[All portraits: Tim Zimmerman.]
Snowboarding often remembers and praises its action heroes – the riders – but it’s altogether rarer that the guys behind the great machine that is the snowboard industry get a look in. Pete Saari is one of these ‘Deus Ex Machina’, cofounder of one of the most prominent and innovative snowboard factories in history: Mervin Manufacturing. Mervin have been producing boards for over two decades: starting with Lib Tech, Gnu, and Bent Metal bindings, they’ve expanded to also make Roxy’s boards, some outerwear as well as a skateboards and even a their own surfboards – or as they call them , ‘waterboards’ – now. For this latest Tech Heads, we sat down with Pete to get into the brain and veins of the iconic snowboard factory from Washington State.
You are currently VP of marketing at Mervin if I’m right, but I guess it’s a lot more than this considering you’re one of the founders, together with Mike Olson, so what exactly are you involved with in the company today?
My current title is VP of Creativity. I end up doing a lot of different things and work with Ryan Hollis, Dan McNamara and the management team to help with general direction. One of my primary responsibilities is to work with Steven Cobb our CAD master on our snowboard lines and geometries. We work with riders and experiment with new shapes, bottom contours, etc. Steven and I ride every new shape or tweak we make to see how they go and fit into our program. Mike Olson gets involved with this too but, these days he is pretty wrapped up in surf. I also work with our graphic design/marketing department to sort out the board graphics, print material, ads, etc. for everything we do; surf, skate, snow.
What do you deal with on a daily basis?
Day to day I answer e-mails, try to do as much cool stuff as possible, write some words, look at pretty pictures and art and attend the Endless Meeting.
Can you tell us about the origins of Mervin, and the genesis of the brands that compose it?
The Mervin phase of our deal started in the late 80’s. Mike Olson started with “Delbert Pumpernickle Gravity Harness No Guarantee” snowboards, then it morphed into Gnu snowboards around 1984, about the time I started building boards in the horse barn with him. Mervin Winston Leslie III was our surfer friend (at that time there were almost no surfers where we live in Washington State). He was the first of us to fall for a girl and get married. Everyone else called him Win but we liked the sound of Mervin, so when we needed a company name for our factory we named it after him.
We needed a new name because our distributor decided not to pay what they owed us and start the brand Nitro instead… but that is another story. We were bummed, owed the bank a lot of money, so we decided to start Liberace Technologies (Lib Tech) and make and sell every board ourselves again. We put hesh skeleton graphics on every board at a time when hesh graphics were completely dead in skateboarding. We sold to one shop per town and sponsored Matt Cummins and Jamie Lynn.
A year later we got Gnu back from the lawyers and money grubbers when they realized Gnu wasn’t worth much if you didn’t want to work hard, so we ended up with two brands. We tried to make Gnu the price point brand, but nobody wanted cheap boards from us so we have been having an internal technology race between the brands ever since.
Quik bought us in the late 90’s, and at some point we thought it might be cool to build some Roxy snowboards so that got started, and we have been working on those boards for over a decade as well…It has been good… Kjersti [Buaas] and Erin Comstock challenged us to build them exactly what they wanted in a board, and Torah [Bright] is an incredible rider who always has great input and a big smile.Some Lib Tech oldies but goodies.
You guys introduced a lot of industry premieres when it comes to technology: metal edges, metal heel cups, Magne-Traction, Banana, and much more. Do you remember them all? And how they came to reality?
I remember metal edges because it was more than adding metal edges, it was the removal of fins… Actually we were probably not the first to do metal edges or finless (snowboarding evolved in a bunch of places around the world at the same time). But we were on the forefront of finless as snowboarding transitioned from being powder only backcountry to resort chair lift acceptance. When we left the backcountry suddenly we had to deal with ice, moguls, hardpack, etc., so there was some work to be done getting the geometries right. We borrowed technology/geometries from skiing and blended it with curves from surfing. We really were the first company to push deeper carving sidecuts which allowed the boards to have “fin-like hold” when you put them on edge. Our sidecuts were much deeper than what was being used on skis at the time. Eventually skiing sorted it out and also went to the deeper sidecuts in their Parabolic shape ski revolution.
Let’s take MagneTraction for example: could you go in details and tell us how, with who, why it all started?
Magne-Traction the story can be told multiple ways, I am going to tell it this way this time… Mike Olson is a surfboard shaper so wings, bumps and reverse curves on the rail of a board are nothing new in the surf world. Mike Olson always used to ride a 200cm Dough Boy Shredder snowboard. The board worked great with the length, it really bent into a carving arc well, and floated in powder, so much tip and tail that even a wide stance on that board is relatively narrow. Mike’s frustration with the board was that with the sidecut he wanted it had to be too narrow at the waist to for his size 12.5 boots. He always talked about doing a board with three sidecuts; one that went to the front foot, one that was between the feet and one from the back foot to the back contact. We all kind of laughed at the idea and didn’t ever have time to build it.
At the same time Mervin is a freestyle company, but once a year for about two or three months we become a race board company because of the Mt. Baker Banked Slalom… (it’s a good exercise that usually results in some sort of design progress). At the time Temple Cummins had never won the event and was pretty hell bent on sorting it out… he was loving his board’s toe side but felt there was something we could do to improve heelside turns. We all felt like snowboards worked pretty well, but surfboard and skateboards seemed to work better in their worlds. We always felt like the “dead un-pressurable area” between the feet was a snowboard design flaw acquired when ski cambers intended for one pressure point were applied to snowboardings sideways stance with two pressure (feet) points inputing control into the board.
I don’t remember the year right (95ish?) now but, all this was stacking up and we were working on boards for the next year and Mike put the challenge to Steven Cobb (who was then our new CAD guy) to draw up a reverse curve design that would have two extra wide points at the toes to experiment with accommodate bigger feet. Mike thought the high points at the toes would work like little hockey blades (he likes hockey). Steven sat on the idea for a few weeks thinking it would be difficult to make it actually work and then in some late night french fry induced epiphany drew up a serrated edge that ran from tip to tail and presented it to me as a concept he wanted to try. The serrations were all equal sized and it looked a bit strange but I okayed the project thinking it was a bit wack but maybe something might come of it. I gave it some thought and realized that if we toned down the bumps in front of the font foot and had the bigger teeth between the feet we would be solving one of the design problems and bring focus and control to the formerly dead zone between your feet. Steven tested the original stick and loved it and agreed that we need to tone down the outside teeth. We then built about five boards with the new 7 bump Magne-Traction featuring three bumps between the feet that were larger and more aggressive and smaller bumps outside the feet to the contact and got our in house crew together for a weekend test at Mt. Baker… the rest is history.
Well almost… it took a few years to convince people that it really worked. We loved it and knew it made significant difference and was a design improvement but it looked weird and it was change. We started to get competitive results with it with Danny Kass and then a couple years later when Travis Rice got on it he loved it that really pushed it forward as an accepted design. Basically it happened because we are an oversized prototype shop and if we get ideas we are set up to just build them no matter how strange they might look. That ability to actually build your dream boards gets everyone in the shop and all our team riders fired up and thinking so we always have way more board design ideas than we actually have time to build.Gnu range 2013/14.
In general, would you say that innovation comes first from R&D ideas, or from the input/demands of the riders?
We do a lot of our initial R&D internally (Steven, Mike, Hendo, Pos and myself) so we have a solid base line on what we are making and the feels/performances each board has. Our internal crew thinks about board design 24 / 7 so we come up with some things. At the same time we also have riders who live in the NW (near the factory) like, Jamie Lynn, Matt Cummins, Blair Habenicht, Temple, Barrett that work very closely with the design crew and always seem to have some sort of tweak or new board in the works. Travis always has something cooking and we are starting to work more with Forest Bailey. Most pros are highly skilled, technical, fit and are looking for a board that is very specific to their size or riding needs or something they want to accomplish. Our internal crew is a bit less skilled, and fit (ha) but, equally technical and we are looking for boards that make snowboarding easier or more fun as well as pushing the high end performance limits. A combination of pro or rider input and our own internal team working together is what gets it done. Banana Tech (rocker between the feet) was one that our internal team worked on initially and then once I rode it and knew it was a go we immediately had Jesse Burtner (freestyle jib monster) and Temple Cummins one of the worlds best carvers on it to get their input…both loved it and we knew we were onto something.
If you’d have to highlight one moment of working for Mervin, what would it be? And what would you say you’re the most proud of so far?
There are a lot of highlights, I feel really lucky to have been a part of some good stuff. I think Mike would agree we are proudest of Banana Tech and Magne-Traction because both were significant improvements in snowboard design and made snowboarding easier and more fun for everyone from first timers to pros. There are a lot of other things that made or make me happy along the way…mostly relationships with incredible people that worked with us or still work with us. The riders are always inspiring some obvious ones are: Jamie Lynn, Travis, Danny Kass, Amy Howat, Barrett Christy, Temp and Matt Cummins… it could go on. Forest Bailey, Jesse Burtner, Zach Leach etc. Math Crepel, Jacob Wilhelmson, Hampus, Jasper Sanders, Martin Cernic, Markku, etc. Tommy Brunner, Jamie Pierre, Scott Stamnes, David Bowers were all greats at what they did and have now passed on but, it was a gift to get some time with them. It really feels like the highlights are the little moments with a stupid board of some sort out in nature with friends and family trying to have fun and working out design things or ideas at the same time. I really have been enjoying snowboarding lately… love riding with my 13 yr old son Paavo and his friends or any inspiring riders, feeling their stoke or challenges and absorbing what they are doing with their boards and bodies.Pete at work.
Jamie Lynn has been a long time rider and graphics contributor. How did it all start with him as a rider, and as an artist?
Jamie was a hesh skater kid from Auburn, Washington. He was introduced to us by Paul Ferrel who rode and worked with us in the 80’s and now runs our binding program these days. Jamie started out riding with a pack of 3 friends in what they called the FGHC Ford Grenada Hardcore as kind of a joke… Craig, Ranquet and the MBHC were not adding any new members and these guys had to fight for respect with the established Baker crew. They had a Grenada and I don’t think they had drivers licenses, or money for lift tickets but, they were on it. All of them ended up working or riding for us at one time – Apostolos Karabotsos “Pos” is still here and he builds all the custom tooling and boards for team and general prototypes or new tooling. The FGHC crew all ripped and in ridiculously close formation at wide open speeds and Jamie started to stand out by going bigger than the rest and landing almost everything. All of them have insane methods to this day. Jamie had a raw fast powerful skate style and was an artist from the beginning. We still have his high school art project painting hanging in our shop, it is a giant painting of a surfer on a purple wave. He started out riding the Litigator and Matt Cummins model and then when he blew up, it was time to build him his own model. He always did his own art or collaborated with artists he liked. Over the years he has continued to develop as an artist, person and rider and is still going stronger than ever. The year after this one will be the 20th year he has had a pro model with us. Jamie has his own style and look which is what really defines an artist. Where ever his art is always looks better because of it. I get a method and front three clinic from him and Pos every year but, I still need work.The Roxy boards range 2013/14, as seen on ISPO 13.
Mervin always have had, and still today, a strong image of core, tech, snowboard company. Probably the most identifiable to all the snowboarders out there. What is the secret? And how do you manage to always keep in touch with the needs and aspirations of today’s snowboarding?
I don’t think there is any secret we just try and do what feels right. We have always been surfers, skateboarders and snowboarders and built our own equipment. These days we have a big shop that is like a candy store, we have the tools and materials to do whatever we want, so it feels like we need to take advantage of that as much as possible. I think Mike and I never felt like we got enough surfing, skating or snowboarding time so we are as hungry as ever to get out and ride and play with equipment. Over the years we have been lucky enough to attract some really great people to Mervin and that helps keep it fun and keep us on point. Quiksilver has been incredibly good to us, they keep us accountable of course but, in many ways they also let us be completely independent and free to do what we think will work. The best way to keep in touch with where snowboarding is to going is to participate in it as much as possible, ride with good riders, wear tight pants, and if all else fails work harder than anyone else is willing too.
Can you give us a few hints on what the R&D department is working on at the moment?
We always seem to have more ideas than we have time to build. We have been working on fine tuning a new C2 variation that is called XC2 and the C3 camber dominant Banana tech…both those have been keeping the aggressive full tip to tail railing freeride/freestyle crew stoked. Mike is really wrapped up in the Lib Tech Waterboards surf project and there are a bunch of interesting materials and processes that will also apply to snowboarding spinning out of that world. The snow has been pretty good for the past month here so our R&D department is really into riding pow… we have been building a bunch of different twin pow shapes. Travis has one called the Speedodeeps that’s really fun.Olson and Saari on the cover of SBC Business Winter 2013 issue.
Find out all the latest innovations info from Mervin with some very explanatory videos right here.