Zai AG, the hand-made Swiss ski brand headed by a former UBS AG senior currency strategist, will be the official ski supplier of the FIS alpine ski world championships.
The event starts today in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, about 18 months after Benedikt Germanier, 44, swapped UBS’s Stamford, Connecticut, trading floor for the production of skis in Disentis, an Alpine village 44 miles from Davos.
“This is a chance to show the world that we are not just a luxury ski brand,” Germanier, chief executive officer at Zai, said in an interview. “It’s about the quality and the performance, without this you would never end up being named as an official supplier.”
Zai joins Siemens AG, Europe’s biggest engineering company, Coca-Cola Co. and German state-owned rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG as official suppliers to the world championships, where competition starts with the women’s super-G event. The Zai skis, built using 50 million-year-old granite as well as high-tech materials, cost between 3,155 Swiss francs ($3,300) and 9,370 Swiss francs.
Zai will supply its new $7,300 Nezza ski to FIS officials overseeing 11 world championship races that will include Olympic super combined champion Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, who won a gold medal on the downhill at last year’s Vancouver Winter Games. Vonn of the U.S. will be defending world titles on the super-G and the downhill in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The world championships end Feb. 20 with the men’s slalom.
Since Germanier joined Zai in August 2009, sales have increased by one-third. He expects the company to start making a profit as revenue reaches $3 million this financial year ending in June. Investors put in an additional $2 million this year in order to boost growth. Germanier is hiring four more people to add to his 11-strong staff to meet demand for skis and accessories such as sunglasses, goggles and helmets.
“It was a point where we would either say, ‘OK, this isn’t going to work, or we take it a step further,’” Germanier, who also founded Zai Golf AG since he joined, said. “Now it feels like we are taking off slowly.”
Zai aims to double revenue in the next two to four years, Germanier said. “We have a very strong position in that small niche of high-performance, high-price ski segment. There is good potential for us.”
The market for skis may shrink because western European skiers are increasingly renting instead of buying their own equipment, Martin Sundman, an analyst at FIM Bank Ltd. in Helsinki, said in an interview. Sundman follows Amer Sports Oyj, the maker of Atomic and Salomon skis.
Still, there may be a niche market for top end, hand-made skis such as Zai, Sundman said.
“There are always people who will buy Ferraris,” Sundman said.
Demand for the Nezza ski, which has holes in it so it can absorb the snow better on hard, icy pistes, has been outstripping supply, Germanier said. Zai has already sold more than 100 pairs, or 40 more than he expected.
“We are working on weekends to finish it,” Germanier said. “We can only produce four pairs a day so we are all working like crazy.”
The skis and helmets are prominently displayed at the Sporthuette Fiegl ski rental shop in the Austrian resort of Soelden in Tyrol. They don’t come cheap to rent, costing 50 euros a day compared with 16.50 euros for Fiegl’s cheapest rental model.
Although Zai’s lowest-priced model costs about four times more than the average ski, “it’s not just rich people that buy them, but mostly people who are strong skiers, such as former ski racers and even farmers,” Germanier said. Franco Cavegn, a former member of the Swiss Olympic ski team, uses the brand.
Zai, which means “tough” in the local Romansch language, was founded in 2003 by Simon Jacomet, a ski-instructor whom Germanier befriended in the 1990s. Germanier said he jumped at the opportunity to leave banking and start a new life with his family in his native Switzerland when Jacomet asked him to improve the business.
Germanier, who said he still follows the financial markets, has no regrets leaving his banker lifestyle behind.
“It’s a different world,” he said. “But it’s very exciting, because we are different from the others and it’s always nice when you start having success.”