Inside K2’s China Snowboard Factory

We went to China with ideas molded into our minds from what we had heard on TV, over the radio, and had read in the news. Nike’s continuously bad press about poor working environments and child labor. Factories with dirt floors and hazardous labor conditions. About the new Asian empire causing hard-working Americans to loose their jobs, and threatening our national security.

The line had to be drawn somewhere, and even if everything else in our world was being produced in China, not our snowboards, please. The sport was founded in the U.S. Surely, we could keep something so sacred in our own backyard. We could keep the production where it would be well supervised, managed, and would give our own people pride in the work they did.

What we found was so much more obvious, so much more real, and much simpler than we thought. We found a factory staffed by enthusiastic, attentive, hard-working employees who took pride in their enterprise. We found a snowboard factory and staff trying to build the best snowboards in the world. By the looks of it, they’ll get pretty close, if not succeed. However, on a more basic level, they were still people, just like ones in the U.S., Canada, and Europe who also build snowboards, and they saw that these pieces of equipment were special. These molded wood/fiberglass/p-tex objects meant so much to the engineers and product managers, and the factory staff saw the urgency in doing the job right, the first time.

The special mission we were on was probably, hopefully, the final chapter of K2’s moving its snowboard production from its U.S. factories at Vashon Island just outside of Seattle and the Thermal facility in Corona, California. With the move, American jobs were lost, and the Made-In-The-USA stamp was removed from brands that were founded in and based on U.S. pride.

But things change, and although most people don’t like change, it doesn’t mean it’s always a bad thing. Indeed, sometimes change is a very good thing. For K2, opening a factory in China was not a move to save tremondeous amounts of money, but it enabled staff to finally build snowboards the way they had envisioned, without all the compromises that come from lack of facilities, manpower, time, attention to detail, and money. It was a clean slate and an open book.

With a special invite from K2’s Snowboard Sales and Brand Director Luke Edger, two of the most vocal opponents to Chinese-produced snowboards—Santa Monica, California-based ZJ Boarding House Owners Mikke Pierson and Todd Roberts—were invited to tour the factory. I was brought along to document the proceedings. We made our quick visit via Hong Kong late last week. It was a whirlwind tour, but one that was eye-opening and enlightening.

The factory was clean, organized, and orderly. The staff was bright, attentive, and desired to make things even better than they were. But taking things even a step farther, K2 has made a commitment to have American R&D staff members in the factory at all times. While we were visiting, there were seven Americans from the Vashon headquarters, staying in China for two-week shifts to make sure any questions that come up are taken care of immediately. To support the factory, the R&D department has more than 100 trips planned for the entire year.

The Chinese staff take the American engineers’ words to heart with passion and precision. For example, several months ago, one of the Americans suggested the Chinese put some logos up on the walls to decorate the place a little. Within a day, every wall in the factory sported a K2. Overkill? Maybe, but with the simple intention to follow instructions and please the management.

Interestingly enough, almost 100 percent of the machinery in China was from either the Vashon or Corona facilities, so in essence, the factory was a simple extension or maybe an improved version of those two, combined. But with more people looking, working, finishing, polishing, inspecting, and wraping each board. These are handcrafted items, and in China there are a whole lot more hands to throw at the production process.

Were our perceptions changed? Definitely. Did we feel better about having snowboards built in China? Most certainly. Could we explain and support the move to the rest of the nay sayers. You bet. Because is there really a difference, if the designs, shapes, and materials come from the same places they always have: pros, designers, and testers in the U.S. and around the world? Not really. And if the final results are that the snowboards made are actually better than before, every single rider has benefitted from the move.