Skis Rossignol S.A. History

Address:
38500 Voiron
France

Telephone: (76) 66-65-65
Fax: (76) 65-67-51

Public Company
Incorporated: 1972
Employees: 2,330
Sales: $340 million
Stock Exchanges: Paris
SICs: 3949 Sporting and Athletic Goods, Not Elsewhere Classified

Company History:

Skis Rossignol S.A. is one of the world's premier manufacturers of ski equipment. Headquartered in Voiron, a small town in southeastern France, the company was among the first to make skis in France and was an early leader in ski technology and design. Its skis, for example, were used in the 1936 Winter Olympics, the very first to include alpine ski events, and have in later years been worn by numerous Olympic and World Cup champions. In the 1990s some one-third of all downhill skis sold throughout the world were manufactured by Rossignol. The company's major markets are in Europe, Japan, and the United States. Since the 1970s the company has diversified into new areas of ski equipment, first cross-country skis and later ski boots, poles, snowboards, bindings, and accessories. Rossignol also manufactures tennis rackets and golf clubs. While most of its products are sold under the Rossignol brand name, the company has also expanded through the purchase of existing brands, such as Lange (boots) and Dynastar (skis).

For thousands of years skiing was a practical activity, forming an important means of transportation in snowbound regions. Skiing was particularly popular in Scandinavia, and hunters and soldiers wore skis during the winter months. But it was not until the 19th century that skiing began to develop into a sport. Early events focused on cross-country skiing. Downhill events were begun after skiers had developed new techniques, most notably the telemark turn, and competitors would race down the mountain at speeds as fast as 80 miles an hour. Compared with modern equipment, skis of this era were heavy and long; made of solid wood, they measured between eight and 14 feet.

In France an interest in sport skiing took hold in the vicinity of Grenoble, a town in the French Alps not far from the Italian border. Skiers initially wore equipment manufactured in Scandinavia, though these skis were not designed for the conditions of the French Alps, which tended to be steeper and more icy. The military ski school in Briançon, southeast of Grenoble, produced the first French-made downhill skis, introduced in 1906. By the next year the popularity of sport skiing had boomed in France. Numerous ski events were held in the Alps, and French artisans joined in the production of skis to meet the new demand. These new skis were generally made of ash, pine, or larch, woods that were chosen for their flexibility and resilience.

Early in the 19th century, Abel Rossignol, a skiing enthusiast and craftsman, was the head of a wood turnery in Voiron, a town just northeast of Grenoble. The turnery, founded in 1901, was producing wooden articles for the textile industry. In 1907 Abel decided to introduce his own pair of downhill skis, which were made of solid wood protected with a light-colored varnish. No ordinary skis, they were awarded first prize at a contest sponsored by the Touring Club of France, and in 1911, bolstered by his success, Rossignol established a new "skis and sleds" division of his company. Rossignol would continue to make solid-wood skis for the next three decades, and production would reach several hundred per year.

In the 1930s France emerged as a skiing power, led by Emile Allais. At the 1936 Winter Olympics held at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, Allais won the bronze medal in the alpine combined, and the following year, at the world championships, he won the gold medal in all three alpine events, earning the title "champion of the world." All his medals were won on Rossignol skis. During this time Allais was also codifying his own method of ski instruction, published in the book Ski Fran&ccedils.

In 1936 Rossignol hired Allais as its technical adviser and official tester, a position Allais used to help the company design some of the world's most advanced skis. The primary weakness of the company's skis was their solid-wood construction. Unless the wood had a uniform grain, for example, the ski would tend to warp during production, and even good solid wood skis would begin to lose their shape with age. Some of Rossignol's competitors had already found a solution--a laminated, or layered, construction similar to plywood, with wood grains running in different directions--which made a lighter, more durable wooden ski. By using different types of wood and various patterns of lamination, manufacturers could also choose the ski's specific flexibility and resilience. Although Rossignol was not the originator of this idea, the company's first laminated ski, the Olympic 41, was an advance in design. Developed in 1941, the ski found great success after World War II, carrying such racers as Henri Oreiller (1948) and Ottmar Schneider (1952) to Olympic victories. The ski's success was also seen at Rossignol's Voiron factory, where production would jump to several thousand by 1951.

Laminated skis also had problems with maintenance and durability. Like all wooden skis, they absorbed water and were easily damaged, and to slide smoothly across the snow, they needed to be regularly waxed. Some manufacturers began to experiment with other materials, especially metal. Metal skis would prove to be more durable, more resilient, and faster than wooden skis. The first successful metal ski was made by American aviation engineer Howard Head. Using the "sandwich"-type design found on aircraft, Head placed two strips of aluminum (the top and bottom of the ski) around a plywood core, added a plastic bottom, and then attached an exceptionally hard metal edge to improve control. Introduced in the early 1950s, Head skis were an immediate hit, especially among recreational skiers.

Allais, who tested an early pair of Head skis in the United States, was impressed with their handling in soft snow and powder, but he found them "totally unsuited" for the hard-packed snow of competitive skiing. Even so, he brought several pairs of Head skis back to France and began with Rossignol to come up with his own design. One of Rossignol's first metal skis, the Allais 60, would quickly get the world's attention. At the 1960 Winter Olympics, held at Squaw Valley, California, Frenchman Jean Vuarnet won the men's downhill event using the Allais 60, making it the first metal ski to win an Olympic gold medal. According to Emile Allais, the ski's "characteristics, notably its ability to grip [the snow], were much superior to the wooden skis still used during this time." Despite their success, the Allais 60 and other metal skis would prove to be merely a transition from wooden skis to those made from fiberglass and other synthetic materials, which were both lighter and more resilient than metal.

While Rossignol was embarking on a program of new technology, the company itself was undergoing significant change. In the mid-1950s Rossignol was still organized into two main activities--ski manufacture and the production of wooden articles for the textile industry. The textile industry, however, was in decline, a trend that was putting a severe financial strain on Rossignol. Thus, in order to save itself, Allais approached his friend Laurent Boix-Vives, a 29-year-old French businessman, who was the owner of Société des Téléskis de Moriond, a small ski-lift company in Courchevel, a town northeast of Grenoble. Boix-Vives agreed to purchase Rossignol for a mere $50,000. One of his first decisions, in 1956, was to drop the company's textile operations (Rossignol's original line of business) and to have it focus solely on ski production. Under Boix-Vives's guidance, first as gérant (managing director, 1956-1960) and then as président-directeur général (from 1960), the company would be transformed from a small factory producing several thousand skis per year to a multinational corporation with subsidiaries in several countries. By 1972, when the company was incorporated as Skis Rossignol S.A., Rossignol had become the world's best-selling brand of ski, a position it would continue to hold into the 1990s, when the company's production reached some two million pairs of skis per year.

This phenomenal growth would be aided by several external factors, including the increased popularity of skiing in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the United States, an important export market. In 1973 Rossignol established a subsidiary in the United States, Rossignol Ski Company, Inc., in Williston, Vermont, and manufactured skis in that state from 1973 to 1984. More skiers meant greater sales for all companies, but Rossignol also gained market share through its investment in research and development, which allowed it to manufacture some of the world's most advanced ski equipment.

Rossignol's first truly successful fiberglass ski was the Strato, introduced in the mid-1960s, which was actually made of a complex layering of various materials, including a plastic called acrylonitrile butadien styrene, or simply ABS, which formed the top layer and the side walls of the ski. The Strato, like previous Rossignol skis, proved popular among world-class racers. At the 1968 Winter Olympics, held in Grenoble (near the Voiron factory), the Strato was worn by five medalists, including Canadian Nancy Greene, winner of the giant slalom. By this time the company was also producing skis under the name Dynastar, a brand bought by Rossignol in 1967.

In the early 1970s Rossignol introduced its first skis made without any wood at all. These featured a light density, polyurethane core, which not only was cheaper than wood but also made the ski more comfortable. Rossignol's racing skis, including the ROC and the ST, were filled with this polyurethane plastic and, as expected, performed exceptionally well in international competition. For example, at the 1976 Olympic games at Innsbruck, Austria, Rossignol's plastic-core skis were worn by six medalists, twice as many as the nearest competing brand.

Over the next two decades Rossignol spent millions of dollars refining the design of its plastic-based skis. Performance and comfort were enhanced, for example, by Rossignol's patented Vibration Absorbing System (VAS), introduced in 1981. Made with an inner layer of steel wire and other materials, VAS was designed to reduce only harmful vibration, while preserving vibration that actually improved ski performance and speed. Complementing this system beginning in 1984 was an "external" VAS--a light-alloy stress plate attached with "visco-elastic" material to the top of Rossignol skis. Another notable improvement was the "Rossitop," introduced in 1992, which was an eight-millimeter-thick layer of transparent plastic that protected the ski's cosmetics.

Also important to the company's success was its decision to produce other types of ski equipment. Its first major diversification was in 1971, when the company introduced a Rossignol brand of cross-country skis. Manufactured in Sweden, these skis were still made entirely of wood, as were many cross-country skis at the time, but in 1974 the Voiron factory began making a fiberglass model. Cross-country skiing grew increasingly popular during the 1970s, and thus, in 1976, Rossignol established a separate cross-country division to oversee the product. This commitment to the sport was seen ten years later, in 1987, when it introduced its "System Concept" line of cross-country skis, boots, and bindings, which were specifically designed to work together. That year Rossignol also developed an air-injection method that produced exceptionally lightweight, durable cross-country skis.

Though Rossignol was the world's largest manufacturer of downhill skis, the company did not have its own line of downhill ski boots until 1989, when it purchased Lange, a brand of ski boots since 1965. Rossignol would gain much from Lange's existing research and development program. In the 1980s Lange had been working on a compromise between the two most popular types of ski boots. The first--pioneered by Lange's founder, Bob Lange of Dubuque, Iowa--was an all-plastic boot fitted with a series of buckles across the front. Exceptionally stiff, this boot efficiently translated body movement to the ski and was especially popular among competitive racers. The second, introduced in the early 1970s, was an all-plastic rear-entry model, in which the back of the boot hinged off to provide easy access for the foot. The rear-entry boot was more convenient and comfortable than front-buckle models, though its performance was generally regarded as inferior. The eventual compromise, introduced in 1989 under both the Lange and Rossignol brand names, was the MID line of ski boots. Although these were, in fact, front-buckle boots, a unique hinge system allowed the top to open wider, thus making them easier to put on. The traditional front-buckle design, however, continued to be used for many Rossignol and Lange boots, especially for high-performance models.

By the early 1990s Rossignol was also making a variety of other ski equipment, including ski poles, monoskis, snowboards, and accessories, such as bags, gloves, socks, shirts, sweaters, and hats. By this time the company had also diversified outside the ski industry. In 1977 it had introduced a line of Rossignol tennis rackets, and in 1990 Rossignol Ski Company purchased Roger Cleveland Golf Company of Paramount, California.

As early as 1991 Rossignol was testing prototypes of a new downhill ski binding, which was the only major piece of ski equipment it did not yet manufacture. It soon became clear, however, that development and marketing of an entirely new binding would be more expensive than simply buying an existing brand. Thus, in 1994 Rossignol purchased two well-known brands of ski bindings, Look and Geze, and plans were begun to sell bindings under the Rossignol brand name as well.

In the mid-1990s Skis Rossignol S.A. was the world's dominant manufacturer of ski equipment. The company each year sold some two million pairs of Rossignol and Dynastar skis, or about 30 percent of the world's ski category, putting them far ahead of their numerous competitors, such as Head, K2, Elan, Atomic, Salomon, and Pre. The company also had yearly sales of some 800,000 boots (Rossignol and Lange), 80,000 cross-country skis (Rossignol), and 900,000 ski poles (Rossignol, Dynastar, and Kerma).

There were, however, a number of sales variables beyond the company's control. Perhaps most important were changes in worldwide snow conditions. From 1987 to 1989, for example, poor snowfall in Europe brought declining sales there for Rossignol and other ski brands. Revenues from Rossignol's products were also heavily affected by exchange rate fluctuations between the French franc and the currencies of its major markets, as more than 80 percent of all Rossignol's sales were outside of France.

Meanwhile, Skis Rossignol S.A. was also benefiting from a number of advantages. As the world's leading producer of skis, Rossignol has enjoyed almost universal name recognition among skiers. The Rossignol name, prominently marked on skis and other ski equipment, could be seen on almost any ski slope around the world. Many ski shops rented out the company's products, thus introducing a large number of potential customers to the Rossignol brands. Its reputation for quality was also maintained through the sponsorship of top skiers, many of whom have won Olympic and World Cup races on Rossignol equipment.

Principal Subsidiaries: Skis Dynastar S.A. (France); Lange International S.A. (Switzerland); Rossignol SC S.P.A. (Italy); Rossignol Ski AG (Switzerland); Rossignol Ski Deutschland GmbH (Germany); Skis Rossignol de Espana S.A. (Spain); Rossignol Ski Company, Inc. (U.S.); Roger Cleveland Golf Company (U.S.).

Further Reading:

  • Bays, Ted, Nine Thousand Years of Skis: Norwegian Wood to French Plastic, Ishpeming, Mich.: National Ski Hall of Fame, 1990.
  • Beilinson, Jerry, "Rossignol: Race Support Pays Off in Olympics," Skiing Trade News, April 1992, p. 6.
  • "Going Downhill: Rossignol's Image Takes a Spill," Time, February 23, 1987, p. 68.
  • Meader, Cliff, "In 95: Look to Dynastar, Geze to Rossi," Skiing Trade News, October 1994, p. 12.
  • ------, "Second Year Is First Year for Full Rossi Boot Line," Skiing Trade News, March 1990, p. 40.
  • "France's Ski Industry: No Business like Snow Business," The Economist, March 3, 1990, p. 65.
  • Pachod, Patrick, "Laurent Boix-Vives Discloses Rossignol's Future Path," Skiing Trade News, February 1991, p. 19.
    Regard sur 50 ans d'innovation dans le ski, Voiron, France: Skis Rossignol S.A., 1993.
  • "Skis Rossignol--Company Report," FT Analysis Report, Thomson Financial Networks Inc., 1993.
  • Tanler, Bill, "Ski Production Turns to the Fewer, the Bigger," Skiing Trade News, October 1993, p. 30.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.