Q&A: Klaus Obermeyer
Founder and CEO of winter sports apparel brand Sport Obermeyer, the eponymous Klaus Obermeyer is a man of seemingly indomitable spirit. We sat down with him in his office at the Sport Obermeyer headquarters in Aspen
Born on December 2, 1919 in Oberstaufen, Germany, Klaus Obermeyer was destined for a life on the slopes after fashioning a pair of skis from pieces of wood and nailing his shoes to them when he was around three years old. Ninety-six years later and Obermeyer still skis regularly in Aspen “when the weather is good.”
Mid-afternoon on a typically blue-skied Colorado February and Klaus Obermeyer is where he is most weekdays, sitting behind his desk in his office at Sport Obermeyer’s headquarters in Aspen, the company he founded back in 1947. He is reading the Wall Street Journal and lamenting there is nothing good in the newspaper today.
Obermeyer has been a fixture around Aspen since the former mining town began its transition into the Aspen of today. He remembers that Aspen was practically deserted when he arrived. “It was a ghost town when I got here. You could buy a house for $300 or $400 dollars in back taxes,” he says. He laughs as he continues, “and like an idiot, I didn’t buy!” He also arrived at an opportune time. “When I got here in 1947 it was the first full ski season [for Aspen Skiing Company] with the new lift.” It was the world’s longest single chairlift and it had been built by his friend Friedl Pfeifer.
Obermeyer, an aeronautical engineer by training, came to the US when he was 27. He made his way to Sun Valley, Idaho where Pfeifer was working, but as Obermeyer was crossing the county, his friend had found himself a new job running the ski school in a new resort in Colorado. Obermeyer stayed in Sun Valley where he met Warren Miller and worked for a season. Obermeyer was eventually hired by Pfeifer to be one of the first ski instructors at the fledgling resort in Aspen, and the rest is history.
Obermeyer is now the last of the old guard, those people who helped build the resort and the town, either with money, grand ideas or with sweat equity out on the slopes teaching people how to safely maneuver themselves down the mountain - or a combination of them. Modern Aspen was created by these people, by the likes of Chicago industrialist Walter Paepecke, Austrian skier Friedl Pfeifer and people like Klaus Obermeyer, among others.
Obermeyer repeats again and again that back in those days everyone who worked at Aspen resort wanted all of the guests to have good time. They all loved skiing and they wanted everyone else to have that same experience. He also talks about how skiing back then helped bring people together and how any two people could be sat on a ski lift together. “The dishwasher could be sat next to Gary Cooper,” he says. If the ski lift is the great leveler, he says, the slopes themselves don’t see wealth or status either. “Whoever is fastest down the mountain is king,” he says.
Obermeyer was an innovator and an entrepreneur from the very beginning, starting his company the same year he arrived in Aspen after seeing there was basically no ski wear at all. This lack of appropriate attire along with other factors - ungroomed trails and large skis - meant that people would come to Aspen for a week or two but end up leaving after a few days.
The now legendary Obermeyer down-filled parka was the first innovation born out of necessity. Obermeyer says that back in those days you would wear a winter coat on Aspen’s single chairlift but you couldn’t ski in it, instead you just hoped it was on the lift when you got to the bottom. He wanted something warm to ski in, so he cut up the down blanket his mother insisted he take with him from Germany and stitched it together.
That Sport Obermeyer has become such a success isn’t down to just the parka, however. Innovation is one thing, but manufacturing something that has never been done before is another. Enter Obermeyer’s engineering background which ensured that ideas jumped from paper to the factory floor. Then there is the Obermeyer business philosophy: “Create a win-win scenario for everyone involved,” he says, and when problems inevitably pop up, “welcome them, they are opportunities to learn” he says likening the process to falling when you are learning to walk.
While there was a need for these innovations in the early days, Obermeyer also says that it was as much about making sure everyone who visited had a good time. Everyone was invested in the success of Aspen and ensuring everyone had a good time, and staying warm was a big part of that.
Sport Obermeyer today is a ski apparel company, but that hasn’t always been the case. The company has created several other innovative products that all skiers use or have used including mirrored sunglasses, high-altitude sunscreen, light ski poles and the ski brake, which is part of every binding these days. In fact, if you have ever skied, you will almost certainly have used or even owned an Obermeyer innovation, even if it isn’t an Obermeyer product.
The company also dabbled in other areas, but eventually decided to pull back and focus solely on apparel. Obermeyer explains why by using a German proverb: “Man kann nicht auf zwei hochzeiten tanzen,” which translates as “You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time.”
THE SECRET TO LONGEVITY
A cursory search on the internet for Klaus Obermeyer will bring up images of him skiing - hundreds of them - including doing his Umsprung maneuver, but there are also plenty of images that show him rock climbing, cycling, mountain biking, swimming, practicing aikido and windsurfing. And many of these images are not from the long past, rather the much more recent past, weeks past in many cases.
While Obermeyer is happy to chat about the past and the future, he stresses that he tries to live in the moment, saying that you can’t change the past and you can’t see the future. Even so, he has on occasion been known to tell reporters that he occasionally glances forward to the 2022-23 ski season when he will be 103. His first run of that season will almost certainly make him the first person to ski every season for a century. It is also a record that will likely not be broken for some time after. Aside from the record, Obermeyer says he still loves to ski
and at his age “it is easier to ski than to walk.”
January 29, 2019 was proclaimed by Colorado Governor Jared Polis as Klaus Obermeyer Day, saying “[Obermeyer’s] work and success embodies not only the American Dream but really, truly our national treasure that is this great state.” It is one of many recognitions and awards Obermeyer has had bestowed on him over the years. When asked about it, he says that Colorado has always been good to him.
Just over a month before that, Klaus Obermeyer celebrated his 99th birthday in the same way he has for years, surrounded by friends, family, employees and well wishers at Sport Obermeyer in Aspen with an Alpine band and apfelstrudel mit schlag - always mit schlag, he says.
And while he admits he misses the bratwurst and pretzels from Germany, he very delicately sidesteps a question about whether the local strudel compares to the ones in Germany. “All apfelstrudel is different, but there is a Swiss guy here in Aspen that makes a very good one.”
Photo: Sport Obermeyer
Read this article in the Spring 2019 issue here