By George Crossland
Today’s snowboarders are lucky in that the equipment from pretty much any brand is top notch. So what makes one company different from another? Other than the obvious things such as marketing, image, camber versus non-camber and so on, a snowboard brand is defined by the people that run the company.
Signal Snowboards stands out in that it is one of the very few companies owned by riders with the boards actually made by riders, right here in America. It’s good to know that some snowboards are still dreamed up and made by snowboarders when most boards are made oversees and many companies are owned and run by large multi-sport companies. Signal was founded by Dave Lee and partners eight seasons ago. More recently, Marc Wierenga came on board. Marc is a board building guru and Dave is a former top pro rider turned industry titan. The boards are built in Huntington Beach, CA which is not only is it close to top parks at Bear Mountain and Mountain High but also great free riding. On any powder you will see Dave and friends billy-goating around the cliffs of Mount Baldy. Dave recently gave us tour of their factory and insight as to why Signal exists.
George Crossland: What’s the quick history behind Signal?
Dave Lee: I founded Signal with my friend and artist Kellie Talbot up in Seattle in 2004. She helped me run Supernatural for Mervin back in the day. We got a few good friends involved shortly thereafter and then Signal moved down to Los Angeles. We operated as a smaller snowboard company for a couple of years then I met Marc Wierenga while making snowboards here at 5 Axis and everything kind of exploded in 2007.
When you started did you imagine it would become such a big operation?
[Lauging] I’m always a real optimistic, so yeah, I did imagine it would be big, but I knew it would take a lot of hard work and I didn’t know how long it would take so it feels really good that we’re hitting a good stride now.
And one gets the impression your busy here…
Very busy, there’s lot’s of work to do.
Why did you move from Seattle to Southern California?
It was a family decision. My wife was offered a job down here, so we decided to check out Los Angeles for a year. It was exciting, like a new chapter. After that year was up it, we found we really enjoyed it. My wife’s work is in entertainment so there’s much more work here for her, it’s nice.
In a weird way it seems like a good place for a snowboard business in So Cal even though Seattle is more associated with snowy weather but there’s actually good riding in So Cal?
That’s a good question because after living in the Northwest, I really do appreciate nice weather. Plus, like you mentioned earlier, there is a large community of action sports brands down here and if you skate and surf as well, it’s a great place to build a brand. I do miss the mountains in the NW, but we still get some solid days down here. You know George, we’ve had some great days at Baldy!
When did you start snowboarding and where?
Twenty three years ago I think, so 1988. I grew up South of Seattle so I rented a board from a local skate shop and went up to Snoqualmie Pass. I love just being in the mountains and I grew up skateboarding, so after that first day I was hooked!
For the younger readers, what were some of your video parts?
The first video I was in was Mack Dawg’s Upping the Ante. We built a kicker out of bounds at Mt Hood in the spring and started sessioning it. It was before the cheese wedge really, so it got a lot of attention. From there I was in Stomping Grounds, Meltdown Project, Decade, and when Mack Dawg and Mike Hatchett teamed up I ended up in TB3, TB4 and a few other movies as well.
So, video pro up to the mid 90’s and Signal was founded in 2004, fill in the gap for us.
I rode professionally up until 2000. I broke my back twice, once on a motorcycle and once warming up for a contest at Bear Mountain. After that, I started up a brand with the dudes at Mervin called Supernatural and that took me up to 2003. They let Supernatural go and we started Signal!
So the point is that Signal is a rider owned and founded company and not just some investors trying to make a buck getting extreme.
[laughs] Absolutely, it’s my life. The boards we design come from years of riding experience and designing boards. I’m comfortable in the factory. Growing up around Mervin, It felt very natural for this to happen.
You were making boards over this past weekend even ?
Yeah, I’m making boards all the time. If there’s a struggle getting boards out, I don’t mind jumping in there and helping out. I’m also building a lot of the rider’s boards if they need something special and now it’s Every Third Thursday’s and new concepts every month! I love it!
If Signal is busy enough that you, the founder, builds boards then something must be going right?
I think so, some people may think I should be solely focused on the brand direction, but I like to build things and it keeps me connected to the products we’re selling. I don’t build boards everyday, but when I do it makes me realize how special this brand is and the factory building it.
If you’re busy enough that everyone has to pitch in on a weekend to fill orders then that’s a good problem.
[Laughs] Yeah, we’re lucky. The harder we work, the luckier we get. We’re definitely busy right now and it’s getting better, It takes time to earn trust in any industry and people know we’re hear to stay.
Signal is growing despite the rough economy. Do you think people are looking for a new brand?
We’ve built some really good relationships over the years. You don’t just go and sell products in snowboarding, people can see right through it. It’s just as important to sell a culture and that culture needs to be authentic. We want our accounts, riders, and customers to truly get behind our brand. We’ve stuck to our guns. We make what we love and make it the best we can.
Speaking of which, who makes the boards here in Huntington Beach, and do any of them snowboard?
Everybody in the factory snowboards, maybe not as much as some of us, but they do get out. One the newer guys, Matt for example, was a Signal rider and now he’s working here making snowboards. We have a great crew.
It’s important to be able to deliver products on time since basically, people buy snowboards from September to January.
Nailing the selling season is such a top priority for any brand. We have a vertically integrated factory, so I always say it’s like a gas pedal – we push down when we need to speed up or we lay off a little if things need to slow down. This keeps the factory running all year while being most productive and efficient within our own sales. But yes, on time delivery is crucial.
What does Signal represent?
We represent a connection. That’s what Signal is all about “the connection” to snowboarding. Whether it’s the factory side through Every Third Thursday, or the Pro side shredding through Jake OE and other riders, we want people to feel what we do. We love it when people want to get involved in snowboarding. It’s great when you can walk a person through building their first snowboard or have a shop clinic in the factory. All of that is part of the connection for us at Signal and I feel it helps push the industry in the right direction. We are not just about selling products, but the philosophy and culture behind the brand as well.
I’m insanely proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve built a snowboard factory in the United States in the worst economy and it’s working. We love what we do and we’re starting to see profitability. We’re having fun and it’s amazing to hear friends and peers from the industry get behind it as well. We need to see more manufacturing here at home.