Two entrepreneurs turn discarded skis into outdoor furniture
Call it a case of the New Yankee Workshop meets Bode Miller.
Millbury, Mass. — Except for the flouring of sawdust that covers everything in Mike Bellino's workshop here, the place looks more like a used sporting goods store than a furniture factory. Skis in seemingly good condition poke out of almost every nook. Dozens droop off the top of a salvaged refrigerator. More fill corners of a breezeway to the backyard, where hundreds – organized by brand and color – occupy long rows.
As alluring as these skis are, Mr. Bellino hasn't spent a fortune to amass 100,000 of them, most of which he stores in four garages until partner Ken Moreau turns them into something worthy of Norm Abram – Adirondack chairs. Except for some shipping costs, he hasn't paid a cent. "The concept of free skis – it's just fantastic," says Bellino, founder of Skichair.com, grinning. "It's like being a kid in a candy store."
Bellino gets skis and snowboards free for the same reason that tons show up in landfills: There's no market for them. As Mr. Moreau notes, "The technology of the ski industry changes so quickly that a ski that's three years old is obsolete." Plus, skis get fabricated with slight defects or returned under warranties, all of which makes them unsellable. As a result, decent equipment often ends up in a Hefty bag – or Bellino's pantry.
Now a boutique industry is springing up to use the discarded equipment for everything from Burton benches to Salomon swings, minus the bindings, of course. Call it the New Yankee Workshop meets Bode Miller.
The ski industry itself is encouraging some of the entrepreneurialism. The idea of skis being thrown away like Q-tips detracts from the industry's high-profile efforts to go green. Resorts are doing everything from putting solar panels on chalet roofs to reducing food waste at cafeterias.
SnowSports Industries America (SIA), a trade group, is exploring prospects for melting old skis and recycling polymers into, say, decking for ski lodges. The hope is to do something useful with the five to seven pairs of skis that, the SIA estimates, collect dust in the garage of the typical person who's skied for 20 years. "We were looking at different ways to repurpose" used skis, says Greg Schneider, an SIA consultant on recycling. "And the only way that we really saw was to make it into furniture."
This is where the "Chair Man of the Boards," the official job title for Bellino, comes in. He and Moreau have turned cast-off skis into a $250,000 a year business. Low-cost inventory allows them to turn a 50 percent profit on chairs and benches sold through a network of dealers – more when he sells directly to customers over the Web. Furniture pieces go for $300 to $500 a piece. But as much as the business model suits this stocky guy whose motto is, "if it's free, it's for me," his initial motivation was neither the money nor saving the environment.
"It was more the cool factor," says Moreau, a laid-back snowboarder who wears red-and-white high-top sneakers to work. Bellino admits it. He wanted a cool alternative to plastic outdoor furniture for his deck at home. So in his garage, he incorporated skis into plans he got from Reader's Digest for building an Adirondack chair. Soon, friends started asking him for ski chairs as wedding gifts. He kept his day job in high technology recruiting, but when the dotcom boom went bust, he scaled up his furniture business.
One call changed his life. He asked skimaker Rossignol if the firm could spare any closeouts or unsellable skis that they'd rather not pay to discard. He offered to cover the cost of the shipping. A few days later, a tractor trailer pulled up at his suburban house with 25,000 skis.
"I knew there were skis available, but I had no idea there were that many skis," says Bellino. "Then the light went on – how many other companies can I get free skis from?"
Now Bellino gets most of his skis and boards from about a dozen manufacturers. But some of his most zealous suppliers are those who pick up the shipping tab themselves. They're skiers such as Geoff Hadley, who runs a Lion's Club ski swap in Acton, Mass.
He'd always return from the annual weekend event with some 400 unwanted skis. They'd fill his tool shed and spill into the cellar, much to his wife's chagrin. But he held out hope that someone, somewhere, might find a use for them.
"For years, we'd fill up these pickup trucks and cart all these skis off to the dump," says Mr. Hadley. "I hated to see that happen. It's not a good feeling to take this equipment that's usable in some capacity and throw it." Now the pickups head to Bellino's workshop.
Smells of sawdust fill the air in the small workshop, where Moreau gets down to business in his usual uniform: a Red Sox hat, yellow golf shirt, and jeans. Mismatched shards of drab carpeting cover the floor. Using a mounted saw, Moreau cuts skis to size before drilling holes that make for easy mounting.
He uses every part of the ski: tips for the back of the chair, middle sections for the seat, and tails for the ottoman. The rest of the piece is a typical Adirondack cedar frame. Wielding a power drill, he pivots like a sculptor as his creation takes shape on a workbench.
His one-man effort goes quickly, thanks to precut wood from another nearby microbusiness. The skis help move the operation along, too: They don't require any finishing and are a good material for outdoor furniture, impervious to the elements. Moreau turns out a typical chair in one hour.
As he works, Moreau doesn't say much. But Bellino makes up for his partner's reticence. Short with a chin-only beard, Bellino flashes a cracker-barrel sense of humor, which he uses at his own expense. His cellphone rings often, but sometimes he ignores it. "It's just my mother," he says at one point. "She can wait."
Bellino's resourcefulness in the workshop could have come from a how-to guide for ecofriendly manufacturing. He ships unassembled products in recycled boxes that Moreau gets from his other job at a bike shop. All benches have recycled plastic legs. Even the clock on the workshop wall is refashioned from an old circular saw blade.
Bellino is not shy about touting his enterprise's green virtues. He proclaims "RE-CYCLED" materials on his website. That's his way, he says, of making clear to the world that "I'm a good guy!"
But he's an unlikely darling of the eco movement. He drives a Ford Expedition and supports opening new oil fields for drilling because "I don't want to pay $4 a gallon" for gas. "I know some environmentalists," Bellino says. "I find them annoying because they take it to extremes."
Profit is now Bellino's main motivation as he works to support his wife and baby boy. He sees potential in a line of chairs made from other sporting goods, such as baseball bats and hockey sticks. But because he has to pay for them, he still harbors a soft spot for skis and snowboards.
Bellino's quest for coolness and cash doesn't seem to be costing him much goodwill among activists concerned with waste issues. They're just glad somebody's found a way to extend the fun to be had on skis. "From society's point of view," says Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program, "it's probably better to have these things reused than to take up scarce landfill space."