Endless Winter for Never Summer
For 40 years, the Canaday brothers and their family business partners have been producing high-quality snowboards, built by artisans
in the Rocky Mountains.
One of the great ironies about Denver-based, family-owned snowboard manufacturing company Never Summer is that at least one of its founders started out wanting to carve surf more than he wanted to carve powder.
“We used to go out to California to visit our cousins who lived in Bakersfield, and I always wanted to be a surfer,” says Tracey Canaday, a co-founder and co-owner of Never Summer along with his brother Tim Canaday; Tim’s father-in-law, Nick Giancamilli; and Giancamilli’s wife, Ann Sullivan. “So when I got a chance to try snowboarding, I thought it was the closest thing to surfing. I was hooked, and I got Tim into snowboarding the following weekend.”
That trip also sparked the Canadays’ entrepreneurial zeal — and the urge, ultimately, to take on snowboard behemoths like Burton.
“We chose a very slow path,” Tracey says. “We basically started Never Summer in 1991, so we’ve been in business for 30 years.”
Their aim — in addition to navigating the dynamics of a multigenerational family business — is to be the best, not the biggest.
“In the last 10 years we have become one of the top three best-selling snowboard makers in the United States, in specialty shops only,” Tracey says. “We are never going to be as high-profile as Burton because they’re kind of like the Budweiser of our industry. We’re more like the Fat Tire of the industry — the craft beer of the market space.”
“We’re comfortable with it. We know we’re not going to build hundreds of thousands of units. We’re going to just focus on quality, and we want to be a real strong brand for the good strong retailers that still are in business,” Tim says.
Snow, Snow, Snow
Snow was already in the Canaday DNA, however. “Tim and I, when we were kids, we loved skiing,” Tracey says. “And in 1983, my buddy and his older brother took me snowboarding for the first time up in the back country near Berthoud Pass [Colorado]. I fell in love with it right away.”
The brothers learned to snowboard on beaten-up old Burton Backhills — early snowboards that were introduced in 1979 and were the first boards to offer graphics, regular and goofy foot stances and the option to make binding adjustments more simply. But the Canadays quickly realized they could build their own boards that would be better than Burton’s.
“After snowboarding with those primitive-looking Burton boards, we were like, ‘Man, we can build these things,’ ” Tracey says. “Tim and I were pretty good with tools and building things when we were kids — we used to build real elaborate forts. My dad had built a barn, so he had a bunch of lumber and whatnot sitting around.”
Their partner in those early efforts was Scott Rolfs, with whom the Canadays (Tracey was 17 and Tim was 14 at the time) launched a company called Swift Snowboards to take a crack at the then-developing market that included companies like Burton, Sims, Barfoot and Snowtech. At this point, snowboarding still was not allowed in most ski resorts. In 1985, only 5% of U.S. ski resorts allowed snowboarding. Just two years later, that jumped to 95%, according to the National Museum of American History.
“My brother and Scott had messed around with different techniques of building some of these snowboards, and in one of the class projects in my woodshop class I did a snowboard,” Tim says. “So my teacher showed me how to make some forms to make the molds, and Tracy and Scott incorporated a little bit of that into the making of Swift Snowboards.”
Goin’ Goofy Foot
Swift Snowboards fizzled in 1986, Tracey says, because “we were more into snowboarding than figuring out how to make a business.” The two brothers finished college, relocated to different cities, got married and started new families and jobs.
Around 1990, when both Canadays lived in California (Tracey in San Diego and Tim in Huntington Beach), they would meet to snowboard at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, sister resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains on Big Bear Lake near Los Angeles. “It was really nice to get back on snow and on snowboards,” Tracey says.
Tracey and Tim snuck into a trade fair at the resort (think George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick in the 2009 movie Up in the Air) by pretending they were part of a wake-surfing company because they wanted to collect intel about the industry that was growing around the ever-increasing popularity of snowboarding.
“Tim and I, you know, we grew up in the country — we grew up in Fort Collins, basically, south of town,” Tracey says. “We were just nice guys — we had no attitude.”
Never Summer was born that day. “After spending a day talking to people in the snow industry, we kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Man, we need to start another snowboarding company, and I think we could maybe put our personality and our knowledge of building good things the right way into it,’ ” Tracey says.
So both Canadays moved to Vail and partnered up with Sullivan and Giancamilli to launch Never Summer as four equal partners.
Becoming (Almost) Famous
While corporate snowboard outfits like Burton spend big bucks to outfit competitive snowboarders, Never Summer focuses on product quality.
“Our first angle was, ‘You don’t know us — we’re not famous,’ ” Tracey says. “We’re not pro snowboarders. We’re just guys who build great products, and we wanted to have the most durable snowboard on the market.
“Man, throughout the ’90s, some of these companies were paying team riders hundreds of thousands of dollars — or, in some cases, probably a million dollars,” Tracey says. “Tim and I never really wanted to go down that road, but we have some athletes that that help us out.”
Getting the Word Out
Never Summer, it seems, is old school. “We would cut these snowboards up and make these cutaways, and I would drive around in my little Honda Civic and go around to shops around the country and show the shop owners or managers our product and why it’s different — why they need to order a Never Summer snowboard. So I kind of got our foot in the door.”
It’s not an automated process, building snowboards — and it’s quite labor-intensive. “We just wanted to separate our quality from everybody else. We felt like we were better craftsman,” Tim says.
One of the things that sets Never Summer apart, in the Canadays’ estimation, is the types of fiberglass the company uses for its boards.
“We were using unique fiberglass because it was so strong, but it was very expensive. So at that time we said, ‘Hey, listen, we’re focusing more on the quality of the material that are going into the snowboard and less on marketing,’ ” Tracey explains.
That all seems to be working just fine. Never Summer makes about 30,000 snowboards per year and distributes them through specialty retailers that have exclusive rights in their regions to sell them.
Their boards also are more expensive — but, the Canadays believe, worth it. “Yeah, I would say that we’re definitely well above average,” Tim says. “It’s a premium product, and it’s priced that way.”
One more point of differentiation: For the past 15 years or so, Never Summer also has been making skis and white-labeling them for other companies.
“There are no factories left in the U.S. — it’s basically us and Burton,” Tracy says.
“Skis and snowboards are built pretty much exactly the same way,” Tracey says. “You’re just building two at a time versus one, so there’s twice as much cutout and finish work.”
Tim and Tracey Canaday aren’t certain about the long-term future of their company. None of their offspring (Tracey has three kids, and Tim has two) seem interested in joining the company.
“They spend a little bit of time down the shop, but my kids really never had an interest in the business side of it,” Tim says. “Both of them enjoy snowboarding. They really kind of wanted to go on their own direction, and they didn’t really think what I did was all that much fun — so …”
“I don’t know if I’m interested in having them work for Never Summer,” Tracey says. “I think I want them to go out on their own. Tim and I, I think it makes us a little more proud that we did this on our own.”
Fair enough. But really — their kids should watch that James Bond clip to understand how cool their dads’ jobs truly are.
Jason Meyers is a writer based in Chicago.