By: Jackson Hogen
Published: September 18, 2018
If the title of this 2-part article sounds about as exciting as a paint chip, it’s because that’s what it stands for, a Pantone color code. This is the tale of how such an unassuming moniker became a rallying cry that inspired a remarkably swift brand resurrection.
Let’s peel back the veil of time to July, 2013. In his role as product manager for Tecnica, Bart Tuttle has been talking for a couple of seasons with a tight circle of North American bootfitters about helping guide the brand forward. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to seek influential clients’ input, so Tuttle’s overtures, while certainly sincere, could just as easily be mistaken for pie-in-the-sky reveries of an unobtainable utopia.
But Tuttle wasn’t just dreaming, he was advocating on both sides of the pond for a unique approach to product development. I should mention that U.S. product managers for European manufacturers have an ultra-challenging job. They are held responsible for just about everything about the product and all it touches, yet are powerless to effect change without upper management support.
Project 165 wouldn’t have happened were it not for a significant tumble in Tecnica’s fortunes since the era of its super-successful TNT and Icon collections. As current Product Marketing Director and original P-165 participant Jed Duke readily admits, “We were stale and dusty. We weren’t focused on fundamentals, but gizmos and bolt-on features. It was time to reset and refocus on the foundation of fit and function. The objective of the first meeting on Cape Cod was to listen to the best minds who work with feet all day and let them tell it to us straight.”
The reason this saga has a Disney ending is because Tuttle’s nascent initiative dovetailed with the arrival of Stefano Trentin as Blizzard/Tecnica brand manager. Trentin had been instrumental in a recent brand revival at Lange that was themed around a return to traditional brand values. Trentin arrived at the Tecnica HQ in Giavera Del Monetello prepared to apply the same back-to-basics philosophy to its boot division. P-165, the vivid orange Pantone color of Tecnica’s best-selling boots of the early to mid-90’s, was adopted as the symbol of the restoration of Tecnica’s core competence in both fit and performance. Project 165 was created to lead Tecnica back to its golden age.
Project 165 at its inaugural session. (Left to right, back row: Cam Powell, Jed Duke, Bart Tuttle, Louis Blanchard, Greg Hoffmann. Front: Nick Blaylock, Larry Houchen, Corty Lawrence and Neil Lemoyre.)
Tuttle recruited five of the most talented bootfitters in North America: Corty Lawrence, from Footloose, where he learned is craft from the legendary Sven Coomer; Greg Hoffmann, Board Certified Pedorthist since 1993 and the resident savant at Ski Boot Fitting Inc., based in Vail; Nick Blaylock, a Hoffman protégé and fitting and stance guru in his own right, with his toes in the snow at Mt. Snow; Cam Powell, reputed to have personally custom fit every skier in Toronto out of Sporting Life; and Larry Houchen from Larry’s Boot Fitting in Boulder, who was with P-165 for its first three years. Sam Tischendorf, an Aussie with a degree in sports biomechanics, a practicing podiatrist and a bootfitter at Boot Doctors, has since filled Larry’s shoes on the panel. (Canadian bootfitter Neil Lemoyre stepped away after two meetings.)
Representing Tecnica were Tuttle, Duke, Tecnica US president Sam Cook, Canadian product manager Louis Blanchard and Stefano Mantegazza, Blizzard/Tecnica Product Validation Manager in Giavera Del Monetello. Not in the room but instrumental in putting their support behind the experiment were Tecnica Group chief Peter Weaver and the Zanatta family ownership.
As is often the case when outside opinion is sought by an R&D department, the initial agenda item at the first P-165 session was the hot-button problem that had driven Tecnica to convene this group in the first place: what to do with Cochise, it’s first year effort at a hybrid in-resort/backcountry boot?
Tecnica’s opening salvo in this burgeoning genre had, to put it mildly, missed the mark. The shell shape was cavernous, its material (polypropylene) suspect, its functionality, particularly for the strong skiers Tecnica was hoping to attract, marginal. The Tecnica team, led by Tuttle and Montegazza, presented the situation as they saw it and invited the gathered bootfitters’ comments.
It was at this junction in the narrative that a series of remarkable events occurred that make the P-165 story worth telling. The bootfitter panel changed the subject. Addressing the Cochise’s various blemishes was a worthwhile endeavor, they agreed, but the assembled talent had a better idea: let’s try to fix Tecnica’s core Alpine models where the group’s input would have far greater impact on the brand’s fortunes.
Scenes from a 3-day mind meld.
I imagine the first reaction in some such meetings would be a chilly silence followed by a flurry of reasons why such things, even if theoretically possible, weren’t about to happen. Then came the second remarkable event: the Tecnica people listened. Instead of putting down their pens, they picked them up. The timing wasn’t great – there was no way to re-tool to build the requested anatomic lower shell in time for the next collection – but they got to work on integrating as many features as possible as soon as possible. As a stopgap, a precursor to what would soon be the Mach 1 MV served as a placeholder and promotional vehicle to explain what was coming.
Once it became apparent that the panel’s input might very well be implemented, the suggestion spigot burst open. Customizable inner boots, buckle re-design, dimpled zones in the high quality PU shell material for faster yet more stable modifications, screw rivets on everything and cantable soles, to name a few.
Perspicacious readers will note that in the previous sentence I used the term “inner boot” in lieu of the more popular “liner,” because there’s a difference. Inner boots are anatomic and contribute structure; liners simply pad the foot to protect it from a carnivorous shell. Now back to our saga.
According to Blaylock, the first Mach 1 would embody 95% of the original wish list, an 18-month turnaround from notepad to prototype to fully realized product. The road forward was found by returning to forgotten fundamentals regarding fit and function and illuminated by BS-free appraisals from lifelong professionals.
If you’re one of the many ski industry insiders who read this column, you know what an impact the Mach design had on Tecnica sales. It was a game changer.
Which brings us to the third remarkable event, or rather, events, in this chain of improbabilities: Project 165 continues to meet. What began as an experiment has become integrated in the R&D process. P-165’s influence is evident in the evolution of the Mach 1 from a single model into a fully realized family of narrow, medium and wide lasts and the transformation of the Cochise from a hodgepodge product into a well conceived and executed hybrid.
Having toiled in middle management for much of my career, I can assure my readers who aren’t in the trade that no achievement of this scope and impact is achievable without the explicit support of ownership and management. It’s one thing to invite feedback; it’s another thing entirely to embrace it as if the ideas were your own. That’s rare, and attention should be paid.
Next week we’ll take a deeper dive into The Lessons of Project 165.