Snow Business

The only downhill trend for this company is skiing

by Phyl Newbeck

dodge_skis1018In 2009, Dave Dodge (left) and Bill Doble converted an idea to make a carbon fiber ski boot into a business. The result is their thriving Essex Junction firm, Dodge Ski Boots.

Like so many iconic businesses, Dodge Ski Boots started in a garage.

When Dave Dodge and Bill Doble realized they had a viable business creating carbon fiber ski boots, they needed a place to start. Although the first pairs of boots had been made in Dodge’s basement, that proved untenable. As they were sitting around Doble’s kitchen table, his wife, Bonnie, asked what kind of space their fledgling business would need.

“Thanks to Dave and my wife I had to work my butt off cleaning out the garage,” Doble recalls, “but we set up our facility and worked there for six years. It was a tight fit, but the rent was good. Famous racers would show up and my wife would bake cookies.”

These days, Dodge Ski Boots is based just off Susie Wilson Road in Essex Junction, with an interior dominated by a huge photo of snow-covered trails at Stowe. Most of the time, Dodge and Doble are the only employees, but during the busy season they sometimes take on part-time help.

The two met when they were teenage ski racers and became close when Doble needed a couch to sleep on while attending The University of Vermont and found one at Dodge’s fraternity. They treasure the friendship they developed as racers years ago. “We’re closer than most married couples,” Doble says.

Doble grew up in Connecticut, where his father owned an emergency medical service business for corporations. Every weekend in winter, his father would load three kids and two dogs into the car, which had a platform built into the back for sleeping, and head to Vermont. For Doble, lollipop races turned into junior racing and then a stint on the pro circuit to pay for tuition at UVM, where he earned a degree in political science and history, followed by an MBA.

Dodge was raised in St. Johnsbury. His grandfather was Vermont’s road commissioner before starting Caledonia Construction, and his father and uncle were vice presidents of the corporation. They did well enough, he says, for his father to retire at 48 to spend his time skiing.

Dodge learned to ski at the Lyndon Outing Club and, later, on the Mt. Mansfield Ski Club team, until his senior year in high school when Burke Mountain started a racing program. When Dodge and a cohort of other racers joined the UVM ski team, which had consistently finished behind Dartmouth and Middlebury, they won the NCAA Eastern Division every year and made the Nationals for the last three years of his tenure.

After graduation, Doble lived in Essex but subsequently moved back to Connecticut to work for U.S. Tobacco Co. in promotions. “I was on the fast track,” he says, “and got promoted to 11 different jobs in three years, but I left because I didn’t like the way their business was changing and it was time to get out of the rat race.”

He founded a recording company, but, he recalls with a chuckle, “One day my son came home from kindergarten and said, ‘Dad, are we poor?’ We lived in one of the nicest areas of town, but he said that two of his friends were going to Acapulco and San Mauritz, ‘and all we’re doing is going to Vermont!’ I said, ‘We’re moving.’”

After moving back, he started two sports-related companies and one consulting business.

Dodge’s first job after graduating was as the sole engineer at Rossignol in Williston, tasked with finding domestic replacements for the materials the company imported from France. In the 1980s, he says, he saw the writing on the wall when the company stopped producing skis there, and the president was quoted as saying it cost much more to lay off a French employee than an American one.

Dodge began designing tennis rackets, but when Rossignol shut down production, it no longer needed an engineer. He started a consulting business and was promptly rehired as a product design consultant for both Rossignol and Burton Snowboards. When Burton moved from Manchester to South Burlington in 1993, Dodge began to work there full time.

Leaving Burton in 2000, Dodge restarted his consulting firm working with Line Skis and Tubbs Snowshoes among others. “In 2008-09 when the economy went to hell, the production development money vaporized,” he recalls. He had previously suggested a carbon fiber ski boot to Rossignol, but that fell by the wayside when the company was sold. “I thought this would be the perfect time to try it,” he says, echoed by Doble, who said it seemed like a good way for them to continue partnership.

The first boots were made in Dodge’s basement. “We’d put the pieces in the oven and then run down with our oven mitts to put them in the press,” Doble recalls. “It took all day to hand-form the material in the oven.”

The duo’s work was validated in March of 2009 at Cochran’s Ski Area in Richmond. Dodge was wearing their first prototype for Cochran’s inaugural “Thank God for Snowmaking” race when racer Warner Nickerson asked to try them. The following year, Nickerson raced with a pair and qualified for the World Cup circuit.

Initially Dodge and Doble followed the racing circuit in search of customers. “We grew up racing and we knew we could prove our boot was better because the clock doesn’t lie,” Dodge says. Traveling to New Zealand in the summer and Colorado in November, they were able to get some high-level racers to try their boots. “We followed their FIS [Federation International de Ski] rankings from their old boots versus ours, and the average ranking improved 41 percent.”

Ironically, as the racers got better and obtained deals with ski sponsors, the sponsors often required a switch to their own boots and, Dodge says, the skiers’ rankings plummeted accordingly.

After a time, the two men outgrew the garage. “Our old press was cobbled together,” Doble says, “and I felt like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, kicking and cussing at it to make it work.” They needed a spot that was production-friendly but also had an open space where people could come for their fittings.

Roughly a third of their customers visit in person while the others complete an online process to send in their measurements. Customers come from as far as Australia, Italy, Japan, Russia, and Turkey.

The two men note that their boots are not just for racers. Dodge’s girlfriend, a novice, learned to ski on a pair two years ago. They describe their footwear as one-third lighter than regular boots and warm enough that many users have ditched their battery-operated heat packs.

The men have no desire to grow the company too much. Both have unpleasant memories of previous jobs spent doing performance reviews and would prefer to do the hands-on work themselves. “That’s the distinction we have over every other ski boot company,” says Doble. “We don’t even call them customers. We call them our ‘boot family.’ People can call us up and ask us about anything. Our blood, sweat, and tears are in each boot.”

They share the various assignments, although typically Dodge runs the laser and does the initial assembly, and Doble does the molding, final assembly, and customer fittings. “Dave does all the computer and engineering work,” says Doble.

Doble says their strength is in development. “We love being inventors,” he says, “and figuring out solutions to problems.”

Giles Willey of Jericho can attest to that. He bought a pair of Dodge boots on the advice of his brother-in-law and has worn them for two seasons. The first year he had some hot spots but found Dodge and Doble more than willing to punch them out. “They were really great to work with,” he says. “The boots are expensive but every twitch you make goes right to the ski and you have a lot more control.”

David Holton, who splits his time between Essex and Stowe, is another fan of both the men and the product. “Dave knows how things work,” he says. “He can put something together in a back room that others couldn’t create in a hundred years. They’re both really knowledgeable.”

Holton enjoys heli-skiing in British Columbia, where he’s out on the snow from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For him, the biggest advantage to Dodge boots is that they don’t change their flex or consistency based on the weather. “A plastic boot will freeze,” he says, “but these feel the same at the end of the day as at the beginning.” Another advantage he finds is the weight of the boot. “When I put them on I honestly felt like I could play shortstop or tennis with them.”

Doble lives in Essex with his wife, Bonnie, who teaches at Essex Elementary School. A grown daughter lives in Maine, and John, a grown son who lives in Essex, occasionally helps out at the shop. Dodge lives in South Burlington. His grown son teaches chemistry at Tabor Academy in Massachusetts.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: their love of skiing. Both of them ski at Stowe and take part in the Ski Bums race every Tuesday. Dodge also races in the corporate league at Bolton Valley, while Doble trains on Thursday nights at Cochran’s. Most of their production work is done in summer in preparation for people who visit them during ski season.

They want to have time to work with their clients individually but, they admit, they want to make sure they also have time to ski.