Bob Dion, the founder and owner of Dion Snowshoes, likes to think of himself as a racer first and a businessman second. And, given his background, that certainly makes some sense.
Dion and his wife have been active in the sport since the 1990s and got started in the snowshoe making business when their search for race-specific snowshoes came up short.
“I started the company about 12 years ago when I was snowshoe racing pretty regularly,” he says. “But the snowshoes that were available at the time really weren’t that great for running. I remember they’d bang your ankle on almost every step.”
So Dion, a mechanical engineer by trade, went to work designing a sleeker, lighter snowshoe. Coincidentally enough, these efforts coincided with a significant change in the technical aspects of the sport – the shift from an 8×25 standard to the 120 square inch rule that’s in effect today – providing an opening for the upstart manufacturer to cash in on the new requirements.
“The combination of needing something better to race on and looking for something to do for a living came to this,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘I can do this. They look so easy. There’s nothing to ‘em.’ But it worked out good. The sport grew and the company grew right along with it.”
Fast forward about a decade and Dion is now one of the premier racing snowshoe manufacturers on the market. And business has been good. According to the founder, the company has been growing about 30 percent a year on average and sales jumped 60 percent in 2009.
“The sport is growing, especially the running and racing segment,” Dion says. “That part has way outpaced recreational snowshoeing. And, unlike others, I’m out there racing myself.”
Like many other U.S. companies, Dion Snowshoes has also benefitted from the recent “buy American” push, as its products are 100 percent designed and manufactured at the company’s Vermont headquarters. “When Tubbs and Atlas went to China that was really great for us,” Dion jokes.
But the racing niche really is the company’s bread and butter, accounting for about 70 percent of its sales (versus maybe 5 percent for most manufacturers). Dion calls its shoes the smallest and narrowest on the market and, although they’re not the lightest, they are lighter than most. “We could make them lighter but we don’t,” Dion says. “We could get ride of the floatation decking or cut down on the traction, which would make them lighter, but they wouldn’t function as well. They’re light enough as is.”
That’s not to say the company shuns new technologies. In addition to its own unique binding system, Dion’s shoes incorporate a non-stick coating to prevent ice from building up on the deck during use. It also offers a modular shoe that can be adjusted for different snow conditions or uses.
“People tend to think we’re really high-end since we’re focused on racing, but on price we’re really on par with everybody else,” Dion says. “We’re just really focused on the sport and on making a really good snowshoe.”
The trick, he says, is thinking of snowshoes like the sporting equipment they are.
“If you want to get a really nice bike and you’re serious about it, you go to a bike shop. They’ll give you something that works and functions better than something off the shelf. It’s the same with snowshoes. You want to go to a store that has that knowledge instead of just going into a big retailer and grabbing whatever’s on sale.”
So far, this approach seems to be working. The company itself is still small, operating primarily in North America with a few Canadian distributors, but it is starting to expand into the midwest and west as the sport itself gains in popularity.
“Snowshoe racing here in the northeast started with maybe four races in western Massachusetts, and now there are 20 in the series out there,” Dion says. “It’s exploding. For a long time it was mostly people like me – trail runners – but now we’re starting to pick up road runners, and triathletes and bikers. It just keeps growing.”
For more information about Dion Snowshoes, visithttp://www.dionsnowshoes.com.