MILAN — In a basement in Milan, the St. Gelais family has started a business they hope will one day grow to fill one of the many vacant manufacturing buildings that dot the North Country.
In the meantime, they are continuing to develop the American-made skis that are beginning to find a market among skiers willing to pay $1,000 or more for custom models the company says are of a higher quality than what they’d find off the rack.
Saint Skis, as the family business was officially named in 2010, began selling skis in 2012 and aims to make 50 to 100 pairs this year. Kevin St. Gelais does most of the actual making of the skis, and his wife, Gerri, does the bookkeeping. Son KJ (for Kevin Jr.) is the graphic designer; while daughter Sarah, a junior at Berlin High School, and KJ’s fiancé, Jess Hallee, work on marketing. But everyone pitches in wherever they may be needed.
Kevin works full-time in winter on the ski patrol at Wildcat and is a very good skier, but that was not always the case. He had never skied until he met Gerri, already an avid skier, who taught him.
Even then, for many years, they were just visitors to the North Country. Kevin worked as a computer programmer and information technology manager for 20 years in Southern New Hampshire. When Gerri, a teacher, got a job at the Milan Village School, they were able to move up to the North Country in 2005.
Moving here was a big change in lifestyle, and finances. Like many in the North Country, Kevin cobbled together a couple of jobs to make ends meet. His love and skills at skiing landed him his winter job at Wildcat, and summers he works as a ranger at the summit of Mount Washington.
In addition to that, he was recently named Milan Fire Chief. He had served as a volunteer in southern New Hampshire.
The idea of Saint Skis began one day when he was riding with his daughter on Route 110 in Berlin and saw all the closed factory buildings along that road.
“What we’re missing in this country is manufacturing. We don’t make anything any more,” he said he recalls telling his daughter.
Then he looked up and saw the mountains, and the idea came. “I latched on to it, and never stopped,” he said.
St. Gelais knew what he wanted in a ski, but didn’t know how to make one. He researched online and took old skis apart to see how they were put together and what he could improve. He also handcrafted the equipment he would need to build the skis.
The search for supplies took a long time as well. He said he has three tiers when it comes to supplies: local first, then state, then country.
The wood for his skis comes from White Mountain Lumber in Berlin. He uses maple, a hardwood, and poplar, a softer wood. He cuts the two woods in strips, alternates them and puts them together with epoxy, making a stronger core, which St. Gelais said is the most important part of the ski.
This part of the process takes a long time as it is all hand done, piece by piece. The epoxy is purchased from a supplier in New Hampshire and made in New Jersey.
His job is tough on skis, and his fellow ski patrollers at Wildcat helped try out his first models. Most of the ski patrollers there now ski on his skis. Wildcat, which rents skis but doesn’t sell them, has also helped him out by allowing him to display his skis and directing potential buyers to him.
Each ski or snowboard Saint Skis makes is unique. The family can custom make any part of the ski, including length, width, shape, and the graphics. It is even possible for customers to draw their own graphics for their skis. They use a firm in California to print the graphics into the top sheet.
To introduce the family’s product, Saint Skis sold most of its skis in its debut year to at a discount to people St. Gelais knew so they could try them out and give him feedback. With retail sales orders now coming in, the company is folding whatever money they make back into the business, he said, and expects to become profitable soon.
The $1,000 price tag is a little more expensive than some commercial skis, mostly made in China, that retail for $800 or so, St. Gelais said. But he has seen what goes into those skis and says the quality of Saint Skis far surpasses them.
The average skier, St. Gelais said, makes 100 runs a year. The avid skier, 700 runs a year. The die-hard skier — which he said describes his family — ski even more, but they are a small percentage.
“We ski 120 days a year and beat the living heck out of our skis to see if we can break them,” he said.
So far, they have not had a pair of skis break, St. Gelais said.
For more information, see www.saintskis.com.