„Driven by imagination“
World Cup ski racer Bode Miller
World Cup ski racer Bode Miller knows what it takes to become a world class champion and a market leader and how to maintain your success at the top, and so does Mathias Bihler. Even though sport and industry would appear to be contrasting disciplines, there are a number of parallels and similar challenges. Mathias Bihler met the ski icon at his home in California to talk about their passion for skiing, self-discipline, their desire to be the best in their fields and his new product line for Bomber Skis.
b on top: Mr. Miller, besides your passion for skiing, you are known as an all-around talent who is very self-disciplined and focused on self-improvement. Can you bring these traits into your new profession as an entrepreneur?
Bode Miller: Yes, I think you bring these into everything that you do - father, husband, athlete, or business owner. You make decisions based on personal experiences and that makes everything so interesting. I have always tried to do things my way – what works best for me, specifically my methods of training and my style of skiing. This requires total self-discipline, concentration and commitment. In the media, I have often been portrayed as a “know-it-all or cool boy”. They misinterpreted my focus and determination for arrogance and they could not have been further from the truth. I was just being myself. I was focused on being the best athlete that I could be, regardless of how that made me look. I am not passive about anything I do, everything is well thought-out and then I take action. I place a very high value on being prepared for all different scenarios, and for this you need a very good imagination. Of course unexpected circumstances can occur requiring one to react, some days absolutely everything goes wrong, causing serious injuries and setbacks. In general the need to react is often the result of improper planning. How well you react depends on your experience and proper training and these will influence your outcome. As an athlete, you rely on your self-discipline and motivation to pick yourself back up and try again. Since I was a young athlete, being prepared has been important to me and I think this can easily be applied to being an entrepreneur.
Mathias Bihler: That is very similar to myself and our business. To best support our customers, we must first have a clear understanding of what it takes to make them successful. First, we carefully review all project specifications and then take action. Even then, this does not always mean proceeding with our first ideas. Rather, we take a step-by-step approach analyzing various manufacturing solutions to determine the best path forward that meets all of our customers’ needs. After all, this is our goal, for only when the customer is successful, have we done our job correctly.
b on top: What factor does personal motivation play in competition?
Bode Miller: Everything. In my opinion, there are two types of athletes. The first is one who is self-motivated to do their very best every time and improve with each race. They are driven to learn and give 100 % time and time again. They may win or they may only achieve 5th place, but for them that may be a personal best. This type of motivation translates very well in business. You must be willing to judge and criticize yourself and believe me this is not easy to do, however, it allows you to be your best every day. Essentially you push yourself so there are no limits. The second type of athlete is one who simply tries to do their best and is motivated just to win. They focus on winning one particular race or beating one particular person. This type of motivation can be successful and is also found in business. I believe this type of motivation provides short-term success and lacks the foresight and endurance necessary to continually be an innovator and a market leader. My personal motivation has always been to do my best – give everything I could every single time and to learn from situations and build on my experiences. You not only want to achieve the possible but also the impossible. This gives you the mental strength to push harder. If you are only doing the bare minimum necessary to beat the next guy then you will never reach your true potential. But when you push even harder than you knew you could, then anything is possible.
Mathias Bihler: I agree. You have to push the envelope every single day, both physically and mentally. Your imagination is limitless, which opens up a world of new technical possibilities. We as a company must continually prove to our customers that we are globally competitive. It is my responsibility to motivate our team to continuously develop ideas that lead to new and innovative technologies. We are always looking outside of our core markets to explore new manufacturing methods and potentials. Currently, the focus is on e-mobility and green technologies. Our innovations must set us apart from our competition and give our customers a competitive edge. This is what drives me and that is what drives the company forward.
b on top: Mr. Miller, was that also a reason why you decided to join the Bomber Ski company and launch the Bode Miller product line?
Bode Miller: Exactly. In my opinion, R & D in the world of professional skiing concentrates only on keeping up with the competition. Unfortunately financial investments are limited and this restricts the development of new and innovative equipment. The marketing budget is focused on sponsoring the athletes in order to increase market share. There are technicians who are responsible for the quality of the skis and bindings, but not for making adjustments and improvements. The individual athlete and their technical support team must try to optimize their own equipment to gain a competitive edge. There have been developments over the years but they have been very minimal. Back in the 1990s, ski boots had changes made to the sidecuts but not much since. Over the last 40 years, even skis are still made from the same materials of fiberglass, rubber, and wood.
Mathias Bihler: But you know exactly what it takes to make skis perform. Your experience and knowledge can now influence the entire ski performance – starting with technical design advantages and material composition. I believe your developments will be successful and influence how young athletes perform in the future.
b on top: Now that you are an owner of Bomber Ski and free of any restrictions, how can you push the technical limits of ski design?
Bode Miller: Technical restrictions are not the biggest challenge, it is the financial funding and that is still a factor. Your business model must be as innovative as your products. For it is ultimately your financial strength that dictates the rules of any business. Bomber skis are high-end skis, engineered to perform aggressively in a wide range of conditions. Our new line of skis will enhance the overall ski experience and safety of the recreational skier. The technical challenge is to design the skis to handle a wide range of skiing abilities. The ski cannot be too stiff or soft and must still be stable enough to grip the snow. The technical advantage is that the skis will not react too aggressively, giving the skier better maneuvering capability, meaning better control and increased safety. We want to achieve a true skiing experience and for that, the skis must perform on the snow. In our business model, we have to produce a certain number of skis each year and we need a business plan that allows more money to flow into the company in order to further expand our R&D. So I said, “Why don’t we create a new business plan for the skier who likes to travel?” Owning your own skis is good when you always ski in the same location, but when you travel the ski conditions and opportunities are different. Also, it is always fun to try out new skis. That is when we came up with our Membership Program, giving our customers the ultimate ski experience with Bomber Ski equipment combined with 5-star service and convenience, wherever they want to ski. We begin by finding out about our customer, their ski ability and their interests. Then they simply give us their hotel information and the rest is up to us! Three different pairs of Bomber skis will be delivered and waiting for their arrival. The skis will be properly tuned, meaning the correct edging and waxing for their ski location conditions. They can try all three skis and if one or the other are not to their satisfaction, then through the mobile app, they give us feedback and new skis will be sent the next day. We will have certified ski shops strategically located around the globe, where all our skis will be readily available and perfectly tuned every time. The more someone skis with us, the better they can customize their skiing experience. Everything will be taken care of, which is a new concept for a concierge service. We make sure that their time spent on the skis is safe, enjoyable and that they have fun.
Mathias Bihler: This concept is very similar to how we work with our customers. The more we know about them and their requirements, the better we can customize our products and processes for their specific manufacturing needs. For example, after working with a company on several projects or in our case with customers for over 55 years, we know exactly how to configure the slide, feed, and press units, electronic control units, and machine layout and set-up to best meet their specific needs. I think your Membership Program is an innovative business model for the ski circuit and is going to be a great success. Especially when you travel around the world, it is very inconvenient to take your own ski equipment with you – not to mention the problem of cramming the entire family and equipment into the car.
b on top: Mr. Bihler, in your business you have a similar customer information exchange. To what extent can Bihler machines be optimized while in production?
Mathias Bihler: Yes, we work very closely with our customers through an open dialog to best understand one another; it is a two-way street of information being exchanged. We have over 55 years of manufacturing experience. The Bihler know-how has not only been handed down over the generations to Bihler employees, but also to our customers, teaching them how best to implement our technology. In today’s world of instant messaging, we are also interfaced with our customers’ manufacturing processes. The focus right now is Digital Services - Industry 4.0, which is the ability to remotely access, monitor, and analyze a manufacturing process in real-time data through digital interfacing. The goal is to dramatically reduce the troubleshooting timeframe by quickly implementing solutions that maximize machine productivity. An example of this is our Remote Diagnostic Assistance offered by our Customer Support Division. At the request of our customer, a Bihler service technician logs in via the internet to their manufacturing process and instantly begins evaluating data. This trouble-shooting can take as little as a few minutes and the customer is soon back up and running. Often the customers are looking to optimize their entire manufacturing process and in this case our staff must analyze their process for an extended period of time. Based on real-time data we gain a detailed overview on how best improvements should be implemented. This service is available to our customers worldwide.
Bode Miller: That level of information exchange is not found in the traditional world of ski racing. In our business model we very much value such feedback. In fact, it is crucial for our business plan to work successfully. We give our customers a lot of information about skiing and through this dialog we get a lot of information in return. An average customer in our Membership Program will ski at least ten different ski models per year and we learn how each model performed. In comparison to a traditional skier, who might buy one or two pairs of skis every year or two, there is no feedback. The better we educate our customers on the importance of quality skis, proper tuning, and how they both affect their overall skiing experience, the more they will value the advantages of our products – then we are both successful.
b on top: As a professional skier, you know what you are talking about when it comes to ski performance. As a recreational skier, I might not have the right terminology to accurately describe ski performance. For example, I might be describing grip when I might mean something different. How can you interpret this information?
Bode Miller: Our customers might not always have the right terminology, but as someone who has skied their entire life, I can tell exactly what the customer is trying to explain. The information feedback is going to come from a wide range of skiers. It may be as simple as: “with this model I had a lot of fun, or they did not like the ski, or it did not perform as I would have liked.” With time, you begin to have a database of information that speaks for itself. Small nuances that do not fit into this format may occur, but at the moment there is no other business model quite like ours.
b on top: Have you implemented sensors into your skis to collect data, like those found in Bihler machines?
Bode Miller: We have integrated chips into our skis, they are not as sophisticated at the moment, although customer information and tuning specifications are stored. When skis are returned to us, we analyze the data, such as vibration and reaction time in relation to the customers’ demographics and ski location conditions. Over time, this helps us to better understand how the skis performed under various parameters. The end result is better, more customized service for all our Membership Program customers.
Mathias Bihler: To get back to ski design and development – have you ever considered different materials, such as carbon fiber? Since the stiffness will be determined on how you insert the mesh, you may gain better flexibility and stability. You see, my father was glider pilot and worked closely with the glider manufacturer to optimize performance. They were constantly experimenting, making adjustments here and there to improve the stiffness of the wings and reduce the weight of the glider. Always looking for ways to go further and faster. I can imagine that this concept is very similar to engineering skis for optimum performance.
Bode Miller: There is very little motivation to experiment with those types of idea in the ski world. To my knowledge, not even the major ski equipment companies are working on anything like that. They are too concerned with retaining their market share and selling skis. Only when something new and innovative is presented on the market do they react. Then they all scramble to catch up. I do not want to sound too negative, but as an athlete who has spent my entire career trying to improve my capabilities, it is frustrating when the same degree of commitment is not shared by the ski manufacturers. Of course, there have been some developments, such as rocker skis, which are now wider. However, the technology used to develop them is not innovative. They are not building on previous experience to gain knowledge, and with this philosophy you cannot create innovation products. For me that does not make sense, that is not how I like to work. So I welcome the opportunity to build upon friendships and establish business relationships with companies that have the same commitment and desire to create something better. As a member of the US ski team, I often had very heated discussions with equipment manufacturers. For me it was personal. I was the one trying to be the best skier in the world, training day in and day out, risking my life to get the job done. I wanted more, I expected more, and unfortunately, I was disappointed with their lack of commitment to R&D. I was considered a troublemaker; however, I do not think that is the right description of someone who just wants to move forward and improve something. I believe that as an innovator and that is why I am working with Bomber skis.
Mathias Bihler: Despite this, you went on to become one of the best skiers in the world. You got where you are today thanks to your own commitment, self-discipline and your own vision. What vision would you give the young people of today?
Bode Miller: I would tell them it is all about knowing and learning about yourself. Find your true passion in life. Above all, it is imagination, your own vision that will drive you forward. You yourself are in control and this is your motivation. You have to imagine where you want to go and what you want to achieve. There are no limits.
Mathias Bihler: As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited.” This is true. When a customer presents us with a new project we need imagination. Even with our 60 years of Bihler manufacturing know-how, our knowledge is limited. It is only through imagination, envisioning what could be possible, that we can build upon our knowledge and effectively implement solutions. And this takes courage. This is innovation. It is the Bihler culture and it is what drives us.
Bode Miller: Imagination doesn’t always work the way you think it does. First of all, it is working all the time – I mean, you are probably imagining something right now. Your subconscious is off doing something. You just have to give it the respect and the fuel it needs to develop. This means not pushing it aside like a kid does with his toys and never touching it again. You have to exercise that part of your brain and make sure that you explore it. It may just be a question of everyday household activities but ultimately, it’s the same concept. There are always things you can do to improve yourself.
You have celebrated some very high points in your long and dynamic career, as well as, the agony of defeat and serious injury. b on top: How were you able to handle these situations?
Bode Miller: I enjoy my life to the fullest. I am an optimist, so I always try to have a good time and make the most out of even a bad situation. When I am down, say I have an injury, I try to look on it as an opportunity to do something that I typically do not have the time for, such as read a book. All of a sudden, your priorities are turned upside down and suddenly you have time to explore other interests - this allows you to grow as a person and not be just one-sided. That I could keep up this optimism after so many years and injuries, has again to do with self-discipline and determination. I may have said that a lot in this interview, but without them you are lost.
b on top: Will you continue to pursue a career as a professional skier?
Bode Miller: I don’t think so, my children are now my top priority. Now I am concentrating on all the work at hand in my company. Currently, we are developing a new binding. I test-skied the prototypes last season but their reaction time was way too slow. The binding and the ski must work as one synchronized movement and this only happens when the tension in the body is instantly transferred through the boot to the binding and on to the ski. When this happens, everything is perfect. I believe the design of the binding can be further optimized, but for this I need a strategic partner.
Mathias Bihler: We would be happy to work with you on these ideas. After all, providing innovative solutions for technical challenges is our daily business. We could review your design, make recommendations, and provide prototypes for testing. I would even volunteer to go on a test run with you. We work on such challenges every day and we would welcome the opportunity to further develop your products with you. We have the resources and it would be my pleasure to work with you.
Bode Miller: That would be great! Thank you for your offer and I happily accept!
Bode Miller, born on October 12, 1977 in Easton, New Hampshire, USA, is his country’s most successful professional ski racer and one of the few all-rounders to win races in all the World Cup disciplines. During his career, Miller won the gold medal in the Combined event at the 2010 Winter Olympics, as well as four World Championship titles in four different disciplines (Combined, Giant Slalom, Super G and Downhill). To this tally can be added five more Olympic medals, a further World Championship medal and two overall World Cup titles, as well as numerous victories in the Super-G, Combined and Giant Slalom World Cup disciplines. Bode Miller is one of only five skiers to win World Cup events in all five Alpine disciplines and to date the only one to achieve at least five victories in each. In the course of his career, Bode Miller began to develop his own skis and he is now co-owner of the high-end ski manufacturer Bomber. He lives with his family near Los Angeles in California.