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Alex Herbert makes skis
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Alex Herbert makes skis
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Alex Herbert makes skis
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"It's lucky and serendipitous that the traditional way is also the best way."
Conversations
1 July 2010

Alex Herbert makes skis

Interview by Kate Bezar
Photography by Geoff Browne

Kate Bezar on Alex Herbert

Alex Herbert and his wife Kris have always followed their bliss, and for them, bliss means powder, mountains of powder.

Alex is originally from Sydney and Kris from America, yet a small hamlet called Lyttelton, just outside of Christchurch, New Zealand, is now their home. They care deeply about their lifestyle and live there because it suits them – it’s relatively cheap, there’s plenty of space, the air’s fresh and the ski fields are just a short drive away. That their business is making skis should come as no surprise, except that these aren’t just any old skis, they’re custom-made by hand for each customer, and ideal for skiing … you guessed it, powder.

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

KATE BEZAR: Where did the name Kingswood Skis come from?

ALEX HERBERT: It was the first or the second name we came up with when we first started talking about making skis. I love Kingswood cars and all that, but I’m not a huge car fan or loyal to Holden or anything. I like what Kingswood stands for in Australia and in New Zealand as being the sort of solid, regal old car that got palmed off down through families and you still see them around. There’s also the fact that we were always staunch about making our skis with at least a wood core, you know; so then we thought, Kingswood. King sounds quite good; it’s like it put us in a slightly more elite category and that. But anyway, that was when we were dreaming about making skis, before we even made some.

I’m one of those guys that can picture the image of the thing before I actually know how to make it. We came up with heaps of other names. CI’ve got books of them, but we kept going back to Kingswood. Then we kind of got put on the spot. When I finally did make some skis and we started to get a top sheet digitally printed it was like, well, what name are we going to put on it? You know, we didn’t quite have one.

That was it.

Kingswood, that was it.

You say “we”, was it more than you at that stage?

Well, I include Kris in that because she’s my wife and my business partner. I do all the manual labour, I make the skis, I come up with all the designs and that, but she’s been there from day one helping me along the way, so that’s why I say we. Plus, you know, I have lots of friends that I ski with who would come and give me their two dollars worth and a little hand as well. On the day that I made my very first pair, I had a friend there as well who helped me, so …

So it’s always felt bigger than just you?

Yeah, definitely.

I asked because I wasn’t sure whether or not you and Kris were together at that stage. It was what, eight years ago that you started?

Yeah, that was eight years ago, but we’ve been married for 13 years now.

Holy moly.

And together for 15. We met on a ski hill in Austria and it was pretty much love at first sight. She was American and I was living in Australia at the time so we were having this long-distance relationship. I’d go to the States and she’d come over this way, and then eventually we said, “Let’s go to New Zealand and live there, get married and stop travelling so much.”

Why New Zealand?

Well, we really loved it here. We came here on holiday about 14 years ago.

Skiing?

It was for a competition called the Heli Challenge down in Wanaka. It was one of the very first free skiing competitions where, rather than make you go through gates on a groomed course, they flew you up to the top of the Southern Alps in a helicopter. You’d go from the very top and they’d judge you on how you skied it. We came out here for three weeks, skied around, did the competition and fell in love with New Zealand. I was born in England, but I grew up in Australia and I did seasons on the Australian ski fields. New Zealand is the obvious progression from skiing Australia. So that was that. Kris and I fell in love in New Zealand and we could see a lifestyle that we envisaged happening here because there’s a lot of opportunity for people. We had no money when we started this business and I don’t think I would ever have been able to do this in Sydney where I grew up because of the size of the space I need and the rent and bureaucracy involved …

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #25 of Dumbo Feather

By the sound of things you’re a great skier and love skiing, what then took you that next step to making your own skis?

Well it was out of necessity really. I got so into my skiing and doing competitions and we started seeing these really good skiers show up from America, our heroes that were in magazines and movies, and they were on these really wide skis that were custom made for them by the factories they were sponsored by. We could see straight away that they were skiing so much better than us, because they were better skiers, but also because of the skis that they had. You couldn’t buy them in New Zealand; no one was importing them and most of the factories weren’t even making them, they were just making prototypes for the pros, you know. So we thought, let’s try to make some of these because we’re not going to be able to buy them. That’s how I started …

Had you always been pretty handy?

Well I’d been doing ski repairs for 14 seasons, so that’s where my background comes from, repairing snowboards and skis, and I got quite good at that. So I knew what was in skis and how to use glue and fibreglass and do edges and all that type of stuff, but I’m no carpenter or anything. I’ve done some jobs that have been very repetitive and kind of crafty; all sorts of weird things like making wooden Easter eggs and stuff for some friends in Australia. In all these little jobs I learnt that

if you practise something long enough you suddenly become really good at it,

you know, with your hands, if it’s a repetitive job …

So then you saw guys on these skis you thought, let’s try to make a pair?

Yeah, let’s try and make a pair of those.

Had you ever made any before that?

No, but I’d made a windsurfer and six surfboards. It’s definitely not rocket science; it’s very simple. I mean, the technology they’re using in the big factories overseas is really high and they’re getting machines to do a lot of the work, but the way we make skis is more the traditional way, starting with a wood core and da da da. It’s very simple and so it never seemed to me to be a very daunting task. I just sort of thought, I can do that, I’m going to have a crack at it.

I guess you made them like that, by hand, because you had to, but then that’s obviously become their appeal.

Absolutely. Yeah, it has. I noticed early that skis were getting weaker and weaker. In the ski repair business, we were seeing a lot more equipment coming in that was completely blown apart when people had hit rocks. Straight away I knew that the construction method they were using, which is very different to the way we make skis, was just … It’s obviously very cheap to make skis and they make good margins on them, but they’re not lasting as long. So you’re right, because of necessity we had to make them the traditional way with that hand layup and everything, but also it was obvious that all the older stuff was not falling apart; it was taking the same abuse. We were like, right, it’s lucky and serendipitous that the traditional way is also the best way.

And it’s nice because straight away people realised that. We got a lot of feedback saying, “Thank God, someone’s making good solid skis with sidewall construction and a wood core.” Now quite a lot of the manufacturers, their top of the line stuff has all gone back to being made using that traditional manufacturing process.

That’s interesting. So after you made that first pair for yourself, how did it then become something more, a business?

Well, it went pretty dormant because I went skiing on that pair!

Sure!

I was pretty proud that the first pair of skis we made were very skiable. They were really good actually. They looked ugly as sin, but they skied really well.

But I realised, after that first pair, that it was so much work just to get to that one stage and after seeing the first pair, I could suddenly see all the faults in the process I’d taken to make them. It was quite a daunting task. You know, at first you’re so naïve and oblivious to all the challenges that you’re going to face. In hindsight, if I knew all the work I was going to have to do to get them to this stage I might … I’m a bit of a lazy person, you know, I might have gone, “Oh, maybe not, I’ll go and do a tiling apprenticeship or whatever.” But, yeah, it turned out that it’s just one step at a time … The second pair of skis that we made came quite a bit later, like almost a year later. I had to change a lot of things, but some of the things that we’re using today, like the bed that I shape the cores on, are the originals. I’m happy that some things have stayed really good and they’re a good solid design, construction, ergonomic and that everything works. Then there are other things that were just like, oh, scrap that idea, that was wrong. Once I got the second pair out, then we started on a roll. I had …

Was that second pair for you too?

Yes, it was. I probably had the first six or seven pairs. I let my mates ski on them as well, but I didn’t sell any at that stage. It wasn’t until probably about eight or ten pairs or something that I started getting enquiries from people who saw us skiing on them and asked, “Can you make me a pair? How much do they cost?” I initially didn’t start it as a business, I started it as a way of making myself and my mates some skis. I didn’t think it was going to be a viable business, but it just evolved and people started to ask for them and so we made them …

Were you still doing ski repair work at the same time?

Yeah, yeah. I was still working about five or six months of the year in the business in town fixing and waxing skis and all that stuff and then doing odd jobs in summertime; all sorts, tree pruning, working in restaurants, that kind of good stuff to get some dollars in. Kris was also writing, she’s a journalist, so between the two of us … Like I said, we were living in New Zealand and we were stoked. We didn’t have a child at the time and it was pretty easy living I’d say compared to what we were used to. And then I started selling the odd pair of skis to friends and associates around locally on the club fields.

Because they’re so labour intensive, do you think you ever charged enough money to really warrant your time on them?

No, not in the early stages, not at all. Every dollar I made selling them went straight back into buying the materials, changing the way we made them and setting up different systems. It was definitely a labour of love and I was not making any money out of it, but without sitting down and drawing up a proper business plan, I could see something evolving. Kris used to joke, “When are we actually going to get anything out of this? You know, other than a free pair of skis every year.” But

I was confident that the sink hole that was this business would eventually fill up and then I would be able to actually start making some money off it.

It was a few years later before we actually did. The first pair probably took about five days to make and now I’ve got it down to about ten hours work from start to finish. The labour is still extremely intensive and that’s the whole thing about them, there’s nothing high tech downstairs in the factory. I’m the only one who makes them so I do everything from the screen-printing, to the shaping of the wood cores, to fibreglassing, to polishing, waxing it up, all that stuff.

Wow. And they’re custom made aren’t they, so they’ll be different for every person?

Yeah, that’s right. That’s why I don’t make stock or do big runs and factory work. I quite like it that way too, you know. I still get excited at the end, when I’ve made a pair of skis for someone, to give them a flex and go, “Oh yeah, that’ll be good for that person.” Every now and then I go, “Oh gosh, they’re quite solid. I hope that guy’s a good skier.”

We get pretty good feedback. I’m really lucky, you know, we get a lot of props out there and everyone’s pretty happy with them. You obviously get one or two bits of good, constructive criticism as well.

Sure, you need that.

You do need that. I get quite … I think feedback is our best thing, because we don’t have systems in place to test everything and monitor it and know that’s it falling into exactly the right category and bracket … The best thing is just talking to people who know what’s going on.

And how did word spread? Was it just word of mouth?

Yeah it was. At first it was word of mouth, we didn’t have a marketing budget. I was actually having a hard time keeping up with demand because we were ordering such small amounts of materials and it was taking so long to make them. I’d get an order and then, by the time I’d got that complete, and had maybe a day or two off, then another order would come in. It was working out really nicely. Then you know, inevitably things evolve, and the thing that put us into the next gear was that basically our supplier ran out of materials … This has actually been our biggest challenge of all. We quickly realised that the manufacturers of the materials to make skis are all basically in Austria or Switzerland. They’re great companies that have been making good stuff for a long time for the ski industry, but their minimum order requirements were ridiculous – they were for big factories that were in China and in Europe. They didn’t want to have a bar of us because we were ordering a couple of hundred metres of materials when they’re normally selling container loads of it. We knew that to be able to continue we would have to borrow some money and buy a large amount of materials. Then, it was like, okay, we’ve got these materials, now we have to sell them, so then this sort of standard business model starting kicking in. We still didn’t order a container of materials or anything. We had to go to Austria and meet these guys from the companies, have beers with them and be like, “C’mon, you know, we’re just a small company from New Zealand, cut us a break, here’s a t-shirt,” and all that sort of thing. It’s still a problem for us. We’ll email them ten times before we actually get a reply. I think we’re kind of like a sand fly to them, you know …

More annoying than anything else?

Yeah.

So, it’s been eight years or so now?

Yeah. It’s been yeah, eight years, and really a proper business for five years with a website running, GST, and things like that.

And how do you keep it interesting, or do you just love it?

One of the things is that because everything’s custom made I find that interesting and a challenge. Quite often there’s a new top sheet or something that I want, so you’re not looking at the same product every day. I think for me it’s still … it’s still so much of a challenge. I can see that potentially in the future I might start getting sick of it, but I’m hoping that by that stage I’ll be turning into an old man who quite likes tinkering in his shed.

I try to keep a positive attitude about it. It is fairly repetitive, well, it’s very repetitive, but it feels quite creative as well and it’s got an element of, I wouldn’t say artistry, but craftiness about it that I really enjoy.

So you actually enjoy the physical act of making them as much as everything else?

Look, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some things I hated, but there’s enough that I really do enjoy and that I am getting good at. It’s also the whole challenge of making them better, making them quicker, and making them look different, different designs. Every couple of years … Well, all the time, I’m coming up with a new ski design, so I’ll drop one and I’ll bring in a new shape with a new, completely new, width and dimensions and then go and ski them. That whole process is really exciting for me still, so it keeps me into it. Plus I live and work in the same building, so it’s not … I don’t have to commute to work and know that I’m going to be there all day, I’m completely free to, if the snow’s good, just drop everything and go skiing. If the waves are good I’ll go for a surf, and if Obi needs attention then I’ll come upstairs and hang out with him. I’m really fortunate in that respect.

It works for you as much as you work for it, kind of. Have you ever had an apprentice?

No I haven’t, but we’ve got a young guy who’s just done his Masters of Engineering at Canterbury University (in Christchurch). He’s a really keen skier and he approached us about working on a ski binding for us. That kind of evolved into him coming and doing some work experience in the ski factory. He turned out to be really, really meticulous and perfect for cutting out materials and doing precision cuts and things. He comes in once a week and gives me a hand doing that sort of thing. He’s on the ‘work for skis’ program so he’s not actually on wages. I’ll just make him a pair of skis when he gets up enough hours. I can see that in the future, quite a long way in the future though, I might not be able to make skis, so I want to nurture someone along the way. Maybe my son Obi.

Has he shown any interest?

He’s only two! But he does know I make skis for a living.

And does Kris still write?

Yeah she does. Not so much anymore; she’s been a pretty full time mum, but she’s going to start getting into more again. She works very hard on this business as well, especially just recently. We’ve started getting into the whole Facebook and Twitter thing, and updating the website regularly and trying to do the whole new style of communications and networking and marketing that you need to do.

It’s a full time job in itself. So that’s been her side of things – more of the communications and marketing?

Yeah, absolutely. She also processes all the orders, deals with our customers and deals with the suppliers. She’s been pretty amazing in that respect. Up until recently she did all the accounting as well.

Oh gosh.

Yeah, it was a lot of work for her and there was not much time for the writing, but we realised that it’s actually better to employ someone to do the accounting because (a) it saves us a lot of time and (b) its actually turning out in our favour. One of the beauties of this job is that all my skiing, which is obviously a big part of my life, is finally tax deductible. We don’t want to take the piss or anything, but we’re definitely getting some nice lunches up on the ski hill and talking to people and selling skis to them at the time. Yeah, it’s great.

Yeah, and I guess every ski run you take you’re testing aren’t you?

Oh exactly. Product testing.

Do you still manage to get overseas a bit?

I didn’t this year, but I did last year. We try to go to the trade show in Munich, which is the biggest ski trade show in the world. All the new stuff’s there, all the suppliers, everyone’s there, you know. We go, not to sell our skis, but to buy materials and to suss out what people are doing … I think it’s important so we’ll always go to that every two or three years. Europe is a great place to be for skiing. I think it’s, in my mind, the best in the world as far as overseas. I think the club fields here in Canterbury are the best in the world, but I’d go to Europe over America or Canada. There are huge resorts that are really old and have history and character and amazing food, but not many people actually skiing off piste as well. There are so many more lifts per capita I suppose that the place is like heli skiing every day. It’s amazing.

Of course. Is there anyone else in the world doing what you do?

Yeah there are. Well, no one’s doing it quite as well as we are, obviously, but there are quite a few. In fact, we’ve definitely been affected by the fact that, especially

in America, there’s over 100 handmade ski manufacturers now. When we first started we could only find six or seven,

and they were mostly in Europe and had been going for a long time … old ski makers. It seems to be a bit of a … We get an email almost every day from someone overseas, like a young kid who’s finished school and is doing engineering or something, who wants to make his own skis and wants to know where he can get the materials from and this, that and the other. So yeah, there are a lot of small manufacturers, especially in America, that have popped up in the last couple of years. They are doing different shapes and cooler graphics, but there’s not a lot of people actually custom making the skis for each client. Skiing was a little bit stale for a while there, especially when we first came into it. As far as graphics and shapes go, it was very European and targeted towards middle to upper class flashy people, you know. There were a lot of leery colours. It’s got a lot cooler I suppose, in my opinion. What’s considered cool are these niche brands, so people are seeing that and starting to set them up. We definitely have some competition and we realise that, but we are unique in the fact that we’re in the southern hemisphere and we clearly don’t want to become a big company that makes stock and sells it to wholesalers to sell it to shops. We want to sell direct to the customer and we want to custom make all our skis. I think we’re fairly unique in that respect.

Who does do all your graphics?

Um, Kris and I. We don’t have huge amounts of graphics actually. I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to graphics. Our first graphic, and it’s still the one we still have today, is a black ski with the word ‘Kingswood’ written on it and the logo at the tail. People can choose what colour they want the Kingswood and the logo, but it’s black and white, black and silver, black and yellow. You know, it stands out like a dog’s balls on the ski hill because everything else is so leery. They’re really popular and the majority of the top sheets are that design. A couple of years ago we had a top sheet design competition and we had lots and lots of people enter the competition and send us what they thought was the ideal ski top sheet. We said we were going to use the top three in our top sheets and do a limited run of them. It was a really good competition to have. It was a bit of a marketing exercise. We could see what people liked and also we got some cool designs out of it and so we’re using those, but we’re totally open if anyone wants to send through a graphic. If we like it then, yeah …

You’ll run with it?

Hmm, definitely.

Cool. As you were talking about the fact that there are more and more handmade ski makers popping up I was thinking about that as part of a broader trend. I guess having something custom made is the new luxury isn’t it?

Definitely. I think also

people are starting to be more aware that smaller businesses like us might be slightly more sustainable

than a bigger manufacturer. People are aware of the fact that if something’s made in China, then it’s sold through an exporter, who then sells it to a wholesaler, who then sells it to the shop, who then sells it to them. You are buying something that was made very cheaply for quite a high price. It might be good quality. I’m not saying that anything made in China is not good quality, because I think some of their stuff is really good, but it’s just, it’s been through that many people’s hands that its price is completely inflated, to the point where it’s a bit ridiculous. If you walk in to a ski shop our skis are comparable in price to the top shelf stuff there. They’re not the cheapest skis you can get, but they’re also not the most expensive. If we were going to wholesale them they would be ridiculously priced and very exclusive, but we’d probably end up selling more of them! I don’t know, people are strange like that. We pay a lot of money for our materials and to ship them to New Zealand. Because we’re getting such small quantities and not meeting their minimum requirements, they’re charging us like wounded bulls. Plus the labour’s very intensive and expensive. Then we put our little margin on them and we sell straight to the customer. We’re not being greedy anywhere down the line and no one else is involved, so it’s a nice, clean transaction.

Yeah, cool. So where do you hope the business goes from here? I noticed you’re doing jackets and stuff?

Yeah. We’ve got a friend down the road who makes amazing down jackets and anything to do with down; sleeping bags and stuff like that. It was natural that we’d get him to make custom down jackets for us. They’re custom made for people and we embroider our Kingswood logo on them. They’re incredibly good quality and it works really well with us. It’s a local guy who has a business just like ours – it’s just him. Our t-shirts are also locally made, and the guy Lee, who screenprints them, is local. Our beanies are hand-crocheted by an old woman in Brighton. It’s that whole ethos of ‘jobs for the boys’ or whatever, but I think that’s a nice way to do it. Obviously soft goods are nice because I don’t have to lift a finger, I don’t have to make them, and yet it’s something people can buy that’s Kingswood, even if they can’t afford a pair of skis quite yet; so more soft goods and that kind of stuff would be good. We’ve also started doing kids’ skis and a broader range of skis. When we first started we were just for the really good skiers, off-piste skiing, but now we’re trying to get out to a lot more people. I really want to be able to keep it small like it is. There are a few things I don’t want to do: I don’t want to have to move into a bigger space; I don’t want to have to move out of this building because I love where I work; and I don’t really like the idea of becoming a manager of staff and that sort of thing. I quite like being responsible for it myself. Like you said, right now I really enjoy my job. That might change, but at the moment I’d really like to keep it the same. The way we’re going right now, we’re not going to be millionaires, but we’ve got a really nice lifestyle and if we can maintain that and try to make good skis … At the moment we sell about 80 to 110 pairs a year. I’d like to be able to do 150. If we could sell 150, we’d be giggling.

It’s so refreshing to hear someone say they’re pretty much happy with the size that they are and that it’s nice and sustainable.

If it gets bigger I can just see it becoming more work for me and I’m fundamentally a bit lazy! I really like to be able to drop everything and go for a surf.

I’m not a very ambitious person financially. We’ve managed to buy the building that we live and work in. We’ve got a mortgage to pay, but we have this amazing building in Lyttelton that used to be the rugby club rooms. It’s a 100-year-old, brick, Georgian-style building and it’s 800 square metres. It’s just beautiful. We live upstairs and have renovated it into a sort of loft-style apartment. We’ve got downstairs as my ski factory and I can do what I want down there. It’s such a great set-up. I don’t want to be too greedy. I can’t really imagine wanting much more … perhaps a bit more overseas travel!

Kate Bezar

Kate Bezar started Dumbo Feather—and is a living legend, simple as that. Read all about her and the kernel of an idea that became a magazine.

Photography by Geoff Browne

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