Austria is probably best known for its exports. There's Schwarzenegger, ski racers such as the Herminator, Mozart, Freud, Wiener Schnitzel, PEZ, schnapps, and Global Sports Technologies (GST) snowboards. While you may not know GST, you definitely know the boards they build. Flow, Forum, Arbor, Stepchild, Bataleon, Rome, Santa Cruz, Fanatic, Sapient, Northwave/Drake, Volcom, Gray, and F2 all hail from GST's 6,500 sq. meter factory located in Antiesenhofen, Austria.
Transworld Business recently had the opportunity to spend a day with GST's owner Thomas Berger at the factory and get his perspective on the importance of quality, the future of snowboarding, partnering with brands, and why ski companies that make snowboards suck.
Thomas Berger, CEO
Berger's company has come a long way from its humble beginnings in 1995, when it purchased the factory from bankrupt Hagan skis. That season they turned out around 30,000 boards. In the last 13 years, their production has grown six fold and this year they made around 180,000 snowboards.
An electrical engineer by training, Berger's focus on measurable quality has made process security the company's highest ideal, and this translates into strict quality control measures at every step of the process. A handful of boards, including the first and last deck of every run of every board, must be tested on a variety of specs depending on the task at hand. When you're producing 550-600 models, this adds up. The test logs are then fed into computers at each station and trends are analyzed to ensure variations that may be within acceptable limits are not showing negative trends. While this exacting detail means increased labor costs for the company, Berger feels that it is more than recouped by GST and its customers who enjoy minimal warranties. "We have the world's lowest warranty rate with an average of 0.3 to 0.4 percent,” says Berger. “Some of our brands are as low as 0.05 percent."
Denise Eigner may very well have the best job at GST. She gets to break snowboards all day long. GST has created a number of machines to simulate riding conditions and snaps hundreds of boards so that riders won’t.
Another major driving force for the company is to carefully select the brands it works with and develop partnerships that support the entire group. "While our brands are competing, at the end of the day they're family," says Berger. "They all have a clear, snowboard only philosophy and we support them every step of the way." This includes not producing any in house boards, protecting all company specific innovations, and bringing GST innovations to the table for all the brands GST builds. GST has focused a great deal of time and money on building and buying the latest in technology to keep its brands on the cutting edge, and shares innovations, such as its new structured base technology called “StrucTurn,” a new proprietary digital printing process, and a new glue injection process known as HDC, which allows different hardglass/wooden constructions with high quality graphic impressions and higher reinforcement than sandwich construction.
Some portions of the process definitely still require the human touch, or eye in this case.
With the snowboard hardgoods market currently in a slump, GST is looking at diversifying. In addition to the snowboards and kiteboards it makes in Austria and the kiteboard kites and windsurf sales and accessories produced in its Sri Lankan factory, the company is now producing wood core wake boards and looking at getting into aircraft parts like ski manufacturer Fischer has. That said, the declining European market has yet to affect GST's output and sales. Last year, with an 11 percent drop in hardgood sales in both Europe and the US, GST didn't even feel a speed bump. Berger believes that this is due to their focus on high end product, and that people are willing to pay the extra buck or euro for quality craftsmanship over boards produced in China.
GST prides itself on being an environmental steward. Walking the talk for them includes such measures as using 90 percent Austrian made materials, such as these wood cores, and recycled water in the factory. “We are taking care of the whole green balance, including energy, transportation, and the whole production process,” says Berger. GST also uses special UV lacquers and colors that require 90 percent less solvents than traditional lacquer and color processes.
Over the years, Berger, who grew up skiing, has become a die hard snowboarder and one of his company’s policies is that all employees must ride. While Berger’s roots may be in skiing, a common trait in Austria, you'd be hard pressed to find someone more adamant about the fact that ski companies that manufacture boards are ruining the snowboard industry. "Ski companies that are making boards don't care about the industry and are making huge stocks of boards that are driving down prices for everyone," Berger says. He feels that this is totally irresponsible and knows that the majority of the larger companies are losing huge sums of money but sticking to the same philosophy. "They're thinking very short term and this is not sustainable for the industry."