In the Company of Fools

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K2 Headquarters

K2, THE BILLION-DOLLAR SKI AND SPORTING-GOODS CONGLOMERATE, is on the skids. Toilet paper dangles from the trees around company headquarters. Busted skis, beer cans, and keg cups litter the front walkway. Around the main entrance, a weathered facade of Greek columns rises to the letters "KT¿. The "¿ is askew. A vintage Corvette is parked haphazardly on the sidewalk.

A group of company-sponsored skiers is gathered around the car. Preteen park-and-pipe phenom Sean Pettit perches on the hood near another jibber, Pep Fujas. Shane Szocs, an original member of the Whistler new-school crowd, stands by a rear tire. Seth Morrison sits on one dented keg and plays bongos on another. Shane McConkey—wearing an olive suit—logrolls atop a keg while balancing a full stein of beer. Tele skier Mike Hattrup looks bemused. And Glen Plake, squirming with the restless energy of an eight-year-old, looks like…well, Glen Plake—ski-industry clown and company mascot, with Converse high-tops, flooding brown pants, and absurd blond mohawk.

Each spring, K2 assembles the troops—executives, athletes, marketeers, factory workers—at its offices on Vashon Island, Washington. The purpose of the gathering, officially speaking, is to produce photos for ads and catalogs and then to test skis at Mt. Hood, Oregon. The obvious but unstated goal is to goof off, for having fun is seen as critical to corporate success.

"Hey, can I throw this? The raspy voice comes from the roof, a couple of stories up. Jeff Mechura, 36, brand director for skis and today's master of ceremonies, hoists a female mannequin above his head. "This needs to be broken. He hucks the body. It smacks the pavement below but doesn't break. He has the torso retrieved and hurls it twice more before it shatters. Plake picks up the rear half, pulls it to his body, and waddles around. Look, ma! Prosthetic butt! Moments later, Mechura emerges from the front door. "Beautiful, beautiful, he says, looking around. He pauses. "What does any of this have to do with making skis? [NEXT]
In August of 2004, the K2 crew hatched an idea: a college-yearbook-inspired ad campaign to showcase the one-of-a-kind characters who work at the company. This led to the movie Animal House and riffs on the similarities between the film's Delta fraternity and K2. The Deltas are a tight-knit, hard-partying clan; so is K2! The Deltas get dissed by the starchy university president; K2 gets dissed by Euro ski companies! Later, somebody realized that the company's stock-ticker symbol, KTO, even sounded like a fraternity name. Kappa Tau Omega and a new marketing theme were born.

K2 doesn't vet ideas with focus groups. It doesn't do eyeball-tracking studies to scientifically gauge the appeal of ads. The company's reckoning: A healthy cross-section of the skiing community works for us. If an idea flies internally, the public will like it too. The approach is old-school, but it works. At the very least, it doesn't hurt. In 2004, for the first time in company history, K2 became the number-one seller of skis (by volume) in the United States.

The Corvette shoot is one small part of Operation KT¿. Several months earlier, the company threw a toga party for several hundred guests. It produced a slick Animal House—spoof video featuring in-house talent. These efforts are expensive and time-consuming and, with the exception of a few photo outtakes, will never be shared with the public. Marketing company identity to the outside world, then, is only part of the story. K2 is marketing to itself, brewing the company Kool-Aid for a big group chug.

Yesterday, the morning after the session at headquarters, Mechura stood atop a red hydraulic lift parked at Vashon's main intersection. He was wearing a navy KT¿ sweatshirt and a backwards red baseball cap. He wielded a bullhorn. "Somebody at the Department of Transportation was stupid enough to give us a permit to shut down Vashon Highway, he said. "We' going to recreate the parade scene from Animal House.


As most viewers will recall, the scene is the movie's climax, with the expelled Delta house exacting revenge on Faber College by unleashing a "Deathmobile on the local parade. K2 company machinists have transformed a 1969 Plymouth Fury into a "Skimobile complete with a front grille of menacing ski teeth, a Plake-head hood ornament, and a fearsome black turret. More than 100 employees dressed as football players, cheerleaders, and townsfolk line the sidewalks—men in ties and dweeby cardigans, women in prim pink dresses.

Alpine product manager Ben Wallace, abusing a trombone, leads a ragtag marching band down the street. A woman on a white horse clutches the reins as the nervous animal rears up. On the roof of Vashon Hardware, Plake, in pirate garb, raises his saber to the sky. Below, his wife, Kimberly, opens her trench coat and flashes a company executive with racy white lingerie. Pettit jumps into the arms of a blond sales rep dressed as a Playboy bunny.

"Action! Mechura shouts. Flame and smoke erupt from the Skimobile. McConkey dumps a bag of marbles into the street, scuttling a National Guard contingent. The marching band blares, the horse neighs, people scream. "Everybody is going to die! Mechura shouts. "Cut the flame! Cut the flame! Cut the flame![NEXT]
Vashon Island sits conveniently adrift in Puget Sound. Fifteen minutes by ferry from Seattle, the island is rolling and pastoral, with 10,500 residents, a few B&Bs, and no Wal-Mart. If you rode a horse or drove a Skimobile down Main Street you might raise a few eyebrows, but nobody would stop you. K2 is by far the largest employer, and the island's anything-goes atmosphere perfectly suits it. As the last major U.S. ski maker, the company operates according to its own peculiar ethos. And it needs a certain isolation to do so.

Between shoots, I get a factory tour. We start in the original building, erected in 1960, where two brothers had a company that built polyurethane dog cages. Inspired by fiberglass skis they'd seen in Europe, skiing aficionados Bill Kirschner and Don Kirschner (thus "K2) started making their own. The Kirschners sold K2 in 1985, and production was moved to China in 2002, but designing and prototyping still take place on Vashon.

I've long assumed that the phrases you see stamped on skis—like "triaxial braiding—are pure technobabble. But walking through K2's tech-heavy factory, I'm made aware that cynical folks like me are a problem for manufacturers. If consumers don't know what's inside a ski, you need a nontechnical ad message to move product.

Marketing headquarters is where our tour finishes. Black leather couches face a flat-screen television and giant speakers. The walls are papered with athlete portraits, giant photos of mountains, and old ads. Near one corner is a kegerator with a ski-pole handle to trigger the flow of beer. Doors in the rear open to a landing, and the smell of barbecue chicken wafts in.

Many of the images on display were created in the 1970s and '80s under the direction of advertising guru Terry Heckler, who was inspired by his initial visits to Vashon. The company was odd, fun, and mysterious, Heckler thought, and those attributes could be showcased in ads. For one of his most beloved campaigns, Heckler built a mock K2 factory. It was company base recast as Woodstock hippie village, a collection of camper trailers, jury-rigged towers, smokestacks, and tents. An American flag fluttered above it all. Another revered Heckler stunt shot involved a barn with an enormous "Chew K2 painted on the side. The ads slyly ridiculed other manufacturers' wonkish campaigns, which typically showed racers carving tight turns or annotated cross-sections of skis. K2, the ads implied, was not a company but a cult.

The freewheeling Heckler spirit ebbed somewhat during the 1990s. Skiing's popularity was sinking. K2 was forced to slash staff and diversify. The people who survived the budget ax were always looking over their shoulders. The company began selling snowboards, in-line skates, bikes, and backpacks, and the product teams were balkanized. "Walking through the halls of K2 was a little like walking the streets of New York, where everybody keeps to their own business, says one longtime employee.

The company today is a multiheaded hydra of sporting goods. An aggressive acquisition campaign has brought Völkl (skis), Tubbs (snowshoes), Marmot (outerwear), Ex Officio (travel clothing), Dana Design (packs), Rawlings (sporting goods), and many other brands under the corporate umbrella. Under the leadership of Robert Marcovitch, who became company president in 2002, the walls between divisions came down and morale went up.

Shortly thereafter K2 skis decided to ditch the outside advertising agencies and go in-house. The thinking was simple, says Mechura: "We can explain our brand better than a bunch of people who aren't living the sport every day. Mechura revived the languishing Heckler tradition of Americana-steeped stunt marketing.

Like the subsequent Animal House idea, Mechura's inaugural caper was inspired by reality. In Vashon Island, K2 had a top-secret facility, a remote location like that paranormal haven in Nevada, Area 51. The campaign was dubbed "Area K2. The centerpiece: a giant K2 crop circle behind the factory.Before heading out back to grab some chicken, I rephrase Mechura's own question to Plake. "What does any of this have to do with selling skis?

"It sells ski culture, Plake says. "The carefree, romantic side, the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.[NEXT]
"Cinderella story, outta nowhere, about to become the masters champion. I try to tune out the voice of team manager Mike Gutt doing the Bill Murray shtick from Caddyshack, and concentrate on my shot. Whack. The ball sails into the rough. Perhaps cocktail hour should've waited until after the game.

En route to Mt. Hood with the ski-test crew, we've stopped for a round of pitch-and-putt golf. Afterward, at the course's restaurant, the table becomes crowded with pitchers of beer and platters of fried food. Across the patio, a woman on a small stage strums a guitar. The waitress shows up with another round. "How come you're just drinking water? she asks product manager Todd Bracher.

"I've been drinking all day, he says, giving her an unsteady look. "Not just drinking, either.

"Drugs? she says, lowering her voice.

"Yeah, Bracher says.

This is a lie. A bigger one is coming. Mechura leans in. "He's getting married tomorrow. He's kinda nervous. Hey, do you think he could sing something with that folk singer? Last night of freedom, you know?

Minutes later, Bracher is on stage. "This little light of mine, the woman gamely sings to get him started. The song has only one other line—"I'm gonna let it shine—but Bracher doesn't know it. "This little light of mine, he croaks back helplessly. They struggle through the number. Afterward, the folk singer storms offstage for a premature set break. The K2 tables erupt with applause.


Pranks are a hallowed tradition at K2, and this incident scores no more than a three on the 10-point scale. Nobody ordered two shots in an fancy restaurant, ignited them, dropped trou, sealed a glass to each buttock, and waddled around with glassfuls of fire bobbling from each cheek. Nobody pretended to be a substance-abusing bazillionaire named Newcomb and trashed a condo while a hoodwinked K2 employee cowered downstairs. And nobody performed the Ancient Japanese Jungle Fire ritual.

This last bit happened at a prior year's ski tests. A pro skier was visiting from Japan. He was an Olympian; he had summited Everest; he was polite. Or so everybody thought. One night at dinner, he stood up with a wine bottle rigged beneath some napkins tied loincloth-style around his waist. He started singing a song, in Japanese, punctuated by a repeated, artful maneuver that caused "a wine-bo survived the budget ax were always looking over their shoulders. The company began selling snowboards, in-line skates, bikes, and backpacks, and the product teams were balkanized. "Walking through the halls of K2 was a little like walking the streets of New York, where everybody keeps to their own business, says one longtime employee.

The company today is a multiheaded hydra of sporting goods. An aggressive acquisition campaign has brought Völkl (skis), Tubbs (snowshoes), Marmot (outerwear), Ex Officio (travel clothing), Dana Design (packs), Rawlings (sporting goods), and many other brands under the corporate umbrella. Under the leadership of Robert Marcovitch, who became company president in 2002, the walls between divisions came down and morale went up.

Shortly thereafter K2 skis decided to ditch the outside advertising agencies and go in-house. The thinking was simple, says Mechura: "We can explain our brand better than a bunch of people who aren't living the sport every day. Mechura revived the languishing Heckler tradition of Americana-steeped stunt marketing.

Like the subsequent Animal House idea, Mechura's inaugural caper was inspired by reality. In Vashon Island, K2 had a top-secret facility, a remote location like that paranormal haven in Nevada, Area 51. The campaign was dubbed "Area K2. The centerpiece: a giant K2 crop circle behind the factory.Before heading out back to grab some chicken, I rephrase Mechura's own question to Plake. "What does any of this have to do with selling skis?

"It sells ski culture, Plake says. "The carefree, romantic side, the freedom to do whatever the hell we want.[NEXT]
"Cinderella story, outta nowhere, about to become the masters champion. I try to tune out the voice of team manager Mike Gutt doing the Bill Murray shtick from Caddyshack, and concentrate on my shot. Whack. The ball sails into the rough. Perhaps cocktail hour should've waited until after the game.

En route to Mt. Hood with the ski-test crew, we've stopped for a round of pitch-and-putt golf. Afterward, at the course's restaurant, the table becomes crowded with pitchers of beer and platters of fried food. Across the patio, a woman on a small stage strums a guitar. The waitress shows up with another round. "How come you're just drinking water? she asks product manager Todd Bracher.

"I've been drinking all day, he says, giving her an unsteady look. "Not just drinking, either.

"Drugs? she says, lowering her voice.

"Yeah, Bracher says.

This is a lie. A bigger one is coming. Mechura leans in. "He's getting married tomorrow. He's kinda nervous. Hey, do you think he could sing something with that folk singer? Last night of freedom, you know?

Minutes later, Bracher is on stage. "This little light of mine, the woman gamely sings to get him started. The song has only one other line—"I'm gonna let it shine—but Bracher doesn't know it. "This little light of mine, he croaks back helplessly. They struggle through the number. Afterward, the folk singer storms offstage for a premature set break. The K2 tables erupt with applause.


Pranks are a hallowed tradition at K2, and this incident scores no more than a three on the 10-point scale. Nobody ordered two shots in an fancy restaurant, ignited them, dropped trou, sealed a glass to each buttock, and waddled around with glassfuls of fire bobbling from each cheek. Nobody pretended to be a substance-abusing bazillionaire named Newcomb and trashed a condo while a hoodwinked K2 employee cowered downstairs. And nobody performed the Ancient Japanese Jungle Fire ritual.

This last bit happened at a prior year's ski tests. A pro skier was visiting from Japan. He was an Olympian; he had summited Everest; he was polite. Or so everybody thought. One night at dinner, he stood up with a wine bottle rigged beneath some napkins tied loincloth-style around his waist. He started singing a song, in Japanese, punctuated by a repeated, artful maneuver that caused "a wine-bottle boner—as one witness describes it—to pop up from beneath the napkins. This was just the warmup. The next night he sang a song and set his pubic hair on fire with a tiki torch. He called it Ancient Japanese Jungle Fire. His audience—30 people, half men and half women—was deeply horrified. Then, upon reflection, profoundly impressed.[NEXT]
Mt. Hood's steep upper glacier has been divided into lanes. The snow is featureless and rock-hard. The K2 ski testers, bleary from the 5 a.m. wake-up call, are issued all-white skis, with taped labels—"B1, "B2, and so on—the only visible differentiation. One run per ski per tester is all that is allowed. Afterward, the testers record their impressions on cards, rating stability, edge-to-edge quickness, turn initiation, and other attributes. Discussion is forbidden.

Back at the condo, the female testers—Kim Reichhelm, Christy Metzger, Megan McGrath, Jessica Sobolowski, and Claudeen Tewell—debrief. The discussion is lively and passionate, technical and jargon-laced.

"Easy to skid yet held well, Reichhelm says.

"Responsive, stable, forgiving, Sobolowski says, and then: "I felt held. Everyone laughs.

For all of the ostensible precision—scorecards, multivariable rankings—ski testing is still more art than science. The ski-test postmortem also reveals the tension between what a ski actually is—technically and performance-wise—and how you package it. The discussion moves on to color choices for an upcoming model, and quickly becomes heated.

"This teal reminds me of old grandma's silky pajamas, McGrath says. "It makes me want to throw up.[NEXT]
Back in my room that night, I get out my computer and pop in the Animal House—spoof DVD that Mechura loaned me. "This is Ski Industry University, school for alpine excellence and higher learning, the narrator intones over clips from the original movie. KT¿, it seems, is in trouble: too many parties and pranks, too big a threat to other companies. "You're out, finished, expelled from this industry! shouts the dean. "I want you off of this mountain by nine o'clock Monday morning.

The video cuts to a fraternity house living room. Now the footage is original.The cast is employees. "Christ. Forty years of history down the drain, says graphic designer Chester Grays, reprising John Belushi's Bluto character with uncanny skill. Vice President of Global Sales Tim Petrick limps in, cheek swollen, eye blackened, and lip bloody. "Some of the competitors did a little dance on my face, he says.


The fraternity brothers discuss the hopelessness of being expelled from the ski industry. Grays, however, is having none of it. He jumps to his feet. "Over? Over? Nothing is over until we decide it is…who's with me?

"Chester's right, Petrick says. "Psychotic, but absolutely right. This situation requires an unconventional campaign to be begun on KT¿'s behalf.

It's late. And I probably had one too many margaritas at dinner. But the line between the real K2 and the fictional fraternity has become blurry.

The camera cuts to a close-up of Grays. "Let's do it! he shouts as the brothers race for the door. "Go, go, go, go, go!


JANUARY 2006ne-bottle boner—as one witness describes it—to pop up from beneath the napkins. This was just the warmup. The next night he sang a song and set his pubic hair on fire with a tiki torch. He called it Ancient Japanese Jungle Fire. His audience—30 people, half men and half women—was deeply horrified. Then, upon reflection, profoundly impressed.[NEXT]
Mt. Hood's steep upper glacier has been divided into lanes. The snow is featureless and rock-hard. The K2 ski testers, bleary from the 5 a.m. wake-up call, are issued all-white skis, with taped labels—"B1, "B2, and so on—the only visible differentiation. One run per ski per tester is all that is allowed. Afterward, the testers record their impressions on cards, rating stability, edge-to-edge quickness, turn initiation, and other attributes. Discusssion is forbidden.

Back at the condo, the female testers—Kim Reichhelm, Christy Metzger, Megan McGrath, Jessica Sobolowski, and Claudeen Tewell—debrief. The discussion is lively and passionate, technical and jargon-laced.

"Easy to skid yet held well, Reichhelm says.

"Responsive, stable, forgiving, Sobolowski says, and then: "I felt held. Everyone laughs.

For all of the ostensible precision—scorecards, multivariable rankings—ski testing is still more art than science. The ski-test postmortem also reveals the tension between what a ski actually is—technically and performance-wise—and how you package it. The discussion moves on to color choices for an upcoming model, and quickly becomes heated.

"This teal reminds me of old grandma's silky pajamas, McGrath says. "It makes me want to throw up.[NEXT]
Back in my room that night, I get out my computer and pop in the Animal House—spoof DVD that Mechura loaned me. "This is Ski Industry University, school for alpine excellence and higher learning, the narrator intones over clips from the original movie. KT¿, it seems, is in trouble: too many parties and pranks, too big a threat to other companies. "You're out, finished, expelled from this industry! shouts the dean. "I want you off of this mountain by nine o'clock Monday morning.

The video cuts to a fraternity house living room. Now the footage is original.The cast is employees. "Christ. Forty years of history down the drain, says graphic designer Chester Grays, reprising John Belushi's Bluto character with uncanny skill. Vice President of Global Sales Tim Petrick limps in, cheek swollen, eye blackened, and lip bloody. "Some of the competitors did a little dance on my face, he says.


The fraternity brothers discuss the hopelessness of being expelled from the ski industry. Grays, however, is having none of it. He jumps to his feet. "Over? Over? Nothing is over until we decide it is…who's with me?

"Chester's right, Petrick says. "Psychotic, but absolutely right. This situation requires an unconventional campaign to be begun on KT¿'s behalf.

It's late. And I probably had one too many margaritas at dinner. But the line between the real K2 and the fictional fraternity has become blurry.

The camera cuts to a close-up of Grays. "Let's do it! he shouts as the brothers race for the door. "Go, go, go, go, go!


JANUARY 2006

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