â€˜Don’ of American x-c skiing keeps team at the top for 13 years
Andrew Gerlach answers the phone sounding like an overworked executive and father with a slight cold, or is that the gravelly voice of The Don? 2006-07 marks the 13th season for the Subaru Nordic Team, the top pro Nordic team in the North America, which Gerlach founded, owns and operates from day to day out of his office in Bozeman, MT. He runs Team Subaru as if he were a member of the Corleone family, controlling every aspect of the operation that rivals the U.S. Ski Team for top Nordic billing this side of the pond. Hard work and perseverance is what makes the difference for this ex-Nordic racer turned Team Director.
â€œI was on the other side before.â€ Explains Gerlach when discussing how Team Subaru came about. â€œI was racing and kept trying to get some sponsorship from big companies and they always said the same thing, â€˜Nobody cares about cross-country racing and nobody cares about these athletes.’ I really believed that they weren’t using the athletes the right way and I saw huge potential for cross-country racers as marketing tools. Once I jumped in and started, it was almost easy because the stories are there to tell, and that’s the key. Create the great story and get that out to the public.â€
Gerlach speaks with a wealth of knowledge, not only about cross-country skiing, but also about marketing and business.
â€œWe are a marketing company that happens to run a cross-country ski team, not a ski team that attempts to market itself.â€, he says when explaining his program and what makes it work where others have failed. â€œEven the U.S. Ski Team is a ski team that attempts to market itself, but we are professional, and all of our athletes know the difference. It’s not just about the race results; it’s about creating a story and getting it out there. Our athletes act in a purely professional manner above and beyond the race results, they get people to care about our sport. After 13 seasons now, our sponsors have great faith in our system and that’s what makes it work. We understand our role and we work non-stop to succeed in our marketing. As far as Subaru is concerned, they are committed to making their name synonymous with the enjoyment of winter and with cross-country skiing, we work in partnership with Subaru to meet that goal and that is more or less the secret to our success.â€
The roots of the Subaru Factory team can be traced to the old Fischer marathon team of the late â€˜80’s and early â€˜90s. When that operation began to wane under the stress of day-to-day wholesale ski business, Fischer looked to Gerlach’s Endurance Enterprises to take over. The Fischer marathon team became the Fischer Factory Team in 1994 and immediately took over as the top pro Nordic team in the North America. Gerlach’s teams have won the overall series championship on the American Marathon Series and the newly formed FIS Marathon Cup from the team’s inception in ’94 through present day. What eventually became the Fischer/Salomon/Swix team in the late â€˜90’s and early 2000’s, morphed into the Subaru Team in 2002.
Other major business decisions rose along the way and when the French giant Salomon made a push for the their new ski line in the fall of 2005, the rubber met the road. Fischer skis, the dominant brand since the advent of fiberglass skis ran into uncharted territory . Competition. Gerlach reaped the dividends as the bidding ensued for the services of The Factory Team, Gerlach’s business brand. Speculation and rumor swirled throughout the U.S. and Europe as Salomon applied the pressure. Gerlach’s powerful Subaru Team was now, quite possibly, the biggest player in the cross-country ski world and everyone awaited Gerlach’s move. In a position to help develop a new ski line, and force a higher level of professionalism in cross-country ski racing, Gerlach cut the deal, Fischer was out and Salomon was in. Today’s Subaru Team rides exclusively on Salomon skis, boots and bindings, and their success continues. Team Subaru currently leads both the American Ski Marathon Series as well as the FIS Marathon Cup in North America. The more things change the more they stay the same; just the way The Don likes it.
Gerlach goes into great detail when describing what it takes to run Team Subaru.
â€œThe Discovery Channel cycling team has an annual budget of around 15 million dollars, while Team Subaru’s entire budget approaches only half a million. However, we are the largest program of its kind, we have 11 to 13 athletes on the team from year to year. We have a staff of 5 to run the program; myself, my wife Sally and my assistant Justin Easter, as well as our 2 wax technicians that criss-cross the country taking care of all the racer’s needs. We have 3 stickered Subarus that put on 20,000 miles each year as well as our one of a kind mobile wax unit and team locker room, a 40 ft. bus that is unique to cross-country racing.â€
While Gerlach clearly runs the show at Subaru, he shuns the spotlight and turns it on his athletes. When pressed for a photo of himself, he struggles.
â€œI’m not the story, the athletes are the story. The racers on this team are the best in the game, they work hard, enjoy winter and are able to connect with the public and promote our sport.â€
What Gerlach preaches is true, the alumni roster reads like a who’s who of cross-country ski racing in America. Current U.S. Head Cross-Country Coach Pete Vordenberg is a Factory Team alum as are 19 former Olympians including 2005 Owl Creek Chase Champion and 2006 Russian Olympian, Ivan Babikov. In fact, Gerlach’s teams have been so strong that Team Subaru is a virtual feeder program for the U.S. Ski Team and vice versa.
Chad Giese with Andrew Gerlach