Two entrepreneurs turn discarded skis into outdoor furniture
Call it a case of the New Yankee Workshop meets Bode Miller.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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 Moreau notes, "The technology of the ski industry changes so quickly that a ski that's three years old is obsolete."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.