Chairman
of the Boards

The designs of a bright, passionate skier are bringing new life to the slopes

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Jason Levinthal is one of the lucky ones, and he knows it. Still in his 20s, the founder and president of Line Skis is turning his dreams into reality and having a blast in the process.

Jason Levinthal took his passion for skiing and his desire to rejuvenate the sport and built a pair of skis that would revolutionize the industry. His Burlington company, Line Skis, continues to create innovative products.

To say that Levinthal's Burlington company is on the cutting edge of the sport would be an understatement. More appropriate might be to say it defines the cutting edge, then finds a way to meet it.

It was 1995 when the Albany, N.Y., native built his first pair of skis short twin-tips as part of his senior design project at the University of Buffalo. But his love affair with the sport began the instant he put on his first pair at age 9. "The minute I stood on skis, after taking a run, I said I want to base my life on this in some way," says Levinthal. "I totally fell in love with it."

He and his family, including brothers Doug and Matt, skied every weekend, and when he obtained his driver's license, Levinthal began driving to Vermont to ski. With the advent of snowboarding, Levinthal eagerly embraced it. "Burton was right in Manchester," he says, "and me and my friends would stop at Burton, then go to Bromley, Mount Snow, Stratton all those places."

While he liked snowboarding, skiing gave him enjoyment that snowboarding couldn't provide. "Skiing at the time was pretty stagnant. Nobody was marketing to the kids didn't know how to market to the kids. It was all about racing," Levinthal says.

One day at Stratton, after snow-
boarding the first half of the day, he switched to his normal 203-centimeter skis after lunch. Without thinking about it, while cruising down a run, he began making the kind of moves he normally made only on his snowboard, wakeboard and in-line skates. Once he realized what he'd done, Levinthal began to dream of a way to bring the carving, freedom and maneuverability of snowboards to skiing.

"What I began to realize was that skiing, my favorite sport, was the only one that hadn't evolved. It was kind of frustrating. So I said: 'Why don't I make a ski that rides like a snowboard?'"

This idea guided his decision to study design at the University of Buffalo, leading to his senior design project: a new style of ski.

"By the end of the semester, I had made one pair of what became known, essentially, as skiboards," says Levinthal. "They were about 100 centimeters long, two times the width of a ski and half the length of a ski; and they had a tip on both ends."

He took his ski to the local mountain to test them. "I couldn't believe it!" he exclaims. "I was able to ski backwards, carve; I didn't need poles. It was a lot more of a snowboard sensation."

After graduation in '95, Levinthal took his idea home to Albany, convinced he could turn his natural mechanical ability and his love of skiing into a new skiing technology.

"The way I made them, I just figured it out asked enough questions to get it done a little bit of common sense." He set up shop in his parents' one-car garage. "Back then, remember, there were about 300 snowboard companies operating out of garages," he says.

For his first pair, Levinthal had ripped the edges off an old ski, bought some epoxy from a boat company and scrounged around for other supplies. Now, he realized he'd have to be a bit more resourceful. He contacted a now-defunct company near Buffalo about finding materials. "I didn't really realize what I was trying to get into or that there was such a big battle ahead of me," he says. "I didn't go to school for business; I was just a product-design guy. I just went home and said, 'I'm going to start a ski company.'" He decided to call his company Line Skis, reflecting the idea of "choosing your line when you're skiing," he says.

Levinthal spent his first summer designing and building machinery to make his skis. He found an old welder for $50 and welded together scrap metal bought from a junk yard to make his press. "I talked to a lot of mechanics, people in the area I knew, talked to suppliers in the industry, just figured it out so that by the end of summer, I was actually able to manufacture a pair a day. It would take a full eight- to 10-hour day to make one pair."

His winter was spent testing. Because he knew what he wanted his skis to feel like in use, Levinthal would make a pair of skis and head to the mountain to try them out, then return to change the flex or the width and make other modifications. "That was my whole winter," he says.

By spring of 1996, Levinthal says, "I had the skis where I could make them and they looked good and rode good. Really, at the time, all that was close was the Big Foot. The only other thing was long, 200-centimeter skis. My vision was to rejuvenate the sport, take it to the next level. The goal was for a 16-year-old to walk into a ski shop, to see a board and have the possibility of choosing a ski over a snowboard.

"Not because I don't like snowboards," he's quick to add, "but I felt like we weren't doing justice to the sport. People were retiring and not skiing anymore. No one was coming into the sport anymore." Levinthal believed the 100-centimeter ski he was making was a way for him to break into the industry.

To cover the business side of things, Levinthal's girlfriend, Michelle Carfagno, had been helping him with administrative details such as bookkeeping and paying bills. That March, the two of them took three pairs of skiboards and a few hundred borrowed dollars to the Snowsports Industry Association trade show.

Tom Doyle (left), who does research and development, and Matt Connelly, sales manager, were Levinthal's high school friends and have been with Line from the start.

"There were a couple of guys like me there," he says, "and I ended up getting an order for 1,000 pair from a Japanese distributor. I had no interest from any U.S. dealers."

Now Levinthal had the kind of problem any start-up dreams of and, he says, no idea of what he was getting into.

The distributor had given him a 50 percent down payment. "I probably needed another 30 grand," he says. He and Carfagno borrowed money from family and friends, and Levinthal got a job. "I worked construction that summer work for two weeks, make skis for two weeks until I got enough money to make 1,000 pair. I moved out of my parents' garage into a 1,200-square-foot warehouse, hired my brothers and my friends, and we started making skis.

By mid-summer, a four- to six-person team could make 15 pairs per eight-hour day.

"Lots of times, I just wanted to quit," he says, "but somehow, I had this burning drive." By the end of the summer, the 1,000 pairs of skis were shipped to Japan and the company sold about 40 pairs in the United States to friends and people Levinthal met on the hill.

By the time of the spring 1997 trade show, things had changed. U.S. dealers were interested. "All of a sudden, all of the companies had this type of product," says Levinthal. "I actually made some skis for Dynastar to show, because Salomon was getting into it and they wanted to get into it," he says. Dynastar eventually canceled its production order and made the skis itself in France.

With the increase in orders, Line found itself needing to again expand. More money was borrowed, additional space was found and the production process was streamlined.

Things started to really take off the following winter when Levinthal and a high school chum, Mike Nick, entered the ESPN Winter X-Games. "There was no skiing in the X-Games except this," says Levinthal. Mike and I went to the X-Games, he being a natural athlete. Skis weren't even allowed in terrain parks back then. This was a slopestyle course where you ski through a terrain park, have jumps, that kind of thing."

Nick and Levinthal dazzled the crowds. "We were skiing backwards, doing grabs, pushing the sport," says Levinthal. "The exposure we got, with Mike winning gold and me winning bronze, all of a sudden we were on the map as the core ski company." Mainstream media and major ski publications took notice. Nick and Levinthal became the ambassadors of the new direction in skiing.

"We were rockin'," Levinthal says, "but at the same time, financially it was very difficult." By the spring of '99, Levinthal says he had hit a glass ceiling. "I introduced skiboards, then when the revolution happened, I was right there with it. We evolved, but I couldn't afford to expand my factory. I was taking orders at the trade show, people were patting me on the back; and I knew that back at the office, I had about a thousand bucks in my bank account. I owed a lot of money. I was looking for a partner, an investor, someone who could manage my skis."

Enter Karhu, a Canadian ski manufacturer with North American headquarters in Burlington. "Karhu was a great choice," says Levinthal, "because they had everything I didn't. We both brought different aspects of business, marketing and manufacturing. They had a solid Nordic business that was very stable, and they have greater experience in manufacturing, operations, finance and customer service. I didn't have any of that." He laughs.

"What I had was a vision for the future of Alpine, and it was very young, very progressive, innovative and different and was in the Alpine market, which has big, big potential. I have what we still believe is a niche, a key to getting in the door to that market, growing it, building it; and what I still do is marketing: the brand, the direction of the company, direction of the product, the image. What they do, they really cover my back when it comes to the operating of the business and the manufacturing."

Karhu bought 50 percent of the company, and Levinthal moved to Karhu's Burlington headquarters on Flynn Avenue to be closer to the factory, which is just over the border in Quebec. "There really is a mini-Line factory in Karhu's factory," he says, "so now they make Nordic skis and Alpine skis." There are 17 employees at the shared Burlington facility.

The product line has expanded dramatically and now includes twin-tip skis of every length and width, for every age and degree of skiing ability, with funky names like The Mothership, Ghetto Blaster and Darkside. The company sponsors a team that includes Nick, Dash Longe, Eric Pollard, Mike Wilson and Skogen Sprang.

Seeing how far Line Skis has come, it would be tempting to expect the company to bask in its accomplishments. That would be wrong. "We did the skiboard," says Levinthal, "and that put some juice into the sport; we did the twin-tip ski; and now, over the last 31/2 years, we've developed a new Alpine binding. It's our new stepping stone we're counting on catapulting us into becoming a well-rounded, legitimate Alpine company that is diverse enough to sell product to everyone."

True to form, Levinthal quickly adds that it's not just a new binding. "If I was going to make another ski or a binding with just a different name, there'd be no point," he says.

Levinthal says if he were going to make just another ski or a binding with only a different name, there would be no point. Nathan Canupp (left) and Tim Clayton of the graphics department, make sure Line products stand out.

He's quick to point out that he did not design the binding. The idea came from Dave Dodge, a consultant who met Levinthal in December 1999. "I had just left Burton, where I was head of R&D for 10 years, and was looking for some clients to restart my consulting business," says Dodge. "I had talked to Doug Barbor [Karhu's president] about doing some projects."

"We don't have an inventory or factory that makes just one type of bindings," Levinthal says, "so we're free to start wherever we want, from scratch. Dave said, 'Because you can start from scratch, you can build this binding.'"

The binding is "awesome," according to Levinthal, "and making a lot of noise" since its introduction in January. "When we do our tests, there's a good chance that knee injuries are going to go way, way down," he adds.

The secret is a dual pivot technology the company calls "Pivogy." Traditional Alpine bindings have a single pivot point near the heel of the boot, which makes them insensitive to loads that come into the ski just behind the boot loads created when beginners lose control and try to sit down or when more experienced skiers try to recover from a backward-twisting fall. Using two pivot points, Line's binding can differentiate between forces that enter the tip versus the tail of the ski during injury-producing falls, reducing stress on the knee by a factor of three relative to existing single-pivot bindings. The binding is designed to allow the customer to switch it between skis, even to those manufactured by other companies. This means a customer needs to own only one pair of bindings.

Through all of his adventures, Levinthal has not forgotten his friends and family. His brothers, Doug and Matt, helped move things along with their own talents. A photographer by training, Matt provided promotional photos of Line equipment and skiers. He now lives at Lake Tahoe and works for Axis magazine. Doug has a Web design business in San Francisco and initiated the company's website.

Levinthal's high school friend Tom Doyle, who helped him launch the business and moved from Albany with him, heads research and development for the binding. They work with Matt Connelly, another high school friend, who is Line's sales manager. Carfagno is no longer associated with the business.

"I work a lot," says Levinthal with a chagrined expression. When he's not at work or skiing, he enjoys riding his dirt bike, and is excited about the "super old boat" he just bought a 1968 power boat.

"He has a great passion for what he's doing," says Dodge. "I think he really believes in trying to make skiing fun again for this segment of the market, which kind of got forgotten for a long time. From a business perspective, skiing was a very mature sport that hadn't grown much for decades, and Jason came along and changed the rules so if you have businesspeople out there looking for a way to change a mature business, they might find some inspiration in what Jason's done." •

Editor's note: To see a glossary of freeride skiing terms put together by Jason Levinthal, go to the Sidebar

Originally published in April 2003 Business People-Vermont