Bob Klein, or BK as his friends call him, is one of the realest people you will ever meet.
Bob Klein, or BK as his friends call him, is one of the realest people you will ever meet. At age 47, BK has been involved in snowboarding for the vast majority of his life, and he is the purest embodiment of a snowboarder, in the truest sense of the word, that we know. As you can imagine, the scope of Bob's snowboard knowledge and history and culture boggles the mind. You could talk to the guy literally for days as he regales you with incredible stories from his decades of industry experience. Not a lot of people are as honest and outspoken as Bob, so we decided to throw a few questions at him and see what he had to say.
You have pretty much been involved in every single aspect of the snowboard industry, can you break it down from the top for our readers please.
Ha! How much space do you want to dedicate to this thing? I was born a poor child in 1964... OK, I was born to a doctor and nurse in Southern California. My parents would take us to Mammoth for long birthday weekends. They loved being with the kids on ski holidays, so they decided to move away from L.A. and the smog. We moved to Lake Tahoe’s West Shore in 1974. I have 2 brothers and a sister, so my parents bought everyone new ski equipment from Porter’s. Six pairs of skis, boots, poles, bindings, clothing, hats, goggles, everything. They gave us a bunch of sleds and one of them was a yellow plastic Coleco board. It was Snurfer-style, but I hadn’t heard about Snurfers because they didn’t make their way to the West Coast.
Around 1976, my friend Kirk Wilson and I began to mess around with the Coleco board and skateboards with the trucks taken off. My parents were the best, they let us build a skate ramp, mini bike track, trampoline, pinball machine, foosball table, ping pong, BB guns, you name it, my parents let us have it. In 1978, I saw an ad in Powder magazine for a Winterstick. I had seen ads for Skeeters, but they looked stupid for Tahoe because they were these little mini skis you could mount to your skate trucks. We knew they wouldn’t work in Tahoe, the snow was way too soft and deep. The Winterstick looked much more like what we needed for Tahoe. So I asked my dad for one. No shops carried any boards for snow, so my dad called Winterstick and talked with Dimijtre Milovich. Dimijtre really wanted to see ski areas let us up the lifts, so he said if I could ride the local lifts, he would let me keep the two Wintersticks, but I had to return the 16mm movie he sent.
I lived at the bottom of Tahoe Ski Bowl (now part of Homewood) and we knew the owners well. My friend Raymond DeVre was 10 years older than me and he used to drive me and my friends to skate parks all over Nor Cal. He and I went to the ski area and Raymond came out of the office and told me to wait while HE got to ride the lift. Raymond went on to found and coach the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team and one of his early protégés was Jonny Moseley.
Anyway, I still hadn’t watched the 16mm movie because I didn’t have a projector and Dimijtre was asking for his movie to be returned. I needed to see that movie because I knew it would have all the action from the photos I saw in Powder. I decided to bring the film to school because I knew one of my teachers would be cool enough to let me show the movie in class. Mr. Daegling was my 9th grade History teacher and a really nice guy. He allowed me to show the movie to all of his classes that day. In my class, another friend who also built his own skate ramp was watching the movie. That was Tom Burt, and of course we all know the great rider Tom became. Terry Kidwell was also in 9th grade with us and he was into the skate scene as well.
Basically it grew from those first Winterstick days. We started hiking around Mt. Rose because ski areas weren’t letting us up, so it was all about exploring places to ride. Mark Anolik found the Tahoe City halfpipe, although Kidwell remembers it differently, so you should ask him to tell you how he remembers it. We started hitting the TC halfpipe regularly, but Kidwell, Allen Arnbrister and Keith Kimmel were starting to nail tricks and handplants while I was floundering on that thing with my Winterstick. They quickly got sponsored by Sims and I began to hike alone more and more. Mt. Rose was such a great place for me to be alone, hike and make pow turns without any concern for image, style or any of what we see attached to snowboarding today. Nobody ever told me about the danger I put myself in, because I hiked and rode alone, I was never concerned with avalanches.
I went to Colorado with Allen Arnbrister and Chuck Amadon, who was the Winterstick rep. It was our first contest, the 1981 King of the Hill or something. The Winterstick guys were there and so were Tom Sims and Jake Burton and Jake’s riders, Andy Coghlan, Chris Karol and Doug Bouton.
In 1984 I went to the Nationals in Vermont and did well enough in qualifiers for the downhill, so Jake came running up to me with a red speed suit and told me to wear it for finals because I would go faster. I asked if I was on the team and he said “yes, you’re on the team”. I was stoked! So I rode for Burton from 1984-87, when I made the worst decision I could possibly make: I quit Burton.
Wow, and how did you find the transition from pro rider living the dream to regular 9-to-5 guy?
In 1986 I opened Sessions Snowboard Shop in Denver with Joel Gomez. In 1989, I worked as the technical director for NASBA (North American Snowboard Association), which later turned into the ISF. In 1988, Shaun Palmer was unhappy with his Sims deal and he didn’t want to negotiate with them, thinking Brad Dorfman and his uncle were trying to rip him off. So I offered to fly to L.A. and negotiate his new contract with Sims. I went out there and hammered them for a better deal. They agreed to pay Shaun $30,000 a year. That was a sweet deal in those days and I felt like I did a good job negotiating, plus it was a lot of fun.
I got burned out on Colorado and being a fat shop owner, struggling because I wasn’t a shrewd businessman like the ski shop two blocks away. They decided to go all in with snowboarding and hired the majority of my staff and cut a deal with Kemper Snowboards. They bought 1,000 boards with a huge discount. They began advertising in the Denver Post every day, prices so low there was no way I could match them. The kicker was Kemper was my sponsor and they were running ads with me in the mags. But I was the last shop in Denver to get boards and by that point the shop up the street had established deep discounted prices and they were still making a great margin, and it just killed me. People would come to my shop and milk me for an hour of valuable information and then tell me they could get it cheaper up the street.
That was the first eye opening experience for me. It told me there are scumbags in snowboarding and Kemper’s Jamie Salter was the first scumbag of the industry. I moved back to Tahoe because I hated fighting so hard for my shop and seeing people in the industry not care about “core” shops. The ski shop was buying way more product, all on credit and I was paying C.O.D. because we wanted to sell what we could buy.
It’s funny because the whole world is beginning to understand the evils of extended credit. I guess me and Joel were doing it right all along. Basically I decided a long time ago that snowboarding was what I was all about and it was going to be a major part in my life, directing where I live and what I do. As tough as some situations have been, I wouldn’t change anything. I met my wife when she came into Sessions in 1988 looking for a board. Not too many pretty women were snowboarding in the 80s. We just celebrated our 21st anniversary last week. She still shreds! So, yeah, I have been on numerous sides of the business and riding…..pro rider, technical director for the World Cup, shop owner, agent and when I moved back to Tahoe after I closed the shop, I worked as a rep and sales manager for a number of years. I wrote some articles for ISM too.
In 2000, I decided I didn’t want to work for snowboard companies anymore and it was perfect timing to work full time as an agent. I had been doing it as a side job and helped Palmer with all of his deals and transition into mountain biking. I also met Peter Carlisle, who had his own agency in Maine. He was working with Ross Powers, Kelly Clark and others and it made sense for us to become partners. Peter and I have been working together for 11 years and he’s the best partner I could have. He sold his business to Octagon around 9 or 10 years ago and in 2005, my wife was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I had my own business, BK Sports and Peter was part of Octagon, but we were partners. I was also the stereotypical snowboarder and Peter has more of a business appearance, so people thought we were a funny combo.
It made sense for me to evaporate my business and become an employee for Octagon. The stability of insurance made us feel more secure with my wife’s MS and we also have two kids, so certainly those things play in your decision-making process. But it was also smart to be under one name going into the Torino Olympics, so I became an employee, but it wasn’t much different from the relationship Peter and I have maintained. I just do more budgeting and forecasting.
So what are your main responsibilities at Octagon, describe a normal day for you in the office?.
This business is great and it is frustrating at the same time. My main responsibilities are to deal with each client’s business affairs, mainly negotiating contracts and helping clients schedule their season, coordinating with their sponsors to make sure the rider is at photo shoots and appearances.
It has really changed over the years and now it seems really difficult to get team managers to communicate. They seem to have a clear disdain for agents, even if the agent has been snowboarding longer than they have. So a regular day for me is getting up around 5 AM and sending out e-mails and possibly some calls to Europe. If there is any contract work happening, I will read through the numerous contracts we may be dealing with and I make sure all the business terms are what we agreed to in the conversations.
Many times you can have a conversation and the contract shows up without reflecting what we agreed to in conversation. You have to go back and remind them and wait for a new version. It’s a lot of waiting. I am here, I have e-mail, a phone that rings anywhere in the world, I can text, Skype, iChat, whatever. I’m pretty sure ALL the team managers and marketing directors have all those communication tools too. But they seem to disappear and lack the decency to respond, even if it is something that is uncomfortable or unpleasant to discuss. I would rather hear a firm “no” than wonder for weeks at a time where the fuck the guy disappeared to. So it is a lot of waiting for people.
On the management side, it is a lot of communication with the rider just to figure out what they really want. That’s a big challenge because many riders are afraid to tell me what they really want. They don’t seem to understand the fiduciary duty I must uphold in the relationship. I’m like a lawyer for them, I am obligated by law to act in their best interest, but I’m not their lawyer. In order to act in their best interest, they need to be honest with me and many riders don’t even know what they want and many are complete pussies when it comes to telling me the truth. It can be maddening.
All I want to do is help snowboarders and I truly believe I am providing a valuable service. Additionally, I feel as if I am giving back to snowboarding because without the riders, there is no image or sport to market. The riders drive everything, yet they are exploited by brands, federations, media and corporations. It is my goal to help riders make enough money to live comfortably. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many who can achieve comfortable living because of the system.
You have been Shaun Palmer's agent for over a decade now and also Danny Kass, how did this eventuate? Who else do you represent and are some riders more difficult to work with than others?
Um, yeah… Palmer is a piece of work. There is nobody like him. He’s probably one of the most gifted athletes in history, yet one of the most troubled humans on the planet and one of the most energetic people involved in action sports. He’s still going at age 43. Palmer used to hitchhike from S. Tahoe to Tahoe City to skate the Mile High ramp. He was around 14 and living in a cabin alone, selling psychedelic mushrooms to pay rent. He would come and stay at my house for the weekend and Kidwell, Keith Kimmel, Allen Arnbrister and others would influence the little Mini Shred. He was so natural and learned tricks every day. Palmer was such a great adventure in so many directions and the stories are just gold. Rolling vans, fights, rock 'n roll, partying like no other, girls, money… so many stories, I could go on all day. Me and Shaun were great friends and he trusted me to help negotiate his deals.
Funny, around 2002 he thought he needed to go to Hollywood and told me I was too slow, wasn’t the big time Hollywood agent he needed, so he left. I told him it was a mistake and I was the best agent for him. The big time agent he went to didn’t help him the way he thought they would, so he bailed on them and came back to us in 2005. We began shooting a documentary about him and we’ve been working on it for 6 years, but now that DVDs aren’t really the medium anymore, we’re trying to figure out how to get it out there without losing all the money we’ve invested. It’s a great movie because Brad Holmes produced and directed it. He’s one of Palmer’s oldest friends (and mine too, the 3 of us played in a band together) and knows him better than anyone, plus he’s one of the most creative film makers I know.
Danny Kass was winning every contest in 2001. Everyone knew he was “the” next one. A friend of mine was doing stock trading for action sports athletes and he kept telling me to go get Danny Kass. It wasn’t my style to go directly to a rider and tell them I wanted to work for him. That was for the other slimeball agents from Southern California. I’m a snowboarder first and I wasn’t comfortable approaching someone I didn’t know and telling them they should work with me. But I ended up flying out to Utah for a World Cup a year before the Salt Lake Olympics. I walked up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself. He seemed indifferent to my introduction and just shrugged and said “call me, dude”. I called and he never answered. After months of not getting an answer, I decided I wasn’t going to foolishly chase this kid around. A month or so later, Danny’s brother Matt talked to me and said I should go to Mammoth to hang out. I took them out to dinner at the Chart House, they invited me back to Danny’s house, I met the Grenerds and a few weeks later, Danny signed up with me. He was a great experience too.
Both Palmer and Danny are awesome because they both do things their own way, even if it is incredibly frustrating for the agent. Danny left for similar reasons as Palmer and I hope he finds Hollywood cooler than I think it is. The biggest challenge in dealing with riders is managing their expectations. Snowboarding isn’t really that big, but snowboarders in general seem to think they are super famous and important in the world. We just aren’t. Many riders come to me for help, I explain how difficult it really is, they hire me anyway and fire me 6 months later, mainly because they aren’t seeing the results they think they should see. Most of them are a bit clueless to the real world of marketing and they feel they should be paid, even if they haven’t won anything or filmed anything or really accomplished much. It’s a really tough business when you see so many kids throw away college or work to be snowboard pros. So many are let down and walk away from pro snowboarding with a bitter taste. It shouldn’t be that way, because without the riders there is nothing.
We represent a lot of riders, I manage Keegan Valaika, Jamie Nicholls, Nate Holland, Tini Gruber, Ludde Lejkner, Benji Farrow, Ty Walker, Seth Wescott and more. Our company also has Amen Teter working for us and he manages his sister Hannah and he has done a great job getting a surf division going, we have Alana Blanchard, Owen Wright and some others. I’m not into surfing, so I don’t really know everyone. But we also have Kelly Clark, Chris Klug and more.
Some are definitely easier to manage than others, but nobody was as rewarding, fun and difficult to work with as Palmer. Danny Kass is right there behind Palmer. The most fun now is working with Keegan because he also does everything his own way, like Palmer and Kass. I also love working with Jamie Nicholls and Ty Walker. Jamie is awesome, he’s been working with me for over 4 years and it has been an honor to watch him grow into the ripping pro he is now. And Ty Walker is just the most awesome 14-year old, who has unreal skills. She has so much energy and enthusiasm for snowboarding, she wants to go everywhere and do everything, it’s really inspiring. I believe both Ty and Jamie are going to be huge names in snowboarding for a long time. It’s a real pleasure to work for both of them.
But I love all the clients we work with. Some of the best friendships I have are with clients or former clients. Andy Finch is really a close friend and we worked together for 10 years. Seth Wescott and I are really good friends too. He is such a good guy and really has a good head on his shoulders. I’m friends with Nate Holland too. Did I mention I love boardercross? I think the industry is so lame because all these marketing people have decided the only real snowboarding is being done on rails and kickers or death-defying backcountry. Racers, geeks, kooks and everyone else should be embraced by the industry… we were the outcasts once, remember?
What do you see the main differences are between the industry when you were riding and what it has transformed into today?
Not too many differences. Brands are still trying to make money in a tough business and they are using the riders to tell their story. Many times, the rider is young and not thinking about the rest of their life, so they do everything for free or even pay to do it. I think the same games are being played, but the biggest difference is when there were only telephones, somehow people communicated more. Now with all the communication technology, I can’t believe these team managers who refuse to conduct simple communication techniques, such as returning a call, e-mail, text or IM. They just disappear and lack common courtesy. I am still waiting for a number of people to reply to my initial contact, some as long as 6 months or a year ago.
I guess the industry is filled with more poseurs today than 20 years ago. So much fashion and bullshit that doesn’t really have anything to do with being on a mountain. So many people are based in Southern California and while I was born there, I can’t stand that place when I think of the snowboard industry. Magazines and companies spending their days looking at waves, talking about surfing, wearing shorts and living a beach lifestyle. Then they realize they are in the snowboard industry and they seem to push the beach lifestyle marketing into snowboarding.
I think it’s lame because they aren’t in the mountains enough to be able to relate to what living in the mountains is all about. Issue after issue of magazines come out and I just cringe at the bullshit they spew out. They already hate me, so I have nothing to lose by saying this stuff. If they wanted to make good magazines, they might want to move to the mountains. I think Bridges does the best job of trying to maintain some sense of snowboarding. But it’s also very political and it seems to cheat the kids who just read magazines and watch movies. Nothing is quite as it appears. But the industry is also really cool because it’s a bunch of people working in an area of leisure and fun, how upset can anyone get about that?
Some people call snowboarding a sport and snowboarders athletes, what is your view on this?
Stop playing stupid games. Snowboarding IS a sport, duh. You move your body in a most physical way and some genius decided to conduct competitions to differentiate levels of accomplishment on a snowboard. How is it NOT a sport? I am living the lifestyle of a snowboarder because everything I do has the ultimate goal of riding powder attached to it. I am so entrenched in snowboarding, it is part of my being. It’s not the money, it’s the entire process, from waxing to hiking to travel to slashing pow turns to teaching my kids to everything… I am a snowboarder.
But I’m also a realist. It’s a sport. And the top riders are definitely athletes. Especially these days, with Red Bull training programs and national teams and weight lifting and all that. You think TRice isn’t doing something to stay in shape? That guy is a serious athlete. I think it’s a major compliment to say snowboarders are athletes. I saw Palmer smoke a bunch of football players and other “athletes” in the “Superstars” competition. Relay races, bike races, kayak races… Palmer finished 2nd behind some jock football player, but ahead of football and basketball players and even the Herminator was there. I saw Palmer smoke the entire field of skiers at the Gravity Games in skiercross and then do it again 2 weeks later at the X Games. And Palmer can probably still blast a 5-foot backside air on a vert ramp. Why is he NOT an athlete? Snowboarding isn’t skateboarding. Snowboarding is a family sport, man, get over yourselves.
Obviously there is a lot of talk and controversy about the Olympics, what are your thoughts?
I love the Olympics. I’m old enough to have vivid memories of Cold War-era Olympics. It was so cool to see athletes from different countries come together and compete. It was more than just a sports event, it was all about the world. I also used to ski race as a kid, so I always loved watching the downhill. Franz Klammer’s 1976 gold medal run is still in my mind, gnarly! Bill Johnson was so rad, truly a badass. I have a connection to the Olympics through friends here in Tahoe who went to various Olympics and I have always enjoyed watching.
I believe your question is really about snowboarding in the Olympics… yes? I worked as a technical delegate for the World Cup of snowboarding, back in 1989. The people running the federations were the people who later founded the ISF. I felt at the time that I was the only person in the organization who actually knew the rulebook by heart. The people running the organizations talked tough, but always backed down in the moment. They wanted to change rules in the middle of an event, so the top European racer wasn’t disqualified for pre-running the course, as per the rules. I didn’t care who broke the rules, they should have been disqualified. I argued the fact we needed consistency if the IOC was going to approve snowboarding.
It’s never been consistently about the riders and courses and the “by snowboarders, for snowboarders” organization never really did a service to the sport. It was always power and money and people caving to the demands of some marketing kook from the company sponsoring the event. It appears so screwed up and so far down the road now, I just flat out don’t care who controls snowboarding competitions. It’s all about the riders and if my client wants to boycott the Olympics, it’s my job to help them achieve their goal. If a client wants to go to the Olympics, it’s my job to help them achieve that goal. I don’t care who runs what because I still see the same thing: struggles for sponsor dollars and struggles for power to control the sport.
Yes, it’s a sport! It’s in the Olympics! The Olympics exposes snowboarding to more people than anything else. Some may not like to read that, but the truth is snowboarding needs exposure to continue to exist as an industry.
What are some of the biggest experiences, good or bad, that you have had to deal with in the snowboard industry that has shaped you as a person?
Bad experiences? Palmer committing to a shop appearance and then getting a phone call from the shop saying Palmer didn’t get off the plane. I would call Palmer, only to have him tell me he didn’t feel like going to the shop appearance.
Good experiences? Watching Palmer smoke the skiers in skiercross. We worked as such a great team, it was my old friend from high school Mark Herhusky as the wax tech, Barry Thys acted as coach because he was a former downhiller on the US team and then me, keeping track of all the business and media side and also training with Palmer in the early season. It was so rad to see all the pissed off skiers when Palmer just flat out smoked them.
Probably the biggest influence on me has been being the guy who has to tell people bad news. I am the guy who tells the shop Palmer didn’t get on the plane and I am the guy who tells the company their offer is too low. I believe many people are scared to talk about uncomfortable things like money or taking responsibility for something bad. I realized I had to tell people what was going on, good or bad and then deal with the consequences, good or bad. Through years of those types of experiences, I am not afraid of any conversation with anybody. And I realize I am one of the few who aren’t afraid of this conversation.
I wear my heart on my sleeve, for better or worse. I think I am that way because I am not going anywhere. I am a snowboarder for life and I’m only 47. If I say something that gets me fired, I’m still a snowboarder who wants to rip powder and I’ll figure out the minor inconvenience of how to get another job. Fortunately I work with a great partner who understands this business is about the long term, so it fits with my personal approach. I just wish the rest of the industry wasn‘t filled with so many people who are so scared of losing their status or job, they lie and don’t return calls.
What advice could you give to kids out there who want to "make it" as pro snowboarders?
Snowboard because you love it. If you’re really that good, make yourself available to as many people and situations as possible. The more you are willing to do, the easier it will be for you to “make it”. But if the only thing you care about is being a pro, quit now, please, and leave me alone.
Any last words of wisdom?
Life isn’t that short. You have a lot of time to accomplish whatever you are focused on. If things don’t work today, stick with your passion because what you do today may not seem rewarding, but you are building value for your future. Be patient and passionate and things will definitely work out. Look at me, most people in snowboarding don’t know who I am, but I have sustained a long career in the industry and all of it has been predicated on riding as much as I possibly can. The job I do is just a means to an end. The end is riding as much as possible. I rode about 60 days last year, and I’m looking at repeating it this year. Don’t ever forget your roots, it’s what made you who you are today. Other than that, I’m stoked to be 47, pretty healthy and I have a great wife, awesome daughters and we all go riding on Sundays. What more is there?