Finding the line: zai as an industry leader

Finding the line: zai as an industry leader

From humble beginnings in 2003, when our product line consisted of a single ski that we sold straight out of the factory door, zai has grown to a point where we are now regarded as leaders in our field.

Much of this success is down to the unique nature of our product. zai operates in a select market niche that demands game-changing design, quality and performance. We meet, and frequently exceed, our customers’ expectations thanks to a highly specialised production process that we have made our own, and which no other ski maker comes close to emulating.

Over 13 years in business zai has achieved breakthrough after breakthrough, including rockered piste ski design, solid granite cores, and surface materials made from natural rubber, felt and cellulose acetate. Our understanding of how to apply advanced carbon fibres in various forms is also unmatched.

So when it comes to quality and innovation, we are in a different league to mass production ski brands (a fact reflected in the higher retail price of our product). This difference has helped put us on the map from day one.

But is product excellence alone enough to make a company successful? The short answer is: No. If that were true, then we would be able to just sit back and watch as our skis sold themselves. To find the real reasons for the success of a small company like zai, you need to go deeper. Here are five factors that I know have been key to helping us get where we are today. I don’t think we would be ‘zai’ without them.

  1. have a strong sense of mission

The question of what drives us in our daily life and work is critical to everyone. At zai we are lucky in that it’s an easy one for us to answer. We are here to build the very best skis possible. It’s as simple as that! No compromise, no distractions.

Often this means taking a path that might not be seen as logical or in line with market trends. Sometimes it means striving to achieve what others in the industry say is impossible; zai develops and puts into production ideas that any other ski brand would dismiss as wild fantasy. Of course we face budget constraints like everyone else, but this is just another part of the challenge. Here in the mountains, skiing is part of our culture. It’s not just a pastime or a sport. It’s a way of life.

The simplicity and clarity of our goal is reflected in the quality and functionality of all zai products. If we didn’t keep returning to that goal every day, then the integrity of our product would be at the mercy of every change in circumstances, every temporary shift in market trends. Having a clear mission, and the resilience to stick to it, is an important key to success.

  1. set your Values in stone

At zai we believe that every human is an important source of innovation. Because of this, we enjoy our days at work. That said, there is not a single day without challenges. Innovation demands a great deal of creative problem-solving, but you don’t always have the luxury of endless head-scratching and discussion. Clients are waiting, and skis have to be built. How can we be sure we always make the correct decisions under pressure?

For the answer, we need look no further than the zai poem. Written for us by the well-known local writer Leo Tuor when the company was founded in 2003, the poem contains the soul of zai within its fourteen short, stark lines:

In the beginning
was the mountain

Summits and steepness
pinnacles and peaks
stony, rocky ranges

zai finds the line
reading the mountain
plays in the snow
like jackdaws in the sky

zai, the tougher ski

A titan
going his own way
not willing to compromise
not willing to die

Whenever we are faced with an important or difficult decision, the poem reminds us of our beginnings and serves as a basis for discussion. The lines are succinct and expressive, but leave enough room for interpretation to let us debate the issue creatively and as a team. Without fail, a solution will arise.

Professor Peter Ulrich, under whom I studied economics and business ethics at university, called this collaborative, integrative approach to problem solving Diskursethik (discourse ethics). This approach is fundamental to a human-centric economy – and it also works for ski building!

  1. stay agile

The world is changing more rapidly than ever. To survive as an individual or as a business, you need to be prepared to adapt. This doesn’t mean abandoning core values. It just means having the freedom and agility to manoeuvre around whatever challenges and obstacles are thrown in your path.

At zai, innovation and adaptability is in our DNA. The same thinking that drives us to reduce a ski’s weight and increase its performance also helps us optimise our sales platform to the Internet age, or ride out a sudden spike in the value of the Swiss franc. We are constantly reviewing not just how we can improve our products, but how we can improve as a business. Innovation is surviving. This is ingrained in our heads as individuals and as a team. It gives us strength, and encourages positive growth.

Our clients – many of whom are business people themselves – see how we react to change as a company, and take inspiration from it. We bring them to the factory in Disentis to see innovation and agility at work, and take them skiing so they can experience it as a physical expression of joy. Agility is a state of mind.

  1.   keep it human

Being in tune with the latest technological developments means nothing if you lose touch with what it is to be human. The zai factory might be equipped with the most advanced machinery available, but the bulk of our work is done by hand, using tools and techniques that go back centuries and longer.

Good ski making requires not just technical expertise but also artistry and craftsmanship, especially when working with the natural materials we use at zai. Building in this pure, unadulterated way keeps us grounded in our work, and keeps the product honest. There is no quality control better than the human eye.

Working by hand also makes the result much for fulfilling, not just for us but also for the eventual owner. Visitors to the zai factory never fail to be moved by the experience of seeing our production team at work. For many, it’s what finally makes clear exactly what goes into the making of a zai ski.

  1. Do it more, do it better

Being good at what you do doesn’t mean you can afford to rest on your laurels. When a business stops developing and moving forwards it eventually stagnates as competitors catch up, customers lose interest and technology moves on. This is especially true for a company like zai, which is built on progress and innovation.

Instead of switching to cruise mode when everything is going well, successful businesses intensify their strategy. My colleague Simon, zai’s founder and head of design and development, is always telling me: “We need to keep improving our building techniques and materials. Being good is not good enough. We need to be better every day.”

Intensifying can also mean diversifying. In recent years we have worked hard at zai to apply our values not just our product, but to the way we live, work and do business. What began as an exercise in self-improvement quickly evolved into something more. Today we are proud to share our story and ideas across many platforms, from industry bodies, universities and technology forums to the popular program of events and workshops hosted by zai and our partners throughout the year. By intensifying our strategy we are not only developing our own business, we are also inspiring others to do the same.

Final thoughts

zai is a small company of just 12 full time employees, selling a niche product to the most demanding clientele in the world, in an economic climate that has many of our competitors running for cover. Sure, it’s a challenge. But we succeed because we have clear goals and an authentic set of values that we apply to everything we do. Being successful means recognising that values only count as such if they are acted on, explored and developed.

Just like our poem says, zai is a skier who finds the line, reading the mountain. Buy doing so we seek to understand the mountain, and ourselves, a little bit better every day.

For more information about the zai philosophy, events and workshops contact info@zai.ch