For the week of December 30, 1998   thru January 5, 1999  

Mike Brunetto: Still experimenting


By DICK DORWORTH
Express Staff Writer

A few years ago, Ketchum’s Mike Brunetto, president of Wolf Ski, described the business philosophy driving his then fledgling company.

"I’m still experimenting to see if this company will work. I don’t know yet if it will."

Brunetto has had a successful and varied and quite extraordinary life, both in the ski business and outside it, and by substituting the word "life" for "company" in the above quote, one could summarize his approach to the art of living well and working hard.

Like many people in the ski business, he got into it simply because he loved to ski. He still does.

That’s why the Wolf Ski headquarters in Ketchum’s industrial park is open from 8 a.m. until 9:30 a.m. and from 2:30 p.m. until whenever the work for the day gets done: the Wolf Ski staff is busy testing product in the middle of the day.

Wolf Ski is run by a two-to-four-person staff, depending on the season. It includes Janet Crews who runs the office, and Greg Thomas, whose own business, GT Tunes, works in conjunction with Wolf Ski and provides overnight ski tuning, including pick up and delivery service.

Brunetto is proud that his business is small and personal and that a customer can still pick out and buy a ski from the same man who designed, tuned, waxed and mounted it.

Wolf Ski is an anomaly in the modern mega-corporation world of the skiing business, in which a decreasing number of large corporations exercise an increasing control over all aspects of the ski world.

Brunetto says he likes his business "small, personal and individualized."

His reputation is that of being among the best, most respected ski designers/manufacturers in the world. He knows what he is doing, and good skiers seek out his skis.

If Brunetto were a corporate kind of guy, he could be earning a respectable salary from any number of ski companies and living in any number of places besides the Wood River Valley. But Brunetto is his own man-- independent, eccentric, an experimenter.

He still believes in doing business with a smile and a handshake, and, as mentioned, he’s still experimenting to see if such a philosophy will work in today’s world of ski business.

So far it has.

Wolf Ski sells about 800 pair of skis each year, many of them to loyal, repeat customers who have followed Brunetto to Wolf from Research Dynamics (RD), the company he began in a Ketchum garage in 1975. Before that he had made skis for Head, Dura-Fiber, The Ski, Lynx and K2. By 1982 RD had outgrown Brunetto’s garage. He needed help.

"I had never run my own company," he said. "I think I got cold feet about the business stuff, and I needed more money."

He went to Chuck Ferries and Tim Kohl, partners in the already established PRE and Scott companies. While it lasted, it was a successful alliance. Brunetto knew how to make skis; Ferries and Kohl knew how to market them. Within a few years RD was selling 25,000 pairs of skis a year.

In 1988 Brunetto and Kohl wound up with all of RD. After a few years, Brunetto explained, "…the company got bigger, and I made less money, and eventually lost money. It ended up not being the company I started out with."

The company was no longer "small, personal and individualized." He sold his interest in RD to Kohl for one dollar and moved on.

After working for a company exploring for gold in Nevada, Brunetto decided to get back to manufacturing and selling skis. He rounded up a group of investors and started Wolf Ski from scratch.

Brunetto, who is one quarter Cherokee, has an abiding interest in Native Americans and named his first ski Makwai, the Blackfoot word for wolf. A later ski was named the Cold Smoke, a translation of the Blackfoot term for powder snow. It was a logical step for the next black-colored ski to be called the Black Smoke.

Brunetto is skeptical of the fads that sweep over ski design from time to time, usually driven by the marketing departments of large ski companies.

"If it’s turned up at one end, it’s a good ski," he often says.

He sums up his philosophy of ski design this way.

"The best ski for you isn’t the best ski for me, and vice-versa. Despite the hype and cool words like cap and sidecut and shape, we haven’t figured out precisely what makes skis work. We think we have and we try lots of different things, but it’s so individual."

Mike Brunetto is a Renaissance man whose interests and knowledge range from skiing to engineering to farming and physics and horses and music.

He is an accomplished pianist and composer whose rare private concerts are cherished by his friends.

A former ski racer from Southern California and the University of Nevada, Brunetto has worked as a wildcatter in oil fields, a school teacher and as head of the Sun Valley Race Department.

He spends his winters in Ketchum and his summers working his own 600-acre farm/ranch/retreat in central Montana where he is still trying to "see if this farming business will work." When the opportunity arises, as it does from time to time, Brunetto returns to the search for gold in the hills of Nevada as he did this past summer and fall.

It’s all working well enough right now that he spends at least one week (and sometimes more) every year heli-skiing in the Canadian Rockies.

 

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