was one percent. That dipped to .6 percent during ’97/98 and has been hovering around .2 percent this year. Pivetta holds up a chart showing the increase in quality, pride clearly etched on his face.
After the assembled uppers leave the sewing line, they’re prepared for the injection process. The uppers are steamed to soften the leather, then a fast-moving employee pounds out the remaining hard points with a steel hammer.
Gundrum stops and looks around, as if a thought just occurred to him. "You could send this last to the Orient," he says, holding up a large foot-shaped block of plastic. "You could send this injection machine. You could even send her," he says pointing at one of the 300 Piva employees. "You could send all of that, and the boots would still not be the same.
"Years ago there was a glove company that moved its production over to the Orient–same machines, same production line–and you could tell from 100 yards which gloves were made where," he continues. "It’s just the Italian craftsmanship. It would be like if we sat down and tried to make a glove."
Hjort agrees that there’s a quality advantage to Italian manufacturing: "Italy is the epicenter of the shoe/boot manufacturing world. The Italians also have a lot of integrity when it comes to quality–once again that’s more of a historical and cultural difference. Each person who has a particular job on a particular boot takes the utmost in pride in what they do."
Injection Molding In the past four years, Northwave has shifted its manufacturing process from sewing and gluing the sole to the upper–a process used by every other snowboard boot manufacturer–to using injection molding.
"Injection molding provides a lighter, stronger, and more waterproof bond between the upper and the sole. It’s also more consistent than both stitching or gluing."
The injection machine itself is a 60-foot diameter wheel, with twenty stations along its perimeter, that takes about ten minutes to revolve.
First, the single technician working the machine slips the upper onto the last. Then the soles, which are stacked like pancakes at the beginning of the production line, are cleaned and placed in a custom-fit stainless steal mold below the waiting upper.
As the wheel slowly turns, the sole is preheated for fifteen seconds, while a thick metal plate prevents the upper from getting too hot. "Preheating the sole makes it more accepting of the injection material," says Gundrum. "Heat is our friend."
Then comes the moment of truth. A mixture of polyurethane is blown in though a tiny hole near the heal. This forms the midsole and bonds the sole of the boot to the upper.
According to Hjort, the primary reason other manufacturers eschew injection molding is cost. "It’s very expensive to even get into the injection machines," he says, "and then being able to maintain and run the machines also costs quite a bit.
Finishing After the injection process, the boots start to take on a life of their own. No longer just pieces of material, the boots look nearly ready for the hill, but there are still a few steps left.
As the boots head down a long, slow-moving conveyor belt toward the warehouse staging are, one employee trims off any excess material from the injecting process, another laces the boot, and the toe bale is glued on.
Nearing the home stretch, another person inserts the liner (which has been manufactured in one of the five Northwave sub-assembly plants) into the boot.
After a quick cleaning, and final quality-control station, the boots are boxed. They won’t see the light of day until they arrive at a Northwave dealer somewhere in the world.
Warehousing Once the boots are boxed, they’re transported a few miles down the road to the warehouse, grouped into specific orders and placed on palettes.
Northwave uses distributors in Japan and most of Europe, and seems content not to ship directly to retailers. "It’s a hard thing to crack into, purely for logistical reasons," says Hjort, referring to going direct to retailers. "We don’t have the internal infrastructure to take it in-house throughout Europe–plus our distributors are doing a great job.
"It would take a lot of money, planning and people, but it’s a topic we discuss," he continues. "The model for that, but on a larger scale, is what we’ve done in North America in the past four years."
The U.S. Operation Northwave set up its U.S. distribution differently than the rest of the world for a couple of reasons, says Hjort. "The U.S. influences the entire snowboard world. Setting up a wholly owned subsidiary in the U.S. gave the entire company a better handle on that market. And if we succeed here, we’ll also succeed in Europe and Japan. We’ve proven that in four years’ time."
Hjort says that within the United States, Northwave is very strong in the Rockies, Northern California, and in the Northwest–its backyard.
"We’re also giving the East Coast a little bit more marketing effort," he says, "to make sure the brand is out in front of the consumer more. Everyone beside Burton has trouble on the East Coast. Burton hands down owns that part of the market, but people are starting to chip away at it."
The worldwide marketing effort for Northwave is also driven out of the Seattle office.
"When it was N Boots, it was a little Italian company," says Hjort. "And how cool is that to a fourteen-year-old ’core snowboard kid? It’s not. That’s really were the big change has been made. Northwave has an international marketing campaign, but it has a heavy U.S. influence on it. I think the Piva family understands how that’s been the key to the success of the brand worldwide. That’s the big advantage of having the North American office."
Into The Future At the tail end of a three-day sales rep meeting, Gundrum lays it out: "Northwave and Drake have experienced amazing growth, and my experience has been in managing fast-growing companies. So my challenge this year will be to maintain all the excitement of these brands as growth returns to a more realistic level. But I think you’ve seen
in the last few days the strength of Northwave and just what we bring to the table. So, I’m feeling great about where we are as a brand and as a company."
Indeed according to Hjort, Northwave has some tremendous competitive advantages: "We’ve been true to one product since the beginning, and we’ve been doing it longer than anybody else. We own our factories, and the people working within the product department have been with the company a long time. Being family owned is another huge benefit. The owner of the company and his wife have honestly put in their hours on the factory floor getting their hands dirty."
And as for growth, Hjort says Northwave will continue to show big gains in new product areas. "For instance, step-ins represent new volume for us," he says. "We still have a little growth with snowboard boots and bindings, but it’s not going to be fast, intense growth. We’re going to grow a stronger retail base. Maybe we’ll open up a little more distribution and gain more consumers. We’ll grow steadily and chip away at the guys above us.
"We never look at ourselves as a number one or a number two. We look at ourselves as a market leader, and if you consider sales, marketing, technology, innovation, quality–everything–I don’t think there’s anyone who can match us."