A conversation with Leon Korošec, Director of the Winter Sports Division and Vice President of the Elan Group.
Leon Korošec's physical appearance radiates youth, freshness, and dynamism. At only 48 years of age, he already has more than 20 years of experience in the ski industry. It would be hard to imagine a more suitable profile for the leader of the winter sports division. Leon Korošec possesses a unique combination of qualities that have enabled him to successfully lead Elan's skiing story for many years. He is a local from Gorenjska, but at the same time a man of the world. He is a natural scientist as well as a social scientist. He is a businessman with a generous amount of empathy and sensitivity to employees, the environment, and society. He is an intellectual and a sportsman who knows how to appreciate moments in nature, where he gains energy for his many professional challenges.
How important is it that as the man at the top of Elan, you are also a ski enthusiast?
I think it's important for people who work for a brand that produces sports products to have a personal relationship with sports. Of course, that goes for me too. You don't have to be an ex-racer, but in any case, it's good to be involved in sport. At Elan, we have some interesting examples where some of our employees are involved in sport at a very high level, either competitively, or as experts, or educators.
Given that you are from Tržič, you have probably been skiing since you were a child?
Yes, of course. My parents put me on skis at a very early age. And even then, the school system was geared in that direction, and we were instilled with a love of sport, skiing, and nature. Ski and nature schools were undoubtedly the best weeks of my life, and I see that in my children too, and I would like to see the school systems in Europe continue to foster that.
How many ski days do you get in one ski season?
In the last few years, I would give grade myself at about 4 out of five. I have relatively few full ski days, but on the other hand I do have quite a few work commitments on the slopes. It all probably adds up to a good thirty days.
What is your favorite ski resort?
I don’t have a single favorite, but I have my top five. Even though I'm originally from Tržič, I love going to the Vogel which offers fantastic high mountain scenery and also great opportunities for touring and freeride skiing. I remember a time I went up towards the resort before daybreak. At first, I could still see lights in the background, but then I found myself in total darkness and silence. You know the saying that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Thoughts of bears and wolves started to cross my mind, but then dawn started to break and the first rays of sunlight over the hills were the best possible reward reward for perseverance. Apart from Vogel, I love going to the Dolomites, in fact anywhere in the wider Sella Ronda area is very beautiful, and the cuisine is excellent. From a business point of view, the entire Dolomites area is also a very good example of the coherent development of a destination and the cooperation of all stakeholders - ski resorts, accommodation, transport, etc.
I recently traveled to Japan and Hokkaido is the "perfect" freeride destination because it snows all the time and in terms of living it is a total contrast to Tokyo. It's hard to find such unspoiled and rural areas here. In the US, I really like Vail. This choice may seem a bit of a cliché, but all three resorts that are nearby, so Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, and Beaver Creek, offer an exceptional skiing experience at high altitude. For a weekend day trip, we like going to close by areas Austria. They have great snow and a great variety of terrain.
How do you keep fit?
I find this extremely important and I do various forms of functional exercise. But I prefer to get out into nature. I ski quite a lot in winter, more touring than alpine. I often go on tours that are more like an aerobic form of exercise. That is the beauty of skiing today - that there is something for everyone.
You grew up in a time when the Elan brand had a strong symbolic meaning for Slovenians. How did you see the Elan brand as a child and teenager?
I have very vivid memories of the moments when my parents and I went to the Elan store in Begunje to buy skis. In the mid-1980s I was of course fascinated by the successes of Bojan Križaj, Mateja Svet and Ingemar Stenmark. Being from Tržič, I was particularly impressed by Bojan who was a superstar at the time.
I also vividly remember Elan's first MBX monoblock skis. Back then I received a scholarship for gifted kids and the skis cost six monthly payments. But this could never deter me from buying them. My classmate and I went to the shop in Begunje to buy them. Mine were 203 centimeters long and his were 207. I should check the development archive to see if I got the lengths right!
How did it feel to meet legendary skiers like Bojan Križaj and Ingemar Stenmark as an Elan employee after having watched them on TV as a child and teenager?
I would be lying if I said I wasn't honored. Initially I was quite nervous about these encounters. But both of them impressed me even more when I got to know them a little better. Despite all their fantastic achievements, they always kept their feet firmly on the ground. At Elan's 70th anniversary, we went to visit Ingemar in Sweden. He came to get us at the airport, drove us to his home and welcomed us with the greatest hospitality and kindness. He is fundamentally a simple and sincere man and a true example of how to keep both feet firmly on the ground in spite of fame. Well done.
Did you ever think in those days that you would like to work for Elan one day?
No, I never thought or even dreamed about it back then. I joined Elan in 2001 after seeing an employment ad in the Delo newspaper for a commercial manager. I had to cut my holiday short by a few days to go in for an interview, and I ended up getting the job. Not the most spectacular of start, right?
For eight decades Elan has held the reputation of a ski innovator that changes skiing. Why do you think the spirit of innovation is so strong in a small town like Begunje na Gorenjskem?
I once heard a piece of wisdom that talks about the importance of the first beat when starting a business. It is what gives that basic vision and direction that serves as a guide for the future. It is the seed that stays at the core of a business for fifty or a hundred years. This is what happened in the case of Elan. Rudi Finžgar had a very clear vision and that is why he succeeded despite what was a very disadvantageous time immediately after the Second World War. The entire nation was thinking only about rebuilding a destroyed country and making skis seemed to be just about the least significant thing in the world. But the vision, the idea and the passion were unstoppable. And so, in September 1945, the big day arrived. That is when he uttered his legendary: “Who can think of sleep, of money? The world is waiting for me. And for Elan.” And so, the sports equipment manufacturing cooperative called Elan was born.
Rudi Finžgar was a man who never stopped, always looking for and encouraging new ideas. It is said that he once strolled through the fields surrounding Elan’s modest workshops and told the farmers, “In the year 2000, a mighty Elan factory will stand here, you’ll see”. In fact, the factory opened its doors already in 1970. The innovation aspect is key, and it has been maintained even in the face of many crises. Innovation was never a management tool, it was always at the core of the company. It is also interesting to note that 92% of all employees come from within 50 kilometers of Begunje.
Beside Elan, Begunje is also home to another global phenomenon - the legendary Avsenik band. Both of them and their extraordinary success stories are proof of the exceptional character of this small town of just over a thousand inhabitants.
We are very proud of the band, or rather the Avsenik family in Begunje. What is interesting is that both stories are characterized by extraordinary enthusiasm and perseverance. Perhaps this is a reflection of the legendary stubbornness of the people of Gorenjska. We have certainly seen our share of it at Elan. The latest has to be the Voyager folding ski that took seven years to develop. There were more than a few failed attempts, but we never gave up and, in the end, we succeeded in realizing one of the great ambitions of the ski industry.
As mentioned, Elan has delighted the skiing world with a number of important innovations. What do you consider to be the company’s most important invention?
It has to be the SCX carving skis from the mid-1990s. It's the invention that changed everything. Skiing has never been the same since. Because of that invention, we can say with full confidence that every ski produced today has a little bit of Elan’s DNA in it.
How interested are you in the technical part of the ski industry?
I'm certainly very interested in the technical side of the industry. After all, I went to a science high school, although I later turned more toward social sciences. I continue to be fascinated with the solutions that Elan’s development team produces time and time again and I’m always keen to understand the technical principles behind them. The knowledge those guys have is just about limitless.
The list of innovations is very long. Lately, however, the Voyager folding skis have attracted the most attention, with Elan fulfilling an age-old ambition of many ski manufacturers. How are Voyager folding skis changing skiing?
There are two aspects of the Voyager that need to be emphasized here. First and foremost, the skiing experience is on par with non-folding skis. Secondly, it is a fascinating technical and technological innovation that, despite breaking the integrity of the ski with a special intermediate section and base plate, retains all the necessary features and performance. This is a feature that impressed even the most demanding and technically savvy professionals and users. From a purely physical standpoint, it is almost a miracle.
Where has the Voyager been most enthusiastically received?
Definitely in non-alpine countries with a large enough skiing population. In Europe, the Voyager has caught on very well in bigger cities, where the society is very modern, with a relatively large number of ski enthusiasts, but no ski resorts.
What makes the Elan brand so unique?
At Elan, we have always been very good at combining technological sophistication with a human touch. We are high-tech, but we are not overly polished. We have a strong global presence, but at the same time we also have an ear for different local values. We try to understand different needs and we try to understand our users in the same way. Above all, our guiding principle is not purely economic. We truly believe that every good skier has exceptional experiences in the mountains. We put this into practice in all the markets where we have a presence.
How much has the ski industry changed in the last three decades?
The market has reached maturity, which means that we don't have the kind of explosive growth that we see in the tech industries. There has also been a so-called micro-segmentation in the ski industry, which does make sense. The users have also recognized this, and they understand that the mountains offer different types of skiing experiences, which in turn require different or specific equipment. We notice that a lot of our users have two or three different pairs of skis that they use to ski groomed slopes, go touring, go freeriding, etc.
The last three decades have also seen a profound change in attitudes towards rental equipment, which has, at least in part, been facilitated by digitalization. That is why we have been paying a lot of attention to this segment as well.
Speaking of micro-segmentation, we cannot overlook the women's ski segment in which Elan broke new ground with the W Studio series twenty years ago, not only in the ski industry but in the sports industry as a whole.
It’s a fact that skiing is pretty evenly split between men and women. It therefore made sense to us to dedicate a special series of skis to women, taking into account the needs, desires and of course also the anatomical specificities of the fairer sex. So, we started designing women's skis and other products, but we felt it was very important to involve women in the entire process of creating these products, from the design and development phase all the way through to the implementation and production phase. We never took the approach of just painting existing products in women's colors. I remember well the legendary book 'Don't Think Pink’ about products that are truly and profoundly intended for women. We always took the user experience and demonstrable facts as our starting point. That is why these products have been so successful.
The sustainability aspect of skiing has also been gaining importance. How do you approach sustainability at Elan as the company that produces more skis than any other ski manufacturer in a single location?
Sustainability has literally been ingrained in our operations since the very beginning, for almost eighty years. We found that there are a number of things that we have always done at Elan that now deserve the adjective “sustainable.” We have done things this way long before the subject ever became relevant. But even so, a few years ago, we drove out into the countryside a single kilometer away from our factory and set ourselves a goal: "This must stay exactly as it is now!". This awareness is an integral part of how we think.
But in the background is a thoroughly systematic approach that involves product development, production, human resources, management practices, etc. Each of these areas must contribute to sustainability, reducing environmental impacts and achieving carbon neutrality in the short, medium, and long term.
For quite a while now, Elan has no longer been just the pride of Slovenia, but a global brand with a presence in every corner of the world. What are the most important markets for you?
Skiing has the longest tradition in central Europe, including Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, and Slovenia, so this is our most important market. We also have a strong presence in the North American market, combining the USA and Canada and there are significant differences between the East and the West here. In recent years, the Asian market has been growing strongly as well.
Over the years Elan has been associated with many skiing legends. Ingemar Stenmark, the best skier of all time, won on Elan skis in the past and in recent times he has been succeeded by ski cross stars Filip Flisar, Kelsey Serwa, Brady Leman and Ryan Regez, and of course the charismatic Glen Plake. What do these big names mean for the brand's visibility and how do they fit into the Always Good Times philosophy?
A brand is essentially an intangible collection of different associations that live in the minds of its users. But at the same time, it’s very important. These associations can be built not only through products but also through stories and personalities. Even though most of our users ski only recreationally, we believe that our presence in the various forms of professional skiing is very important for building our brand. We are proud that Ingemar Stenmark, the best male skier of all time, skied on our skis, as did all the legendary Slovenian ski aces. We are proud of the success of ski cross racers who win on our skis. We get a lot of attention through the uniquely recognizable Glen Plake who is extremely popular, especially in the USA. But above all, all these top skiers share the same values. We know that people are more impressed by interesting personalities and outstanding individuals who push boundaries than they are by products, so authentic personalities are key to the development of any brand.
In this respect, the interpersonal relationships within the company must also be very important, and surely this is reflected in the final products.
A brand can shine outwards if the energy comes from within. In other words, this means that all our employees and colleagues co-create the relationships and the special energy that ultimately results in great products. The inner energy among employees is the key to everything.
How do you personally see the future of skiing?
Skiing has its own unique characteristics, of course. Climatic instability has become a fact of life that we all must worry about. At the same time, we are aware that skiing is one of the few winter outdoor activities that brings a great deal of joy, satisfaction, relaxation, and wonderful moments. And we want as many people as possible to experience these feelings for themselves. It is important to us that all this passion is passed on to future generations. We firmly believe in what we do, and we remain as committed as ever. That is why I believe that the future of skiing is bright.