No business like snow business: Manufacturer supplies uplifting experience to ski resort customers

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 


Rick McLean works on the components of a bull wheel as part of the process in which Leitner-Poma of America manufactures chair lifts for the ski industry. The Grand Junction factory produced 10 chair lifts that will be installed at ski resorts for the upcoming season, including two lifts that will be installed at Buttermilk and Loveland in Colorado. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

As sales manager at Leitner-Poma of America, Tom Clink is in a position to observe every phase of a chair lift project. Initial designs appear on computer screens and large sheets of paper. Massive chunks of metal cut and machined to exacting specifications fit together like pieces in a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. Motors, gears and electronic components complete the assembly.

Clink also enjoys yet another perspective — that of a skier riding the lift after it’s been installed at a resort. “That’s pretty satisfying. You see how all that comes together.”

Clink rides a lot of chair lifts manufactured by Leitner-Poma. By his count, more than 430 chair lift and gondola systems have come out of the company’s Grand Junction factory over the past 30 years. While most projects were installed in ski resorts in North America, equipment also has gone to such far-flung locales as Australia, Columbia and Taiwan.

Leitner-Poma recently expanded its product line to include components of wind turbines and light trains pulled by cables as well as such specialized projects as a 550-foot tall observation wheel planned for Las Vegas.

But the ski industry still accounts for the bulk of sales for Leitner-Poma, Clink says. And those sales have rebounded after several slow years. “It’s pretty encouraging, overall.”

Tom Clink

Leitner-Poma will install 10 projects for the upcoming ski season, Clink says, two of them in Colorado. The work will include the new Tiehack Express lift on Buttermilk Mountain in Aspen, a detachable high-speed quad lift that will replace two lifts and slash the combined ride time from 18 minutes to less than seven minutes. Loveland Ski Area near Georgetown will replace Chair 4 with a new fixed-grip triple chair lift.

Other projects will be installed in Wisconsin and Oregon as well as Canada.

Leitner-Poma typically handles 12 to 16 projects a year, Clink says, as ski resorts upgrade equipment, replace outdated lifts or install new lifts as part of expanded operations.

At Leitner-Poma, the operation runs far more efficiently since the company moved into a new and larger facility about three years ago, Clink says.

The new facility features buildings with a total of 90,000 square feet of space located on 18 acres, the largest parcel in the Bookcliff Technology Park just west of the Grand Junction Regional Airport.

The facility brings together in one location the operations of Leitner-Poma as well as Prinoth, a snow grooming equipment manufacturer Leitner-Poma purchased.

Leitner-Poma received a land donation and a total of $900,000 in grants as incentives to build the $15 million factory and remain in Grand Junction.

The two-story factory is not only twice as large as the former facility in Foresight Park into which Leitner-Poma was squeezed, but also was designed to improve the flow of the manufacturing processes there, Clink says.

Leitner-Poma employs a year-round staff of 85, although payrolls swell to 130 during the busy spring and summer seasons, Clink says. Additional employees work in the field installing and maintaining equipment.

The company also subcontracts work, much of that with businesses in Grand Junction, Delta and Montrose, he says.

While projects usually take from one to five years from conception to installation, Leitner-Poma has completed projects in as little as six months, Clink says. “That’s tight.”

In addition to chair lifts and gondola systems, the Grand Junction factory designs and manufactures components for wind turbines, cable-propelled transportation systems and a number of speciality projects.

The company has been involved with wind turbine projects at the Grouse Mountain ski resort in British Columbia in Canada as well in Bayonne, N.J.

At more than 300 feet tall, the turbines are too large to manufacture at the Grand Junction facility. But the company handles some design and electrical work, Clink says.

Leitner-Poma also is involved in the manufacturing of the automated people moving systems used for airports and urban transportation, he says.

And there other, specialized projects, including an observation wheel planned for Las Vegas. At 550-feet tall, the wheel would top the popular London Eye by more than 100 feet. Clink says Leitner-Poma and its sister company, Sigma, would be involved in manufacturing 28 transparent sphere cabins that would rotate around the wheel. At nearly 20-feet in diameter, each cabin would hold up to 40 passengers.

Even as such projects diversify the product line manufactured at Leitner-Poma, the ski industry remains the core business for the company.

Clink has worked in that industry for four decades, about half of that as lift manager at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and half as sales manager at Leitner-Poma.

The ski industry in Colorado has grown “tremendously” over that span, he says, both in terms of the number and size of resorts as well as the number of skiers and snowboarders who go there.

Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association of 22 ski areas in Colorado, reported a total of 6.9 million skier visits this season at its member resorts during the 2010-2011 season, up 2.6 percent. Vail Resorts, which doesn’t belong to the association, reported a 3.9 percent increase in skier visits.

At the same time, snowmaking and grooming equipment as well as bigger and faster chair lifts have make the experience better, Clink says. “It’s made it easier and more comfortable for people to go skiing, and that’s really what’s helped.”