Made in NEPA is a series that showcases locally based manufacturers and the products that they proudly create right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania. We’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at the companies and the impact they’re making in NEPA and beyond.
*Editorial Note: Gilson Snow is located just about 30 miles outside of NEPA, but it’s a really cool company. So, we made an exception. Shortly after our visit, Gilson Snow experienced a tragic fire, causing a total loss of their manufacturing facility. After consultation with the Gilson team, we decided to continue with our plan to run this story. They are a Pennsylvania-based company. They still have snowboards, skis and gear to sell. And they’re planning to rebuild better and stronger in 2023.
Big Things are Happening on a Little Pennsylvania Farm
World-renowned winter sports brand takes on the world from rural Union County.
Over a decade, Gilson Snow, out of rural New Berlin, Union Township, has become of one of the world’s fastest growing custom ski and snowboard brands. Yeah. You read that correctly. The intrepid manufacturer makes its home on a windswept, 17-acre farm in the scenic Susquehanna Valley. On the surface, much like other ski and snowboard shops, they’re cutting and shaping and gluing and pressing. They’re combining art and lifestyle and winter sports and fun.
It’s really not until you get a look at what comes out on the other end that you realize there’s something a little bit different going on here.
The long and winding road.
The evolution of this industry-defiant, design-centric company remains anything but typical. As a kid, young Nick Gilson would ride just about any board he could manage to stand on. He spent his formative years cruising around on skateboards, surfboards and snowboards. His father, a native New Zealander, obsessed over the sea and sailing. And in his basement workshop, he set about building his own sailboat. Nick, who was in middle school at the time and naturally drawn to the science of fluid dynamics, couldn’t resist joining the effort. And before long, he was building and shaping his own surfboards and snowboards.
We love doing business in Pennsylvania. It’s all about the people. It’s the people that we’re building for across Pennsylvania and around the world, but it’s also the people that we get to work with here on the shop floor and our partnership network and our suppliers. There’s an awful lot of people here that have that pull yourself up by your bootstraps – work your butt off and get the job done mentality.
Nick Gilson, Founder/CEO, Gilson Snow, Inc.
Inevitable Questions and Lifelong Obsessions
Discovering a playground of curiosities and possibilities in dad’s workshop.
At 13, with his board-building hobby well underway, Nick found himself daydreaming in science class. The teacher was grinding through a lesson on phase changes. Nick stared at the notes scribbled on the chalkboard – H2O (solid) / H2O (liquid). So often, the fruitful mingling of ideas in a child’s mind can lead to a goofy song, or a wildly terrific painting. Creativity, some say, was precisely the innate tool that eventually separated us from our primordial ancestry. To one, it’s a rock. To another, it’s a wheel. And the future is changed forever. Who are we to say when or how a seed is planted – how an ordinary, unadorned moment can shape a dream? This was that moment for young Nick.
Enter the single question that would drive him relentlessly forward from that day. “When you look out at the world, pretty much anything that moves through a fluid, whether it’s a boat, a car, a plane, birds, fish – they’re all curved,” Nick remembered musing. “Why are skis and snowboards flat?”
Redefining the board’s relationship to snow.
The question was a simple one. The science beneath it — not so. “There has been a massive amount of research that’s gone into fluid dynamics of water and air, and you really didn’t see a lot of attention being paid to the fluid dynamics of snow,” Nick thought. Now, the teenager, with access to a basement workshop and a fresh new obsession, sought to reimagine and redesign the classic snowboard.
In no time, he had his first set of prototypes – cannibalized and modified versions of regular industry boards. The approach was straightforward. “Initially, the idea was could we start to adapt some of these fluid dynamics principles from H2O liquid to H2O solid?” He continued through a wide grin, “And it turns out that you absolutely can.”
Nick may have been the only one to ever strap into those early prototypes. And he insists, though admittedly biased, that they definitely proved his concept. One thing is certain, however, from those early experiments – the instant those Frankenstein boards kissed powder, Gilson Snow was born.
If You’re Going to Fail, It Might as Well Be a Full Send
Gilson goes to school.
The evolution of Gilson Snow underwent a bit of dormancy while Nick finished high school and college. It wasn’t until he started teaching middle school science in Nashville, Tennessee that the dream would return in the most unusual way. And, unlike the precocious 14-year-old tinkering in his workshop whose failure would cost a few scraps of wood and a bit of pride, now it took on a whole new weight. Eighty students, bright-eyed and widely ranging in talent and proficiency, looked to Nick. His failure or success here would also be theirs.
After a year of wrestling with an ineffective state-mandated curriculum, Nick knew something had to change. Enter fellow science teacher, fellow woodworker, fellow snowboarding enthusiast and future Gilson Co-Founder, Austin Royer. The young teachers came up with a plan. “Ultimately, it all lead to something that we called The Curiosity Project,” Nick said. “Our only rule was that the projects had to be school appropriate and the students had to really care about what they were researching.”
To teach is to learn.
The students took to the change with unbridled enthusiasm. Soon, Nick and Austin’s classrooms were abuzz with creativity and inquisitiveness. Test scores were soaring and inevitably that same spark that brought the classroom to life had ignited something in Nick. One day, he decided, in solidarity with the class, that he, too, would work on a little curiosity project of his own. He showed them Prototype 1 – the board he had modified when he was around their age. “I was like I’m going to work on my project while you guys are working on yours,” he said with a laugh. “Then, we just got totally carried away with it.”
Before long, Nick and Austin had cleared out the crawl space in Nick’s rental. They built the very first, albeit rudimentary, Gilson Snowboard shop – one destined to catastrophically fail. And the new, enthusiastically designed board – it failed too. And the students with all the data they collected and all the hope they had pinned on this project – they were left disappointed. Looking back on the board, Austin recalled, “It was like trying to ride a canoe down a mountain.”
To learn is to fail (at least once).
And for Nick, giving up seemed like the easiest way out. His theories about fluid dynamics, his designs, his data – it all pointed toward failure. It was here, at this lowest point in the Gilson story, that he was struck with a profound, yet humbling bit of wisdom from a 5th grade student. “If you can quit, we can quit.” It was all he needed to realize that, up to that point, every failure had delivered with it a career’s worth of lessons and inadvertently exposed the young entrepreneurs to what would become their significant underlying philosophy.
Fail quickly, Fail cheaply. And get creative.
The Journey Continues
Scaling up from Nashville basement to custom manufacturing shop in rural PA.
Humble beginnings, countless hours of trial and error, one fail after another all lead to Gilson’s first successful design. And, of course, from there, it was all about that non-traditional path to growth. The small team moved to a farm in New Berlin, PA. And, for a while, it was back to basics – no running water, no electricity. Somehow, they managed to build a steel press and crank out a few dozen boards.
They knew the design worked. They had the boards. Why not take them on a national tour? They took their uniquely-designed boards all over. They followed the riders, and eventually people started to take notice. The tradition became what is widely known today as the Gilson Winter Tour. This grass roots method of guerilla marketing managed to solidify the brand. Add to that, a growing list of design collaborators and, in no time at all, Gilson Snow, with their signature Gilson Edge boards was off to the moon.
Greener pastures ahead.
Today, ten years later, Gilson Snow still operates out of that custom shop on the old farm. They’ve grown to nearly 30 local employees and a vast network of design contributors in the form of independent artists, musicians, athletes and even major brands. The shop cranks out hundreds of boards and skis a week. And it’s all custom. “We decided early on that we were going to build for our riders and skiers themselves instead of warehouse shelves,” Nick says of their build-to-suit style. “We don’t really know what’s going to end up being successful, but when something is going to the moon, we want to be ready to produce it really quickly.”
Here is where we all wish the story ended…
After the Fire
In the evening hours of Thursday, November 17, a fire broke out in Gilson Snow’s manufacturing building.
In terms of manufacturing, they lost it all — the entire facility, the presses and equipment and almost all the work in progress. No one was on-site at the time of the fire. Every employee is safe and unharmed – at least physically. Many rushed to the farm once word got out. They helplessly watched as their work, their tools, their livelihoods turned to ash. One of the brave firefighters approached the group. He handed the gathered team what appeared to be a largely unscathed, yet slightly charred remnant – a piece the firefighter thought might be important to keep. It was Prototype 1.
Out of all the loss, 50 boards from the somewhat protected finishing room survived. Nick Gilson returned the next day to find his team had managed to pull some machinery from the wreckage. They had got it back to some form of working order and set it up in the driveway. There, in the cold morning after, they were back at work finishing those last 50 boards. The scene gripped the young founder by the heart. “Certainly, nobody asked them to show up today. Nobody asked them to do this.” He continued, “It’s their pride.”
Gilson’s out building, which housed their offices, small distribution operation and stock was not touched by the fire. That’s currently where the bulk of the team is operating. Many of the manufacturing team have been picked up temporarily by local shops and suppliers close to Gilson. “We’re putting the oxygen mask on the business first, so the business can recover and resume taking care of all of us,” Nick said.
“We built a lot of memories in that space. we poured our lives into that building over the last ten years, but you can’t burn the brand. You can’t burn the mission. We’re still cranking along.”
The next day, like so many times over the course of this company’s story, Nick, Austin and the team were back in front of the white board.
Gilson Snow plans to return by July of 2023.
Gilson Gear Still Available!
Despite losing their manufacturing facility, Gilson Snow still has thousands of custom boards and skis in their inventory. Help this Pennsylvania-based, Pennsylvania-sourced, Pennsylvania-proud company in their efforts to rebuild by ordering your 2022/2023 winter gear today. Get free shipping on all orders by using the code “DiscoverNEPA.”