On a bright winter day at Stowe, Vt. last year, a tall, moon-faced man in his 40s joined the long line inching toward the Mt. Mansfield chair lift. He chatted as he moved along, remarking on the trail conditions and the fresh fall of powder on the summit. At length, he turned to a woman who was wearing sleek black skis with a single silver rivet on the tip.
"How do you like your Head skis?" the man asked.
"These skis have changed my life," the woman replied. "They're so easy they seem to turn themselves."
A banner endorsement, but well founded; the woman's words are echoed by recreational skiers all over the world. The lady at Stowe never learned who the man was beside her, or that he was enjoying a little game he plays wherever he skis. But from her perch on the chair lift she looked back and saw him tip the tasseled cap covering his round bald head.
He had reason for a thankful gesture. His name is Howard Head, and public acceptance of his product has made him the largest manufacturer of high-quality recreational skis in the world.
"There is no place in the skiing world that that rivet, the trademark of Head skis, is not found," he says with pride, backing up his boast with sales to 17 foreign countries—including Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon. Some 200,000 pairs of Heads are now in use throughout the world, and in Europe alone this year's orders have topped 20,000. Yet the Head Ski Co., Inc. is a young company—it celebrated its eighth birthday this year.
Head's lofty perch in skiing is the more extraordinary because when he got out of Harvard 25 years ago he didn't know how to ski. In fact, he disliked all sports, and aspired to a career in creative writing. His recreation at the time was chess—plus bridge, and Plato's dialogues, and the Brandenburg Concertos. As for business, the 22-year-old Head displayed two characteristics, neither of which seemed likely to produce success: 1) an inability to hold a job; 2) a strong love for the poker table.
Head was fired from his first job—as scriptwriter for Louis de Rochemont—for spending his days repairing the film-splicer machines. "Fiddling with those machines was more fun than writing," Head says now. "Too bad I didn't realize it then." A year or so later he did realize it—and became boss of a rivet gang at the Martin aircraft company in Baltimore. But he got into a running crisis with his bosses, and went through a yoyo sequence of demotions ("I just didn't fit into someone else's organization") and promotions ("I turned out to be embarrassingly good at structural design").
While he was looking for his niche in the world of commerce, Head sought diversion playing poker. He played cautiously and well, and his winnings went into a safe-deposit box tucked carefully away in his Baltimore basement apartment. He also took up skiing. In the spring of 1947 he spent a week at Stowe, where he rented skis and boots and rode the chair lift to the top of Mt. Mansfield. "There was a beer party at the summit," he recalls, "and everyone was a little lit. We took off for the bottom, and it was a marvelous feeling, like sailing in full flight. I'd had a lot of falls, but I knew then that skiing was to be my sport.
"We sat up all night on a coach coming home," he goes on. "I heard myself boasting that I could make a better ski out of aircraft materials than could be made from wood."