Gravity Fed

by Keith Morrill

This company’s product thrives on a slippery slope

Six years ago, Steve Luhr’s employer of 18 Steve Luhr and Ninayears was bought. Rather than relocate to Nevada, Luhr decided to start his own business. The result is Hammerhead Sleds Inc. and the company’s patented performance snow sled, the Hammerhead. He’s pictured with Nina, a keeshund, the company mascot.

For nearly six years, Steve Luhr and his business have been going steadily downhill. While this might seem cause for panic, it couldn’t be better for Luhr, the president and founder of CherryMax Sleds Inc., which last month changed its name to Hammerhead Sleds Inc. Going downhill is what his business is all about. 

The company, founded in 2002, makes the Hammerhead, its patented, signature performance snow sled, which, in Luhr’s words, is “bringing sledding into the 21st century, both reinvigorating and reinventing a traditional pastime.”

If Luhr has his way, the world has seen the end of banged-up knees from sledding on plastic shells, saucers, garbage bags, and pilfered cafeteria trays. The Hammerhead looks like the evolutionary successor of the old Flexible Flyer sleds, ditching wood and bulky metal in favor of a Coke-bottle green aluminum frame, a netting-like body, plastic runners, and greatly improved steering ability. A few add-ons are also available. 

“It’s like an iPod,” says Luhr with a grin. “You buy one of these and all of a sudden you need to have all the accessories.” Sledders can outfit their Hammerheads with a headlight, taillight, towline, and cargo net, or choose wider runners for fresh powder. Eventually, Luhr would like to introduce a line of apparel. 

Hammerhead has already come a long way since Luhr took to the trail. A Chicago native, he came to Vermont in 1967, when his father, the eventual co-founder of BioTek Instruments in Winooski, took a position as director of the instrumentation and model facility at the University of Vermont.

Following graduation from Lyndon State in 1984 with a degree in business administration, Luhr went to work for BioTek in marketing. In 2002, after 18 years there, he found himself in the midst of a buyout. He was left with the option of staying with the company and relocating to Carson City, Nev., or figuring out a way to stay in Vermont. 

The sale presented an opportunity to pursue an idea he had often toyed with — starting his own business. “I had a list of things I wanted to do — start an airport, run a dive shop — connected to what I like to do. ” Luhr recalls. “The biggest potential — bang for the buck — was the sled. It was an easy call; it just stuck out. There’s nothing like this before. I always thought we could just do one step at a time and see how it goes, and every step we got a green light and we’ve just kept going.”

It took nearly a year and a half from conception to arrive at a completed sled. After coming up with the parameters, he sought out for a design firm, landing with Worrell Design in Eden Prairie, Minn. According to Luhr, it was a perfect fit. “We had a really great designer over there who just nailed it right from the start. He knew technology existed in all these areas, and put it together in a sled.” 

Landing funding proved the hardest part, and in order to turn concept into a reality, Luhr sold many of his possessions and persuaded family and friends to invest, then moved up to financing through North Country Angels in Vermont. Even today, he cites it as his biggest challenge. “The only challenge,” he clarifies. “We’re poised for huge success if we have the financing.” 

Luhr believed that success would come, not from gimmicky marketing but from making a quality product that catches people’s eye. In 2004, he headed to EMS corporate headquarters with a Hammerhead prototype under his arm, ready to make his first sale. The executive he met warmed to the idea, but remained chilly when it came to cost. 

Holly CreeksHolly Creeks, CEO and COO, joined the company in 2004. She is the company’s only other full-timer. A part-time accountant and two marketing consultants round out the staff.

“He thought the price was really high at $284,” says Luhr. “He hemmed and hawed, but after a while he bought into it.” Luhr walked away from the meeting with a deal for 75 sleds. 

Buzzed about even that, he says, he left contented, unaware that things were going to pick up speed without any effort on his part. At a later company meeting, the president of EMS saw the Hammerhead for the first time. He recognized the sled’s potential and demanded the company order more. Says Luhr, “We sent them 220, and they could have sold more.”

Since then, Hammerhead has added other big-name retailers to that list, including REI, L.L. Bean, Backcountry.com, and Discovery Store, as well as a few local businesses such as Ski Rack and Umiak Outdoor Outfitters. The company is even selling Hammerheads with special logos to Land Rover this year.  

Bobby Webb, assistant manager at EMS in South Burlington, can attest to the Hammerhead’s popularity with customers. “For something that looks as fast as it is, people are really, really excited,” says Webb. “People who buy a sled usually come back for the accessories, and we see a lot of repeat customers — people who are buying a second sled for themselves or as a gift.” 

Webb also praises the company’s customer service. “If we ever need anything, these guys are more than willing to jump through hoops, get in the car and make special deliveries down here for us so people can get out and keep sledding.”

The company has shipped around 4,000 units to date, and despite the Hammerhead’s price tag, Luhr says there’s been no pushback from consumers. Sleds consistently sell out, sometimes more than once per season, he adds, and, even with the faltering economy, he anticipates doubling sales this year. 

Luhr says part of the allure is the relatively low cost in relation to other sports such as snowboarding and skiing. “You don’t need a lesson, you can use it in the backyard or drive somewhere. It’s recession-proof.”

Hammerhead has earned several awards, including the IDEA silver award from the Industrial Designers Society of America and Business Week, and was named this year’s Outside magazine’s Gear of the Year “covet” item. The sled has also garnered attention in national media, including mentions in Maxim and the Boston Herald. “I was on the front page of the Boston Globe last January,” says Luhr. “Giuliani and Edwards were bowing out that day, and my picture was on the lower right.”

Phillip MillerThe sled parts are manufactured in China, Taiwan, and North Carolina. Phillip Miller, a sled maker, assembles a Hammerhead at Diversified Resources in St. Albans, before sending it off to the warehouse in nearby Georgia.

Riding that buzz of excitement, Luhr has turned to ski resorts, offering them a new source of revenue, and over time, he says, the reception has been less chilly. Luhr spent much of last winter setting up demos at ski sites, even hosting winter-long races down at Tenney Mountain in New Hampshire. 

He’s quick to add that he’s not looking to encroach on skiing territory. “We don’t want to be on the full slope at all,” he explains. Instead, he envisions areas designated exclusively for sledders — “a luge park or a Hammerhead Ferrari park, or whatever you want to call it,” he says.

A surprisingly small number of people make the company run. In addition to Luhr, there’s only one other full-timer: CEO and COO Holly Creeks, who joined the company in 2004. “She was director of engineering at BioTek while I was there,” Luhr says. “She filled the bill as far as the grounded, logical, financial side.”

Renee Kershner is part-time accountant. Working mostly from their own offices, they share virtual space using Skype (software that allows telephone calls over the Internet). The company also calls upon the services of two contract consultants, sales director Arnaud Claude, and marketing director Marchelle Falcone. 

The company’s small size works to its advantage, says Luhr. “Bigger companies like K2, they can’t do this,” he explains. “They can’t come down to our level and create something this exciting and new — they’re just too burdened. We just keep moving; we don’t spend a lot of time thinking, and rationalizing, and getting in meetings … you want to stay nimble, dynamic; move fast, and learn from your errors.”

As far as production goes, Hammerhead manufactures its parts in China, Taiwan, and North Carolina. The parts are assembled entirely within the United States, at Diversified Resources in St. Albans. From there, the sleds travel a short distance to a warehouse in Georgia, where they’re stored and distributed to retailers. 

Though his winter weekends are fully booked at the slopes, Luhr does find time for himself in the off-season. Recently, he spends most of his free time restoring a vintage speedboat. The manual labor is a nice break from the cerebral tasks at the company, he says. He enjoys aviation, but puts himself in the category of former pilot since he sold his plane to help start the business. It’s something to which he’d like to return.

As for the future of the company, Luhr has another sled design in the works — a mid-level answer to the Hammerhead that would make performance sledding an option for a wider clientele, “more suited to kids and families that might not be able to afford the Hammerhead,” he says. “We’re building a technical sled, but we’re building a lifestyle and an experience for people who want to do more in the winter.” 

The aim is to put not only more sleds on the hill, but also sledders on the winner’s podium at the X-Games and the Olympics, a goal he says is reasonably obtainable. “If there’s curling in the Winter Olympics, there’ll be sledding.” •