Posted: February 01, 2010

Sports Biz: Aspen’s better man

Stewart Schley

Klaus Obermeyer, who lives, works and skis in Aspen, wasn't supposed to end up in Colorado, making clothes for a living. Educated in pre-war Germany as an aeronautical engineer, Obermeyer was supposed to spend his professional life huddling over drafting tables as he puzzled over propulsion theories and celestial mechanics.

But when he came to the U.S. in 1947, the airplane business, post-war and pre-Boeing 707, was in a slump. The only engineers getting hired were rocket scientists.

"I was out of work," Obermeyer remembers. "And I thought, ‘Well, I can always be a ski instructor.'"

And so begins the story. Obermeyer, who is fit and athletic at 90 years old, has recited it a thousand times: to journalists, employees, audiences at banquets, business colleagues and filmmakers. How a friend led him from Idaho's Sun Valley to an unfamiliar place called Aspen. How he hooked up with a small ski school, teaching tourists how to ride T-bars and make it down the hill. How he paid $5 a night to stay at the Hotel Jerome. And the best part: how he invented the down-filled parka.

He tells it in his rich Bavarian accent, as thick as a Hasenpfeffer stew. "This" becomes "theece." A sweater is a "sveater."

"The problem we had is we only got paid in ski school when we had a class," Obermeyer says. "So these people came to Aspen with 14-day vacations, but they left after two or three days."
He didn't blame them. It was freezing on the mountain. Skiing was considered a genteel sport. Men wore knickers and suit coats. Women skied in skirts.

The engineer in Obermeyer identified a problem, and the problem presented possibility. "No problem comes without an opportunity attached to it," Obermeyer says.

Obermeyer went back to his rented home and thought. On his bed was a down-filled comforter. His German mother, convinced that the "North" in "North America" meant it must be cold, had insisted the young Obermeyer take it with him. What the hell, Obermeyer thought. Working in an attic, he cut the white comforter into pieces and hand-sewed them into a vague resemblance of a jacket.

"It looked like the Michelin Man," he says. Obermeyer took it to a ski class, rode up the lift with it on, skied down, and stayed warm the whole time. A student asked to borrow it. "He skied in it, and he yelled at me: ‘Three-hundred fifty dollars!'" Obermeyer recalls. "You could buy a new Buick then for twelve-hundred fifty dollars," he says. "So that was a lot of money."

Obermeyer went back to Munich that summer, convincing a friend who ran a bedding factory to manufacture a small run of down-filled parkas. "He said ‘You're crazy. I make pillows. I don't make jackets.' But we went down to the Hofbrauhaus and had a few beers, and that loosened him up," Obermeyer says. "He said, ‘OK, dammit, I'll make those parkas.'" Obermeyer returned to Aspen with 75 down jackets and sold every one.

That was the beginning. Obermeyer struck deals with two Aspen retailers to carry his jackets, and the one-man enterprise that would become one of skiing's best-known apparel makers was in business.

Most of Obermeyer's early offerings were inspired by a desire to find better ways to do things. Obermeyer came up with the first dual-material ski boots: hard plastic shells with softer interior linings. He produced the first ski poles made from aluminum. The first sunscreen optimized for harsh, high-altitude conditions. The first mirrored sunglasses.

Obermeyer, who encourages his employees to shirk work and ski whenever there's fresh powder on the mountain, is a world-class, first-generation Colorado ski bum who never has forgotten his business mantra: Add value by improving the way things work.

"I only got paid a few dollars per day when I had a class. And I didn't want to lose the class," he says. "So I was only thinking, what can we do to make it a more pleasant experience for these people? They came here in February or March, they stayed for one day and they were totally sunburned. Totally. And they left. But it opened up all these opportunities. And you know, in life, there is always a way to make it better."

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Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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