Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The legacy of Ed Scott

From ski poles to international corporation in 50 years

Express Staff Writer

Dave Robrahn, who began working for Scott USA in 1971, shows off a pair of the original ski poles design by Ed Scott. Robrahn said he’s amazed when he looks at the company’s growth over the past half century, as it moved from a one-man operation to a large company with corporate offices in Ketchum and Switzerland.

An important anniversary recently passed by the Sun Valley area, but went largely unheralded despite the obvious significance to daily life on Bald Mountain.

No, not the oft-reported installation of the first-ever chairlift on Proctor Mountain in 1936. Instead, the 50th anniversary of Ed Scott's creation of the hollow, tapered aluminum ski pole has quietly gone without notice.

The actual date of Scott's invention is a point of contention. It's either 1958, as stated in press material from Scott USA, the company he founded half a century ago, or 1959, according to ski historian John Fry, the author of "The Story of Modern Skiing."

In a letter from Scott to Fry in 1986, Scott wrote that the 1959-1960 winter was his first in the "pole business," although he was certainly toying with the design before he began selling his poles to racers from around the world at the 1960 Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley.

Regardless of whether or it was 50 or 51 years ago, there's no doubt that Scott made one of the most influential innovations in ski history.

Known as Scotty around the valley, Scott embodied the highly educated personality that has, for decades, eschewed an office for the slopes of Bald Mountain.

Scott, a graduate of Amherst College and M.I.T., spent time in the U.S. Army in France and then worked as an engineer for Ford before arriving in Sun Valley in 1947 at age 33.

Charlie French, who began working with Scott in 1970, said the ski pole pioneer first made his name in the industry by becoming an expert in edging skis, which at that time needed to be screwed onto the wooden boards.

However, it was his realization that the heavy steel or wood poles left a lot to be desired that propelled him to skiing stardom. He hit upon the lightweight aluminum design—with tapered walls and molded rubber grips—that has remained the standard even as the rest of the ski industry underwent a revolution.

Scott, who passed away in 2001, remarked about his creation in Wendolyn Holland's "Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History."

"It was an overnight sensation ... Its success came partly because all other poles were designed stupidly or unimaginatively, and partly because it was the time when the wedeln (technique) hit the U.S.—short, linked turns initiated by a pole plant."

His friend French, still one of the company's most vivacious employees at 82, acknowledges the genius behind Scott's innovation, but still wonders if Scott actually understood all the benefits of his poles.

"There were some straight aluminum poles on the market, but Scotty's tapered design was much more aerodynamic and the thick walls kept them from breaking," French said. "I just don't know if he thought all this out first, or these benefits were simply a byproduct."

One thing Scott almost certainly didn't think out at the time was the fact that the result of his invention would be Scott USA, a multinational corporation that has become a leader in the bicycle industry.

"The 50-year anniversary totally flew under the radar," said Dave Robrahn, who began helping Scott develop ski boots in 1971. "You look at what the company has become and realize that it's even bigger in Europe—it's pretty amazing to think it all started here."

Robrahn and French, both design engineers, now go to work at the new, state-of-the-art Scott/Wilson building in Ketchum's light industrial area. With granite countertops in the kitchen and a large, flat-screen TV in the break room, the pair, and the company, have come a long way since boots were manufactured in a building just south of Ketchum that now houses Big Wood Nursery.

"It was originally built to be a casino, but they outlawed gambling and we took it over," said French, a World Champion triathlete and former professional motorcycle racer. "I would guess that there was more gambling than ever when we moved in. But it was brutal—20 guys working elbow to elbow. A lot of the time someone would get hired, go on their first lunch break and never return."

According to Robrahn, French is the unofficial oral historian of the company. The title seems credible to anyone listening to the vast repository of stories French recalls about the beginnings of Scott USA.

French is one of the remaining few who can remember tales of Dr. Goop, the man in charge of glue section of the assembly line who "wouldn't know where he was at the end of a shift." Or how the company was once owned by the unlikely succession of Kingsford Charcoal and Clorox. Or how Scott was fired in 1971, possibly because of his involvement in a lawsuit regarding some Japanese-manufactured skis of questionable quality.

Since its inception, the company moved from the building on the corner of Sun Valley Road and Washington Avenue, now occupied by Smoky Mountain Pizza, to the corner of First Avenue and Sun Valley Road, a building that later became the old Ketchum Post Office. It headed to Boulder for a few years, while under the ownership of Chicago billionaire Sam Zell, then returned to Ketchum.

While Scott USA still makes aluminum ski poles, that product is far from the company's showpiece, a spot now reserved for carbon-fiber bicycles that retail for over $12,000.

And while the office desks are now imported from Italy, unlike the one Scott fashioned from an old door and a pair of sawhorses, French and Robrahn have managed to retain the hands-on, jury-rigged approach to their work, testing products in a basement room originally intended for mechanical equipment.

French said he occasionally finds drawings he made 25 years ago for an adjusted boot design, and finds it difficult to believe how much work he, Scott and the other original employees put into producing these products that were at the time on the cutting edge.

French no longer designs the products that hit the shelves in sports stores across the world; he makes sure they are built to last.

Picking up a new pair of motocross goggles, another successful part of Scott USA's product line, French praises the young designers for continuing the tradition of innovative creation. Asked what Scott would think of the new goggles, French looked over the goggles covered in colorful graphics and small metal badges with the brand logo emblazoned on the strap, and paused for a second before replying.

"He would have liked them, but he wouldn't have put all this crap on it."

Jon Duval:

In his own words

Excerpt from a letter from Ed Scott to John Fry in 1986

"I looked for a really good metal pole, but none were being made. All were too heavy and too flexible...I'd seen a thin, tapered, light aluminum shaft on poles made by the Dale Boison Co. in L.A. several years earlier, and asked Warren Miller to locate the source for their shafts. He did, and I bought maybe 100 duplicates from the tube-tapering specialist...Someone would buy a pair, go skiing, and come back with a friend that afternoon who had to have a pair too. They sold on 'feel' alone. Next year, I had them use larger diameter tubing with thinner walls, which obviously would make a stiffer yet lighter shaft. These sold even faster. Well, I had a hot item on my hands."

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