Where are they now? John Lovett

He created the first mass-produced fiberglass cross country ski, and the biggest ski factory in Colorado.

By Seth Masia

Today, John Lovett leads a company that makes scientific instruments used to monitor the earth’s atmosphere. But his career began in high school, when he designed a pair of cross-country skis.

Lovett was a student at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, a private boarding school where kids prep for college while engaged in the great outdoors. Roger Paris, the school’s French teacher, was also a six-time world champion kayaker, and his real vocation was to teach whitewater sports. He taught his students to build their own boats, with fiberglass.

In 1966, at 15, Lovett used the school’s kayak workshop to build a pair of cross-country skis, laminating a maple core with fiberglass. He now thinks this may have been the first pair of glass XC skis in the world. He made 15 more pairs and sold them to his classmates at $10 a pair. He experimented with the core thickness to get the flex just right, working to duplicate the spring and kick of a good wooden Norwegian ski.

“I was skiing in the backcountry a lot, and our 55-millimeter wooden cross-country skis would often break,” he says. “I just wanted something that wouldn’t break.” The design he settled on was 55 millimeters at the waist, with little or no sidecut, and a maple or birch veneer laminated to the base to take pine tar and wax.

Lovett graduated from CRMS in 1969 and moved to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado. But what he really wanted was a job making skis at the Lange/Dynamic factory in Broomfield. He talked to Wells Lange and Ian Ferguson, and wound up with a job in the ski-repair department working with Ken Harrell. 

When Harrell moved to A&T to work with Dynastar, Lovett went along. He continued to build glass cross-country skis in his spare time. Lange engineer Lew Greenberg joined the Lovett Ski Co. as a partner in 1971, but they couldn’t agree on production issues.

A&T wanted to distribute the ski. They loaned Lovett $54,000 to start and operate the business. He borrowed more money from his grandmother, and bought Greenberg out. Then he built a factory on Central Avenue on the east side of Boulder. By 1976, Lovett was selling 70,000 pairs a year of foam-core Lovett cross-country skis, private-label skis, and alpine skis—more than Head made at its factory in North Boulder. Lovett was 25 years old.

Lovett had invented a cheaper way to make a torsion-box ski. Instead of using an expensive milled cavity mold, as Dynamic, Lange, Head and K2 did, he figured out that anodized aluminum angle, riveted to an aluminum sheet, would hold the materials accurately in the InterMontana presses. For a machinist, he hired a smart Kansas farmboy named Lyle Felbush who could build anything. Lovett could whip out a new mold set in a few days, for about $200.

By 1973, Lovett was selling the first steel-edged XC ski with a polyethylene base—in effect, the first of the “norpine” skis on which the modern telemark movement would emerge. The cross-country market was new and growing, but sales didn’t match the production capacity. So he used the base-and-edge capability to build an alpine ski for kids, which A&T sold as the Hummer. He took orders for private-label skis from Gart Bros., then for other retailers. With his inexpensive tooling, he could charge a modest fee for design and engineering and then crank out a few thousand pairs of skis under a customer’s brand.

In 1974, Bob Burns lost his job as a sales rep at K2. In the fall, he drove down from Sun Valley in his Jaguar and asked Lovett to build him an alpine ski to sell. Lovett worked around the clock with his assistant, Laura Clevett. They took an old 207-centimeter Dynamic and made the sidecut deeper, then made a mold from tooling resin. They designed the construction  around a Dynastar-style omega foam core, making it torsionally stiff with a soft flex pattern for bump skiing. “We made two pair and they looked like hell,” Lovett recalls. “We molded the first pair in a cross-country press, so it had double camber—a lousy line for an alpine ski. But Burns went to Vail to show them off and they worked just great.”

A ski company was born, as a partnership between Lovett and Burns and half a dozen investors in Sun Valley, Vail and Aspen. Lovett designed and built the skis and Burns sold them. Burns told his friends he was making the skis in his garage in Sun Valley, and Lovett kept air-freighting two or three pairs at a time to Friedman Field from Stapleton Airport.

The new skis still had no paint, nor even a name. In Sun Valley, people called it “Burnsy’s ski.” Burns claimed the ski used a woven sagebrush core. Eventually, after a disagreement  over the graphics, they settled on big squares of primary colors and called it The Ski.

Lovett brought in his brother Kevin to set up a manufacturing facility in Ogden, Utah after the first winter. Mike Brunetto joined up to help manage the factory. Burns was a genius marketer and sales boomed. Burns insisted that the skis were made in Sun Valley, and kept the real source of the design secret.

The relationship didn’t last. In 1977 Lovett sold his half of the company to Burns, and Brunetto took over The Ski factory in Ogden.

In 1977, Lovett and Ken Harrell made about 100 pairs of Lovett alpine skis, but that energy was blunted when A&T couldn’t keep pace financially with the growth of production. The factory needed more capacity, and the distributor couldn’t swing it. In 1978, Lovett approached Al McDonough of Eastern Mountain Sports, the biggest U.S. retailer of cross-country skis. Within two weeks, EMS agreed to buy the factory.

Lovett walked away from the ski industry. He worked with Robert Redford for a couple of years. He took over the Frank Shorter line of running gear and staged a turnaround. During the 1980s, he did product development consulting for a number of companies. In 1987, he took over management of Allied Marine in Miami, Florida, and turned it into the world’s largest dealership of Hatteras yachts. In 1992, he put together a partnership to pioneer computerized high-frequency stock trading. After 1997, he settled in Edwards, Colorado for a few years, working on some “new urbanism” real estate developments.

In 2007, Lovett returned to Boulder as CEO of a company he’d invested in. Droplet Measurement Technologies makes high-precision instruments for atmospheric studies. The instruments are used by NASA, NOAA and other leading research organizations worldwide, for pollution studies, climate and rainfall research, weather modification studies, and aircraft icing certification.

And he skis a lot. “Those early years in the ski industry were the best time,” Lovett says now.  “Maybe everyone feels this way about the beginning of a career, but that era brought the most interesting challenges and the chance to work with the most stimulating people.  It was a golden time.”

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