In 2002 Billy Dee Williams turned 65. On a totally unrelated note, in 2002 artist, writer, designer, photographer, renaissance man and industry vet Kelly D. Williams, who has worked with enough skate and snow companies to outfit a shop, was busy founding a new snowboard company, Compatriot Snowboards. The basis for the company was to be a small, hand-built snowboard manufacturer made in the U.S. by core riders that gives back to snowboarding and environmental causes with its profits.
Perhaps it was an idea that the world was not ready for, or at least an economy that wasn't ready for his idea, and Compatriot went into hibernation until 2009 when all the pieces came together. Williams secured independent financing and teamed up with pro riders Rob Kingwill and Kevin Jones, making them part owners in the company as well as riders and designers.
We caught up with these two Jackson based Compatriots to find out why they think the time is right to launch a new company.
How did things come together for the relaunch?
Rob Kingwill: Compatriot was originally launched about seven years ago by an artist friend of mine, Kelly D. Williams, who I met working on some projects for my company AVALON7. I rode for Arbor at the time, but I really loved the ethos and the idea behind the name Compatriot- how we are all united through snowboarding, and secretly wished I could be involved. Time went on, and Kelly had to put the brand on hold for a couple of years. He approached me last fall saying that he had found an investor named Rick Hansen, was re-launching the brand, and wanted me to be a part of the team.
I felt it was time I…invest in something that I could really believe in and be able to have a real impact in directing the brand. Kelly asked me if I knew anyone else that might want to be a member of our crew. As a long shot, I suggested the idea to Kevin Jones. He sounded like he was tired of getting the run around in the industry, and I thought I would just throw it out there. Kev said yes, and thus the new Compatriot was born.
Kevin Jones: Rob Kingwill approached me and said he had this Idea and I should talk to this guy Kelly. Rob said I really think you might be interested in this. I talked to Kelly on a drive from Jackson to Bend and he was a straight shooter, not talking out of his ass. By the time you get over 20 years in this game it's not hard to see the poo tornado. Anyway he was a snowboarder and had an insane look at snowboarding, I knew right then I was part of something.
It’s great to see a Jackson-based company fill the void Illuminati left. What are the benefits and challenges of being based in a small mountain town?
RK: Jackson Hole is the best mountain in the US. I grew up here, and I will probably never leave. Having a snowboard company based in So. Cal has never made sense to me- the whole point is to ride mountains, not go surfing. We live and breathe snowboarding and the mountain lifestyle. The hardest part about being way up in the mountains, is that we are way up in the mountains. It is really hard to have direct contact with a lot of shops and a lot of people, but Kevin and l travel a lot, and try to stop in as many shops as I can and talk about the company.
KJ: Small towns are tough. Small towns are for the most part where snowboarding takes place. We couldn't do this if we weren't from a ski town the caliber of Jackson, we would be contradicting ourselves.
Your pro team may be small but it looks like you know how to use it – you've got some heavy hitters with you guys, not to mention Robbie Sell. How much are you guys involved on the business and design side?
RK: Kevin and I are part owners, and are heavily invested in the direction of the brand, from the marketing to the graphics to the board shapes. Thankfully Kelly D. Williams is involved, as he has a lot more experience on the manufacturing side of things and knows how to get the boards built the way we want. Everything is made in the USA, and let me tell you, America knows how to make a damn good snowboard!
KJ: Rob and I have an interest in the company and we are actively involved on all decisions the company makes……….God help us!
Why did you decide to make the move from riding other company's boards to building your own brand?
RK: I have always loved the design element of snowboarding, and always wanted to be more involved in product development. I grew frustrated with having some dude behind a desk tell me what was cool and hot in snowboarding, when I was the one on the mountain 200 days a year. I have tons of ideas, but I couldn’t express them to the companies I rode for. There was no real reciprocation of energy, no incentive to innovate. I always felt like I would just be giving my ideas away. Compatriot allows me to throw everything I have at making snowboarding better.
I also truly believe in the importance of independent voices in the snowboard industry, as it creates diversity and innovation. There used to be a ton of companies doing their own thing, but most of them have been gobbled up by the big boys or gone out of business. Now it is only a few companies buying all the ads, and telling us what is and isn’t cool, how we are supposed to ride, who we should be like. It’s all bullshit. With Compatriot, you can be sure that what we are selling and what we stand for comes straight from KJ and I, and isn’t diluted by some giant ad firm. We are authentic snowboarding. We are a real voice and we will not be silenced.
Why should retailers take a chance on rolling with a new company like Compatriot? What do you offer that the established, proven players don't?
KJ: We need to take our sport back. With all the consolidation and dudes in So Cal trying to control the face of snowboarding, meanwhile putting a picture of himself on Facebook in the bar at Big Bear while talking shit about big mountain riding or Mikey Leblanc is too old or johney mcshred is the new Terje………Hate to break the news but there will never be another Terje! Anyway sorry about the tangent, but like skateboarders, snowboarders need to take their sport back and we need to support snowboarders who are putting their asses on the line both in the mountains and financially in business. Companies like YES and Jones – these are the companies that have dreams behind them and passion coming from decades of being in the mountains. We need to come together and support each other as snowboarders and maybe have a little respect for the people who have paved the way for making this sport what it is!
Where are your boards being sold? What's your goal on the distribution front?
RK: We are starting small with a couple of handpicked shops- World Boards and Jackson Treehouse were really supportive this past season, and Suburban Blend, 5-0 Skateshop, Eternal, Boards N Motion, and Ground Zero. It is tough right now with the economy, but we are in it for the long haul and we will grow as fast or as slow as we need to.
What are prices and margins like on Compatriots?
RK: Our boards are priced to market, or just a bit under as we are an emerging brand. We have a full range of price points from low to mid to the higher range pro-model boards.
What do you have going on this summer to make it happen for next season and beyond?
RK: We are working on continuing to talk to more shops about carrying our boards, and developing next season’s graphics and board shapes. I personally will be riding at Camp of Champions for all of their sessions, and then going down to New Zealand to compete in the Heli Challenge and test my new pro-model shapes in some pow!
KJ: Snowboarding, skateboarding and fishing. Trying to get our WAL-MART account set up probably wouldn't hurt…. the margins would suck but boy the units we could dump!!!
Three predictions for the snowboard industry for the next three years:
1. The independent voices will get louder.
2. People will get tired of swishing around and realize that camber actually makes them ride better.
3. Snowboarding will still be fun.
1. Riders will continue to get upset at how they are being exploited and will continue to take their sport back.
2. More riders reaching that critical age of thirty where your sponsors think you're to old and dump you like an empty can of Red Bull.
3. More rider owned companies and a shift in the mentality of the shop owners that they have a responsibility as guardians of our sport.
Anything else you'd like to add?
KJ: I would like to add that it's time to think about the dollar less and the sport more. Remember fifteen years ago when everybody wanted a piece of what we had? They wanted it so bad. It was a revolution; people didn't know what to think. Skiers spitting on you from the chair – then they copied every single thing snowboarders did from corked tricks, to handrails, to half pipes, to dying their hair purple, to baggy clothes – we created this and we should respect ourselves and take better care of it.