Think your sport-utility vehicle is impressive? How about pitting your road beast against a monster that can roar up a steep Alpine slope pushing a load of snow, then zip back down and repeat the circuit dozens of times -- all in the middle of a blizzard? Of course, at about $365,000, the top-of-the-line PistenBully 300 Polar makes even a Humvee look cheap. In the niche market for vehicles used to groom ski trails, which in a good year amounts to 1,000 units worldwide, Germany's Kässbohrer All-Terrain Vehicles dominates. It has more than half the global market, besting rival Bombardier Recreational Products (BBD ) everywhere except North America.
Based in the southern German town of Laupheim, Kässbohrer attributes its No. 1 status to a reputation for quality and superior customer service. With offices in all the major ski regions, the company guarantees customers that it will dispatch spare parts or a repair person within 24 hours. "It's important for the customer to know that when it snows, [the machines] work," says CFO Rolf Glessing, who, with CEO Gebhard Schwarz, 46, constitutes the company's board.
Founded in 1969 as a unit of the busmaker of the same name, Kässbohrer had its big breakthrough in 1972, when PistenBully machines groomed the slopes for the Winter Olympic Games in Sapporo. The snow-grooming unit was spun off in 1994. While Kässbohrer is listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, a few big shareholders own 90% of the equity, and the remaining shares are thinly traded.
Almost all of Kässbohrer's sales come from snow-grooming vehicles, which renders it vulnerable to the weather and the ups and downs of winter tourism. Net profit for the fiscal year ended Sept. 30 fell by one-third, to $5.2 million, due mostly to the global tourism slump. But Glessing says that the narrow focus is an advantage against Bombardier, which also makes boats, outboard motors, and snowmobiles. The market may be flat, but PistenBullies are still charging uphill.
By Jack Ewing in Frankfurt