Whether or not you’ve ever heard of Mittersill, you’ve more than likely seen, and possibly skied on, the Austrian town’s key export: Skis. Over the past decade, the Tecnica Group Ski Competence Center—the biggest employer in town and main production facility for Nordica and Blizzard skis—has produced a majority of SKI Magazine’s top-scoring all-mountain planks, which also happen to be the best-selling skis in the United States.
In 2019, these brands set a high-water mark when they were recognized as the best skis in seven out of eight categories at SKI Test.
According to the Snowsports Industries of America, the Blizzard Black Pearl 88 and the Nordica Enforcer 100 were the two top-selling skis in the U.S. in 2019. Both brands have built families around these models with various shapes using the same names, such as 2019’s third best-selling ski in the U.S., the Nordica Enforcer 93, the 2019 Best in Test Black Pearl 98, and 2020’s Best in Test Nordica Enforcer 104 Free.
But Mittersill’s key exports haven’t always dominated the American market. Due to ownership issues throughout the 1990s, the facility was practically on life support until the Tecnica Group purchased Blizzard and the factory in 2006. The company moved the production of Nordica skis, which the Tecnica Group acquired in 2002, from Slovenia to Mittersill, and put into motion a business plan that would reinvigorate the factory and build a foundation for a newfound level of community pride that Mittersill had been missing since the 1980s.
During the first three years of the Tecnica Group acquisition, there was a restructuring of the factory and its goals. The brand hired Helmut Exenberger to be the factory’s General Manager and Roland Stemper to be Director of Ski Operations. Their first investments were in the ski finishing equipment, which determines the quality of the base and skis before they are sent out the door.
“We knew that, [even for] the best ski coming out of the press, if the grinding and tuning is not perfect, [it] could destroy a good ski,” Exenberger says, sitting in the factory’s conference room on a perfectly splendid spring morning. In the decade that has passed since the finishing machines were first installed, Exenberger’s and Stemper’s focus has been on making sure those machines are still producing perfect base grinds and edge bevels rather than ditching them for the latest technology.
This ethos of making small changes to improve rather than just buying the newest machines is found throughout the rest of the factory as well. “Our [ski] presses are not the latest technology,” says Stemper, referencing the most important tool in the production line. “We took what we had and improved [them] a lot. The ski comes out in the perfect shape. We did a lot with a little money and achieved good results. It’s not always key to buy a new press … sometimes it’s better to improve what you have.”
In 2010, the company hired Porsche Consulting to instigate a lean production system. “In implementing [the lean production] philosophy, we reduced lead time from 20 weeks to 20 days,” says Stemper.
By first eliminating the large amount of material stock on the production floor, the factory made the movement of product more transparent and was able to see problems arising more easily. With the goals of zero defects, no stock in the factory, making sure correct materials are ready for the presses at the right time, and having the correct number of skis for the correct number of orders, lean production helped the factory move from “cheap product to really premium product, and make sure that, each day, 930 skis are flowing out in a really stable, high-quality way,” says Exenberger. “This was a huge change for people in the end.”
Before meeting Exenberger and Stemper, I tour the factory with Manfred Reitsamer, the Global Product Lead for Nordica. Touring a ski factory provides a dedicated ski nerd—such as this author—childlike excitement but can also be underwhelming. Reitsamer walks quickly from one department to another, spitting out facts and details in rapid-fire, accented English.
Following my guide, I keep an eye out for top sheets I don’t recognize (skis from the future!) while part of me feels a bit like I’m following Willy Wonka around an open-space version of the Chocolate Factory’s pink corridors. Unable to read German, I imagine signs on doors translate to things like “Enforcer Touring Ski Prototypes,” “Shaped Skis That Look Round,” and “2022 Blizzard Double Flip Core Carbon,” but they probably just read “Men’s Room,” “Break Area,” and “Emergency Exit Only.”
Reitsamer beams when we come across some Enforcer 100 skis in production. “The Enforcer is my baby,” he says. “But there’s nothing special about it. No ‘3D,’ no screw things on top. I’m not a marketing person, but it’s the same as Wiener Schnitzel. If you have the best meat and best potatoes, you make the best product.”
This delicious metaphor left out a key aspect of making Wiener Schnitzel: the cook. Reitsamer leads me to meet Stefan, one of the top ski builders in the building, which means he’s probably one of the best ski builders in the world. Stefan blushes when he hears us speaking in English, but whether or not he can understand us doesn’t matter. Reitsamer works with Stefan so much he claims they can “understand each other without words.”
Reitsamer mentions that the Tecnica Group invests a minimum of one million Euros every year into the factory. Beyond basic machine maintenance, Exenberger and Stemper make it clear the investment is focused almost entirely on the development of the factory’s employees.
“People make the difference,” says Exenberger. “We really have a separate, strong focus on people’s development, to be sure that they are competent, that they are professional. And, maybe most important, we have no borderlines. Teams are working together across departments.”
After the implementation of lean production practices, employees in the factory worked on developing a list of core values in 2014 through 2015. The first item on the list? Handmade in Austria. “For us this means competence, saying Austria is best-in-class,” says Exenberger.
Exenberger goes through the rest of the core values, including making the Best Skis in the World (“We positioned ourselves very high”), pride in being part of the company, and, another point emphasized continuously during my visit: “We are a learning organization.”
“Without being able to learn each day, it’s impossible to stay competitive,” says Exenberger. Which is why the Mittersill factory is the first ski production facility in Austria to implement Kata, a Japanese management system that creates coaches—hanchos, in Kata-speak—and mentees. Exenberger and Stemper implemented a Kata system in 2018.
“When we start with such a process, we have a target we don’t have any idea how to achieve,” says Stemper, explaining the general aim of Kata. “You believe it is achievable, but you don’t know how.” He then references that this mentality creates a knowledge border, and by working together with hanchos and with other employees across the facility, that border can be overcome through experimentation. “Even if this experiment is negative, you learn. It is always a learning process.”
After a two-hour factory tour and a two-hour conversation with Exenberger and Stemper, I leave the factory, gaping at the mountains that loom over Mittersill with a lot on my mind. Reitsamer’s Wiener Schnitzel metaphor resonates, not only because it’s lunchtime, but because it is so simple: Use the best products to make the best skis. Combined with strategic investment in optimizing processes and making sure employees are actively learning, I question whether I’m reaching full potential at my job. Is the key to producing the best products really that simple?
Of the other brands that have their skis built at the factory in Mittersill, the story of Black Diamond stands out. After struggling with production issues in China, they arrived at the Tecnica Group’s Ski Competence Center in 2016 with some crazy ideas about building skis.
“The trick was that we were able to implement—for these crazy ideas—stable processes,” says Stemper. “And to find how to do it in a stable and high-quality way. Crazy ideas are welcome. But how to transform it into an industrialized process—this is the trick.” The factory succeeded with Black Diamond, and now other brands are trying to move their production to Mittersill.
On my way back to the train station, I spot a flyer promoting an upcoming visit by Italian Dominik Paris, who had just won the FIS Alpine World Cup Super-G Crystal Globe, and German Felix Neureuther, who had recently announced his retirement from ski racing. I would see on social media later that a large portion of the town turned out to greet these Nordica athletes. The crowds looked more like Munich’s Oktoberfest than a sleepy Austrian town, with adults and kids enthusiastically celebrating the successes of both the skiers and the products that the town created. There is pride and passion in everyone’s eyes in these photos.
I don’t know if there was ever this much pride in Mittersill before the Tecnica Group came to town. But I’m certain that, with the processes in place and investment in developing the factory’s employees, there is certainly more to come.
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Originally published in the October 2019 print edition of SKI Magazine and edited to correct mistakes.