Talking shop with FACTION Skis founder Tony McWilliam

snow action team 04.05.2010

[from 2010 Buyer’s Guide issue]

Falls Creek ski bum to Verbier ski manufacturer is not exactly an everyday career move. but by applying his dad’s  “if you want something done right, build it yourself” philosophy, and his own varied talents, Tony McWilliam has put his new FACTION ski brand firmly on the freeski map.

SA: With a decent income and future prospects from the ‘day job’ business, plenty of ski time and never mind sidelines like playing guitar in a Verbier Indie band, you would seem to have had a busy enough life without setting up a ski company. What happened: a light bulb moment? Something you always wanted to do? Mates raving about making skis better for the freeride revolution? Or what?

TM: A bit of all of the above. I initially graduated with a degree in Industrial Design before moving into Graphic Design, so I’ve always had this desire to improve things around me, and my dad had brought me up with a “if you want something done right, build it yourself” philosophy. You do a few seasons and buy a few pairs of skis and pretty soon none of them are good enough. You ski out of them as you improve and you start seeing limitations in their versatility and performance. From there to thinking about what I wanted from an ideal ski is a pretty small step.

The pretty big step is finding somewhere to build them, setting up a business and then start finding people to sell them for you. That part has taken four years to the point where we’re now selling in 13 countries worldwide – from Switzerland to Norway to North America to Japan and now Australia (finally!)

SA: Where did the name come from?

TM: I could see the big brands getting further and further away from what we wanted as skiers, and losing touch with how we were progressing the sport – and this idea of a ‘faction’ splintering within our industry came to mind. We’re still doing the same thing – we’re still trying to build skis – but we come from a different perspective. We’re trying to produce skis that we want to ski on – whether it’s in the park, or in the backcountry – rather than making a product to fit a niche in a lineup alongside race or recreational skis like bigger brands. We started with just two models – a park twin and a powder twin – and we’ve only added to that range when we knew we could design and produce something that brought something new to the freeride/freestyle market. We’ve been quick to look into new technologies that can make more versatile products, like rockered camberline fat skis, super-fats and equal-height tips and tails and full-centred sidecuts and cores on our park skis. We’ll never cross-over into race skis or anything like that.

SA: Were you a ski bum at heart since way back or did you always have a focus to go beyond bumming to turn recreation into business?

TM: I left a pretty structured uni course and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do – the first job I found was as a liftie at Falls Creek and it seemed like a good idea at the time! Doing a season changes your perspective a little on what you might want to do with your life – it’s a great community and you get to meet such a wide variety of people. I came out to France at the end of ’99 and started doing seasons in Les Arcs alongside summers doing contract design work in London. After a couple of years I moved to Verbier, Switzerland where there was a better chance of doing freelance work, and alongside Faction started up a local magazine which is still going as well.

You can only do so many seasons before you start asking yourself “Do I love the place more than a career, or do I want to try and take a chance and bring my career to the place?” Design isn’t something you can leave – it’s something that’s constantly in the back of your mind. You wake up some mornings and it’s like a drug – the need to create and build.

SA: What lured you to Verbier of all the options around the ski planet?

TM: Theres only a few places that are large enough to be able to get consistent clients for something like graphic design. Speaking French, you’re looking at Chamonix or Verbier as the only decent sized places to live year round in that area. Chamonix has a bit of a ‘mecca’ stigma attached to it and it’s a bit too easy – there’s so many English speaking people there that you don’t have to work to fit in. There’s a McDonalds there now. I was still looking for a bit of a challenge. I had a few friends who I’d done seasons with who had moved there which helped as well. Saying that, with the crackdown on visas if you’re Australian its not an easy place to settle and work. You really need at least a UK passport.

SA: When you set up the ski industry trend for a long time had been toward consolidation, cost-cutting, centralising production (in China or eastern Europe) as mega sports companies swallowed (and sometimes regurgitated) well known ski brands, usually with standardised marketing based on serial ‘innovations’ plus the odd personality/racer to drive sales. Then all of a sudden we got revolutionary ideas direct from core skiers, like the Whistler Airforce snaffling twin tips from snowboards for park and pipe and big mountain revolutionaries like Shane McConkey with rocker, reverse camber, pin tails and kissing candy-ass powder turns goodbye. Who influenced you most before you launched Faction?

TM: Funnily enough that’s all still happening. Finnish giant The Amer Group own Atomic and Salomon and they are shutting down the Salomon factory in Annecy, France, which is where the company was born – and it’s a bit sad, y’know? To lose that history. Skiing is going through the same process snowboarding did 10 – 15 years ago, when it went from 5 manufacturers worldwide to 50 in a few years. It’s exciting and I love being a part of seeing smaller brands start up and bring new ideas and perspectives to the industry – and more options to the consumer. An industry dies without choice and competition and skiing ten years ago was pretty close to death.

I started getting heavily into skiing when Freeze magazine started in the late ‘90s (it’s since gone under) and guys like Seth Morrison, Shane McConkey and Chris Davenport were doing revolutionary things. I remember competing in a freeride comp in Les Arcs when I first came to Europe and in shit snow on a limited vertical course just seeing Guerlain Chicherit blow everyone away. Also seeing Ian McIntosh’s run when the Verbier Xtreme opened up to skiers for the first time in 2006 was pretty inspiring. I love park and I watch a lot of freestyle but for me skiing is about getting out and hiking somewhere and discovering something new. Learning about your limits and tackling your own fear.

 SA: Your design skills obviously made one thing easier – great graphics. But as far as the guts of the ski design process went was that something you had any idea about or did you have some good advisors to help out? Or is it not really rocket science after all?

TM: Coming from a product design background helped – I do all the physical design of the skis as well as the graphics – but I’m surrounded by great riders who come up with new ideas which we work on and develop and prototype. Then we go ski them to death and do the process again until we get what we want.  We have some pretty unique rockered skis, from our flat camber/tip and tail rockered backcountry freestyle ‘Royale’ model to our traditional camber/tip rocker only ‘Alias’ freeride ski. We’re pretty much at the forefront of progression in designing with variable cambers – and this year we’re launching a version of the 3.zero fat twin with rockered tip and tail as well as traditional camber underfoot, which brings an amazing combination of float and responsiveness on piste. All these designs come from us as a group, trying to find the limits of skis and seeing how we can push those limits to create something new.

In terms of production and materials, to get the ideal compromise between light-weight, strength, feel and durability nothing really beats a traditionally built, wood core sandwich-construction ski. Lots of ideas have come and gone in terms of capped skis, foam cores, levers, tubes, you name it – but wood has such great qualities you can’t beat it.

SA: How long did it take from concept to first actual sales?

TM: First year I sold 40 pairs to friends, second year we sold into stores in Verbier and Canada, and now we’re pretty much worldwide. We’ve been exhibiting at SIA (Vegas/Denver) and ISPO (Munich) for the last two years which is always exciting.

SA: Like other rider-owned brands which have mushroomed over the past decade you have the chance to directly translate experiences on the hill into tweaking the new season boards. Is that generally a gradual process or do you find one of the crew will come in with a big idea? In conjunction, what do you rate as the teams’s best innovations?

TM: Interestingly I’ve just seen the ski Salomon riders Kaj Zackrisson and Cody Townsend have designed for 2010/11 and its pretty much exactly the same as our Thirteen big-mountain ski – tip rocker, 46m radius sidecut, 112mm waist, flat tail, 194cm – which is now in its second year. Because we’re small we have much quicker product development times than the mainstream brands. As I mentioned, we’re really excited about the rockered/traditional camber 3zero we’re launching at SIA/ISPO this week. Playing around with camber lines has so much potential and we expect a lot of other brands to be utilizing it across traditional skis to give them much more versatility. One thing we do differently is that our heavily rockered pow skis are still pretty stiff. You look at the K2 Hellbent or the Armada Jp-vs-Julien and they’re very soft. By adding rocker you’re basically pre-loading the ski into the shape it naturally takes in deep snow, so you can make it as stiff as you want and it will still float. Keeping a rockered ski stiff gives you increased feel and control in powder, and you can still work it on-piste which is unusual in the market. Little ideas like that come from working closely with our riders and being able to directly translate their ideas and feedback into prototypes.

SA: Who do you rate as the best freeride skiers out there at the moment?

TM: Good question. The different disciplines have separated so much that there isn’t as much cross-over as there used to be. The future I see is guys like Sean Pettit who are bringing park skills to the big-mountain arena. Also competitions like the Red Bull Linecatcher are helping develop and promote these skills.

SA: The youth/young adult market has latched onto the freeride concept bigtime, not just accepting but demanding the latest ski innovations, especially in Europe and North America. Yet the ski demographic being what it is, old buggers are the growing majority as a percentage of punters on the hill in most western ski markets. So one of our focuses at SnowAction is to open the minds of the 40 and 50 plus age groups of keen skiers to just what they are missing out on if they don’t check out new style skis. Way too much fun to leave to the kids is our view. Have you got any plans to address that market and which models would you recommend to them from, bearing in mind the one place you likely won’t find old guys is the terrain parks?

TM: One thing we’ve always tried to do is maximize versatility. I’ve come from a background where as a ski bum you can only afford one pair of skis every year/two years and you want something you can use as much as possible to get the most bang for your buck.

Its pretty intimidating looking at 112mm plus waisted skis if you haven’t been on them before – and you need to keep in mind that they’re designed for a specific use, and they’re not going to respond like your carvers. But, saying that they’ll still hold an edge and they’re surprisingly stable at speed.

One unexpected by-product of rockered skis is they open off-piste skiing to a much wider demographic. They are incredibly easy in powder. You don’t have to concentrate as much on fore-aft weight distribution. Combine rocker and a fat waist and anyone can ski off-piste. They also reduce fatigue in wind-packed snow or chopped up snow and crud – they just float over the top. No matter what age or ability, design progression will benefit you.

SA: In the mainstream press you guys got a lot of notoriety – even making the New York Times – from the Gene Simmons incident [Tony produced a ski graphic with the Kiss singer’s stage face as the graphic; unable to get a response prior to the Vegas Trade Show in 2009 they did a demo for the stand when who rocks up but an understandably aggro Gene with his reality TV crew in attendance]. Was that just a PR stunt or what, and what’s the upshot – did he try and sue you or have things settled down?

TM: We honestly could not have planned the whole thing better. It was one of those fortuitous moments which you can’t plan in advance. I mean, who would think that Gene Simmons goes skiing? Let alone goes to a tradeshow like SIA? It really helped fast-track the licensing agreement as I’d had no response from them when I’d tried to contact them. We thought we’d make some samples to see the reaction from our distributors and stores, and then make a decision on whether or not to go into production – so it helped sort that out.

It was pretty surreal getting phone calls from Mr Simmons attorney and the New York Times. We’ve sorted out a deal now and we’re happy to say that Gene Simmons has a few pairs of the skis himself… not sure how good a skier he is though and they’re a pretty demanding ski.

SA: Is the US opening as a market for you now (Gene or no Gene), and where and why are you making headway elsewhere? It’s seems quite amazing how fast the rider owned ski brands have grabbed a niche.

TM: Last year was pretty difficult in the US with the economy diving and snow being hard to find in general. We now have a full-time Sales Manager based in Oregon who for the US and Canada and reps spread over the major areas. We’re looking forward to solid growth over the next couple of years, coupled with our core markets of Switzerland, France and Scandinavia. The US is a huge market and its key that we develop there, but its also important we do it properly – taking time to find the right guys and being able to grow at a manageable rate so we can support stores and our buyers properly.

Innovation is important, but if you can’t answer the phone or email when a customer needs you then it’s pointless. We have customers all over the world who talk to us direct and that’s something I find incredibly important.

SA: Any plans to return to OZ long term or is Verbier set to remain home?

Verbier has an amazing combination of good people, great terrain and outstanding views over the Mont Blanc Massif… Italy is an hour down the road, Lake Geneva is 45 minutes away in the summer and Europe is at your doorstep. I’m settled in Verbier at the moment but I’m constantly drawn back to Melbourne. I get back every year and I’m always inspired by the art and music scene, and it’s great to see so many Australian and NZ skiers coming up in the world scene – Russ Henshaw, Chris Booth and Sam Smoothy to name a few. You definitely learn resilience skiing in Australia and the conditions we have here, ha ha!

SA: Thanks and good luck.