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Leadership Lessons From A 94-Year-Old Entrepreneur

Despite a culture of consolidation, Klaus Obermeyer’s independent skiwear company has been going strong for nearly 70 years. Here, he shares the secrets to his longevity.

Leadership Lessons From A 94-Year-Old Entrepreneur
[Image: Flickr user Marcin Wichary]

He may be 94 years old, but Klaus Obermeyer, founder and CEO of Sport Obermeyer, still thinks like an entrepreneur and, on occasion, yodels like a Bavarian sheepherder. Both have helped his company thrive for more than six decades.

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The ski and snowboard industry is full of businesses that started out as niche brands, often family-owned enterprises, that were gobbled up by heavyweights such as The North Face. But there are a couple in the category that have managed to remain independent: Sport Obermeyer is one of them. And Klaus Obermeyer, the founder and CEO is, at 94, still very much at the helm of the company he founded in his Aspen, Colorado, apartment in 1947.

Obermeyer is credited with a long list of ski-industry-transforming firsts, but he’s most proud of having built a company where employees want to stay: “People come to work for a season or two and end up staying for 25 or 30 years,” says Obermeyer.

Over the years Obermeyer cultivated a few principles that govern his life in and out of the office. Here are five of them:

1. Aim for win-win scenarios.

When Obermeyer arrived in Aspen, after fleeing post-war Germany, he found work as a ski instructor. In those days, ski-wear consisted of wool suits that didn’t keep skiers very warm or dry. One day Obermeyer pulled a goose-down comforter off of his bed–the one his mother had insisted he bring with him when he emigrated to America– and he cut it up, and stitched it into a ski parka. “I looked like the Michelin Man in it,” he says, “but I was warm.” Later, when a client offered to buy the coat for $250, Obermeyer realized he was on to something: Skiers who were warm were more likely to stick around and pay for more lessons. “It was a win-win,” he says.

2. Never stop innovating.

Even as his company closes in on its 70th birthday, Klaus Obermeyer still thinks of himself as an entrepreneur. In addition to that first down parka, Obermeyer is credited with inventing:

  • mirrored sunglasses (made of vaporized metal to block UV rays)
  • dual-layer ski boots (boots with a soft liner inside a plastic shell)
  • high-altitude sunscreen
  • the nylon windshirt
  • double-lens goggles (to prevent lenses from fogging)
  • the first waterproof and breathable fabrics
  • the modern-day ski brake

More recently, Sport Obermeyer was one of the first companies in the ski-wear business to use recycled fabrics in its garments. “I’m an aeronautical engineer by training, and I am always thinking about how to make things function better, even if they’re ‘old’ products,” Obermeyer says. For Obermeyer, this “never made” philosophy is simple: “If you’re not trying to improve, you’re cheating your customers.”

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3. Never stray from your principles.

“I modeled my business after a German trade organization called the Hanse League,” says Obermeyer. The Hanse League, a confederation of merchant guilds existed from the 13th to the 17th centuries, and “Honesty and reliability were hallmarks of the organization,” he says.

For Obermeyer, this means standing behind his products. Forever. Sport Obermeyer believes in the integrity of its products to such an extent that the clothing has a lifetime warranty. “If the product can’t be repaired we replace it,” says Obermeyer.

5. Let those who don’t believe in your philosophy go.

While many leaders might reflect on their legacies with a laundry list of “coulda woulda shouldas,” Obermeyer has only one significant regret: not quickly firing employees when it became clear they didn’t believe in the company’s purpose.

“There were a few times when I was trying to be friendly, because I have built a business that is an extension of my family,” he says. His advice: “Employees whose philosophy doesn’t match yours need to depart sooner rather than later.”

6. Be a good role model for employees.

“Aspen attracts people who are here to live a certain lifestyle,” says Obermeyer. “They ski, hike, bike, play tennis, climb, and so on,” he explains. He also does as much of those things as his body will let him. The company’s headquarters have a solar-heated pool in which Obermeyer himself swims a half-mile every day. During the ski season, Obermeyer still skis every day, weather permitting, for at least an hour. “Any day you don’t ski is a day you don’t get back,” he says.

On days that it snows more than six inches in Aspen, don’t expect anyone in the office to answer the phones or respond to emails until after lunch. “It’s a rule that on those days everyone has to go skiing first thing in the morning,” says Obermeyer. And if you happen to be skiing in Aspen on one of those champagne powder mornings, you might just hear Obermeyer’s signature song echoing through the trees. It’s something else he brought with him from the Alps of his youth. “I yodel when there aren’t words to describe the beauty around me,” he says.

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Dana Sullivan Kilroy is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the[/i] New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Oprah, Real Simple and many other publications. She also leads the content strategy team of a software startup in Reno, Nevada.

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