A Brand Evolution: Jason Levinthal and Matt Sterbenz talk partnerships and the future of 4FRNT

In a press release on June 27, 4FRNT Skis announced its acquisition by ski startup icon Jason Levinthal, owner of J Skis and founder of LINE skis and Full Tilt boots. In the press release, 4FRNT brand founder, Matt Sterbenz described his excitement for the evolution of his business and how he and Levinthal plan to work together to develop an even stronger presence for 4FRNT. We caught up with Sterbenz and Levinthal to hear their thoughts on what this acquisition means for 4FRNT and how this business move may reflect new brand trends for the ski industry at large.

Jason Levinthal and Matt Sterbenz together with a 4FRNt ski press. [Photo] Courtesy 4FRNT

Backcountry Magazine: Jason, how has your move from a publicly owned company to a private one affected your collaboration with 4FRNT and your business goals?

Jason Levinthal: When I had a startup ski company, I was building skis out of my garage—I was building a few thousand skis a year. But the company’s progression led me to eventually sell to K2, owned by Jarden. So I really got the full perspective of all the business scenarios. And when you are a part of a big public company like that, there is really only one goal for the corporation: make more money.

The people working for privately owned brands don’t see it this way. They’re all skiers in it for the good of the sport. Everyone is working, whether they get paid a little or a lot, toward with the same passion and intensity to make skiing better, improve the product, do really cool marketing that stokes the public and inspires people to participate in skiing. The reality of a public company is that they’re in it for only one thing, to make more money every quarter. They live and die by the goal of increased profit every quarter, and the reality is skiing’s not growing, so executives are ultimately required to make forced bad decisions to cut costs, because that’s the only sure way of being more profitable. There’s nothing wrong with being economically responsible, but it gets to a point where is starts self-destructing the business, the brand, and the brand can’t give back to the sport or fuel brand growth. The result is that you lose sales and end up in this downward spiral of having to cut again and again; that’s the problem with public companies owning ski industry brands. Private, independently owned companies are the opposite of that. They are putting their money back into the sport, developing new and better products, marketing strategies, promotions and trying to rally people to get involved in skiing. So from my perspective—for the good of skiing, it’s better to have more privately owned brands. A lot of small brands can be very powerful for the good of the sport.

Matt Sterbenz drops pillows in Niseko, Japan. [Photo] Kenjiro Matsuo

BCM: Matt, for 4FRNT, how are you planning on taking advantage of this opportunity that is provided through the sale of the company?

Matt Sterbenz: The concern that any young brand would have in a sale to a public company would be the risk of losing the brand’s identity. How does one brand survive in an arena that is so much more than what it is alone? Jason brought LINE into K2 as one of the smallest brands in Jarden’s history. You run the risk of losing you brand’s identity, which is really what you have worked so hard to cultivate over the years. And ultimately, that is the true value that was acquired when a large corporation takes on a small brand, but now there’s exposure to the financially motivated executive needs.

In repositioning 4FRNT, the goal all along was, and is, to have the opportunity like we do now with Jason—to foster real growth opportunities we simply couldn’t on our own. In some respects we are actually a bigger brand than Jason’s brand, and that provides unique insight to growth. Instead of fussing with financials, we immediately began work to improve continuity in terms of our brand positioning, because together we can be a lot more precise in what each of our brands stands for. But we can also remain creative in how we communicate with our respective audiences. Jason has a gift for communication, and together we will identify what things 4FRNT is doing exceptionally well and what things we aren’t. Then we can ask the hard question: Is it worth it? Is what we are currently doing the result of an intention to try and be an A-Z brand? In the past we wanted to offer everything for our dealers, from the beginner skiers to the adult rippers and hotshots on the hill who are going to become a pro. And what we found was that it really waters down the brand’s positioning when you try to go after every niche in skiing, but that was something we initially thought we needed to do because the big brands were doing it.

I’m not sure you get this kind of opportunity—to really reassess a business model, when you go into a bigger arena like with Line going to K2. They really want a brand to produce the same type of messaging that their other ski brands are producing due to shared distribution, etc., and Jason and I have the ability to be a lot more refined in how we communicate about each other’s brands. Keeping this independence gives us freedom so we don’t have to make what otherwise would be these corporate compromises. We can work within our own space and at the same time, develop new product that I believe will continue to perpetuate the growth in our category—which is freeskiing—and that’s all we care about. We aren’t trying to carve out a spot for racing or rental. We really want to sell skis to fluent freeskiers, produce shapes that are intuitive and bolster confidence and excitement for freeskiers to go out and do more with their skis, and Jason and I are working in this way.

BCM: Jason, How did this relationship between you and 4FRNT begin?

JL: What brought me to where I am today is the experience on the public side. It drove me to start the J Skis brand. I wanted to do the exact opposite of what I have experienced previously. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot working for a public company, and there were a lot of things I was forced to do and never would have learned the outcome of if I hadn’t had that experience. A lot of these small brands don’t know how to operate a financially sustainable business. That’s the hardest part. You may know skiing, but operating a business is a completely different skill set and state of mind. I’ve been able to combine this knowledge with my passion as a skier. Ultimately ski companies are only selling things for one third of the year even though they are a year-round business. I just thought, “Man, I think some of these small business owners could really use some of the knowledge I have gained over my last 20 years.” For that reason, I have been talking to every ski company. I go out of my way to ask about challenges and offer my knowledge and try to collaborate unofficially. And Matt was just one of those people I would talk to on the regular, and that was how this all came together. We realized that we could really help each other; we both had different experiences and knowledge we could pull from, so we made things official.

Jason Levinthal, founder of J Skis, Line Skis and Full Tilt Boots. [Photo] A. Perry Heller

BCM: Is this kind of partnership a trend we can look for in the future?

MS: You can draw parallels with our approach to that of skateboarding. You see a lot of brand houses in skateboarding where they have multiple brands, and each one produces its own identity. They will have different segments of consumers, different types of art influence, but the end goal is to build the most refined product for the largest audience. And from there they improve the way in which that product communicates to its audience so that you don’t have just one brand or technology for all skaters out there. There is a skateboard brand out there for everyone and you can go out and choose what brand you want to be loyal to. Within freeskiing, we have a very similar consumer relationship. The big thing that Jason has brought to us for years now—from an advisory point of view—is his view on how we should be working for the end consumer. As a small brand, it’s so easy to be focusing on how to open more doors and how to be more engaged in the wholesale process. But at the end of the day, sell-through is all that matters for those retailers as well as for the brand. If the product isn’t selling through, the brand isn’t prospering. Jason has been helping us figure out what has been working and dissecting the truth behind our consumer reactions. These are the tough exercises brands sometimes don’t spend enough time analyzing because they’re constantly chasing down that next sale, opening their next shop. At the end of the day, it’s about whether or not things are working in the market and Jason brings a wealth of insight based on his past experience to 4FRNT. Because of that, we will be able to identify how we are communicating our story, what products are selling well, and how we can do a better job working on those that aren’t.

Matt Sterbenz, founder of 4FRNT. [Photo] Sam Watson

As to whether there will be a trend toward consolidation in the future among ski brands, only time can tell. I think there is already a lot of interconnectivity between independent brands from a networking point of view. They are sharing strategy, development, resources and some are sharing in manufacturing resources. For instance 4FRNT is currently sourcing topsheets through Moment for our White Room production. That’s just a common example of relationships that are in place and are happening behind scenes. But as far as ownership, maybe we’ll see a move toward more brand houses where one company may end up owning two or three different brands. Collectively, this strategy may be a safer one than going it alone long-term. Brands will hit a wide offering but in an authentic manner, so each brand will have its own target audience and they own that audience. But to what extent this will catch on is hard to say.

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