Alex and Kris Herbert, owners of Littleton-based Kingswood Ski, discuss customer generosity following the 2010 Canterbury earthquakes.
What does your business do?
Alex: Kingswood Ski is a ski company, we make skis for downhill skiing. I make all the skis myself with my own two hands and have been doing it now for more than 15 years.
We launched the business in 2005 but I've been making skis since 2002 and we've made over 1000 skis in that time. I started off making skis as a hobby, to make skis I wanted to ski on as I couldn't get them here in New Zealand, and it evolved from there.
I do it a little bit differently to the big companies overseas. If someone orders a pair of skis, I customise them to their height and weight, how they like to ski and where they like to ski, and they get to choose a top sheet.
How big is your team?
It is just me making the skis but Kris, my wife, does all of the marketing, advertising and all the designs and top sheets for the company, the website and basically everything else.
I also have another business which repairs skis, a ski tuning workshop, and we have a guy who runs that for us, and he does a lot of positive stuff towards selling skis for us as well.
How has your business changed over the past 10 or so years?
There hasn't been radical changes. My whole vision has been to try and keep it quite small and I didn't want it to fail or balloon out of proportion either, to try to maintain a level of uniqueness.
I've evolved in the construction of the skis and I'm always trying to make them better. We make our skis the old fashioned way where we use bamboo for the core and we use traditional ski-making techniques which a lot of the companies weren't using when we started - it's the best way to make skis them and they last longer.
Traditionally skis were made out of timber and in the 60s they started using fibreglass, and so they would shape the core with wood and strengthen it by laminating fibreglass on the top and bottom, it was quite labour intensive.
Having worked in the ski repair business I'd always known what was strong and what wasn't and it seemed that the more traditional construction methods were stronger so we chose that. We've always stuck to using a wooden core and wouldn't use foam. We have two different tiers: our standard hand-made ski costs $1350 and then the full carbon version which costs $2250.
This year we have teamed up with Veuve Clicquot to release limited edition skis ahead of the Clicquot in the Snow event in Queenstown in August.
How did the Christchurch earthquakes effect your business?
We lost our factory in the Christchurch earthquake and had to rebuild the whole building. The remarkable thing with our customers was that when we did lose our building, heaps of people placed orders and gave us their money and we said 'we can't actually make any skis right now' and they said they didn't care; 'when you get going we know you're good for it'. There were 10 people who came forward to do that which would be about a month's worth of production, so about $15,000 that people parted with no guarantee of actually having a product made which was incredibly generous. We went through the painful process of rebuilding and had a shipping container for a while but we got back to it.
How seasonal is your business?
Alex: Extremely seasonal. Right now we're pretty much working seven days a week to fulfil the orders and come summer time we do a little bit of export, but general pretty quiet. Our skis go everywhere, we've sold some to all corners of the world; Russia, Afghanistan, Switzerland, quite a lot in Australia, all custom orders. Generally the people from overseas who purchase from us have some connection with New Zealand, whether they are expats living overseas or whether they had a really great holiday or family here or All Blacks fans, etc, there always seems to be some kind of connection with New Zealand which is pretty cool.
What are your long term plans?
We really want to keep the business the way it is in that it employs just me and my wife. We have a good lifestyle and we have plenty of time off when we want to and can take part of that and go skiing. I would like to have a few more locally sourced materials in the skis rather than a lot of the stuff I have to import from Austria.
How much competition are you facing?
We're facing a lot more competition these days, there are a huge amount of small ski manufacturers like ourselves that have started up since we did but I don't generally see it as a bad thing. I think it helps us a little bit because when we first started a lot of people were a bit dubious about the small guys making skis. Now that we've got colleagues in the industry, it seems to have sorted it all out and people are aware that smaller companies are doing much better quality product.
What advice do you give to others thinking about starting their own business?
Work hard and remember customer service is so important. Do whatever you can to provide a really good service, that's what has helped us.