Mervin Manufacturing is an exception in the ski and snowboard manufacturing business. Consider its rivals Burton and K2. Despite legacies in New England and the Northwest, neither player makes its stuff in the U.S. anymore. But Mervin, a once-tiny upstart like so many snowboard brands, hasn’t left the States. It’s still making boards on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula outside the tiny town of Sequim, and it’s not just clinging to domestic construction, it’s thriving.
It almost didn’t happen this way, though.
When Quicksilver bought the brand (along with sub-lines Gnu and Lib-tech) in the late 1990s, founder Mike Olson acquiesced and helped ship manufacturing to Utah, to follow the system already in place where Quik had other production facilities. But there was a constant battle between Mervin and higher-ups over what Olson saw as doing it right versus just doing it.
Relations got especially ugly when ski and snowboard sales flattened and Quiksilver started to shift manufacturing overseas. But Mervin wasn’t losing money; it never has. And so Olson argued that not only did Mervin not need to build its boards in China, but that it should have the chance to do it the traditional way in the old stomping grounds in the Northwest. Being profitable is a remarkably persuasive argument, and 10 years later, with proudly American-made goods, Mervin has grown considerably.
And grown in ways that are startling for how much hands-on work is required. Mervin runs as many as three shifts and often two weekend shifts as well. Where rampant robotics are common to a lot of outdoor brands, you see less of that than you’d expect across the warehouse spaces that comprise Mervin’s campus.
Yes, in one room, hugely high-tech machines cut top sheets the same way clothing makers cut patterns, to minimize scrap. But in another part of the office park, guys are grinding bases on huge belt sanders by hand. Handwork is also heavily involved in setting those topsheets using air-bladder presses. What it feels like is a giant machine shop — garage manufacturing enlarged beyond all reason. But there are reasons.
One is that handwork allows Mervin to change direction on the fly, to upgrade designs easily, both in and out of season; using robots requires pre-determined molds, shapes, thicknesses, etc., that can lock a company into place.
Another reason for growth is harder to fathom at first, but Norm Nelson, Mervin’s head of manufacturing, says that building by hand also forced the company to think about its ecological impact way back in the 1990s, because exposing workers to toxins costs a lot of money in health care and diminished morale. And there are other costs associated with “dirty manufacturing”: dealing with toxic waste.
A tour of Mervin bears out its environmental efforts.
In the resining department you smell…nothing. Exceedingly low VOC natural resins are used to fuse the top sheet and core. Nobody wears a mask because there’s no toxic exposure. The topsheet material is made from recycled castor beans, and the scrap from that is recycled back into making more topsheets. Mervin, unlike the mass-ski/board business, uses vegetable dyes for its topsheet designs and this, along with wood cores and metal edges, makes the entire board recyclable. Even if competitors’ boards are built with nothing more than wood, metal, and fiberglass, they often have silkscreened topsheets that use heavy metals in the inks and thus can’t be recycled.
Roll around back and you see a converted pickup getting filled with sawdust filings that will be recycled into compost. There’s a biodiesel pump on the campus and biodiesel is used to heat the factory. And when Mervin started its environmental push, it gave its recyclables to the town of Sequim, only to discover that the town dumped everything, including recyclables, into a landfill. So Mervin pioneered its own recycling program and now locals actually bring their printer ink cartridges and bottles and cans to Mervin to make sure it doesn’t enter the waste stream.
One inescapable reality of domestic manufacturing is that American labor is more expensive, and so a Mervin board might cost $20 to $50 more than the competition. That might be a deal breaker for a snowboarder on a tight budget, but given the brand’s continuing success, it’s pretty clear enough people are willing to support Mervin’s unique brand of U.S.-made innovation and environmentalism.
Photos by Michael Frank