10 Life Lessons from Klaus Obermeyer
Catherine Lutz interview. May 24, 2018
At 98, Klaus Obermeyer is perhaps Aspen’s most inspiring personality. The Bavarian-born entrepreneur strapped on his first pair of skis — which he made himself from orange crate planks — at the age of three. An aeronautical engineer by training, he’s been one of the ski industry’s most prolific innovators during his 70-plus years in Aspen, inventing the down ski parka, high-alpine sunscreen, two-pronged ski brakes, and more.
Obermeyer is still very hands-on running his eponymous outdoor clothing business, which began with that down jacket, fashioned from the comforter his mother sent with him to America, and continues to be at the forefront of technical skiwear. (Most recently, he designed a light, packable down jacket debuting for the 2018-19 ski season.) Around town, he’s known for his huge smile and easy laugh, reflecting an exceptional enthusiasm for life that no doubt keeps him as young and fit as does his regular practice of Aikido, daily swims, and of course, skiing.
Obermeyer was recently the featured guest at the Aspen Business Luncheon, hosted by Todd Shaver. He shared stories of his early adventures in Aspen and around the west, the famous personalities he interacted with, and inevitably, some interesting life lessons. Here, we round up 10 things we learned from Klaus Obermeyer that can serve anyone well, and some of the back story, if appropriate.
1: “There’s just so much that could be made better all the time.”
In the early days of skiing, Obermeyer explained, people wore their formal clothes on the hill and weren’t very well protected from the elements — and ski technology was, at best, still very crude. Today, we take many of Obermeyer’s inventions for granted, but it was this simple philosophy of his, this desire to have more people enjoy skiing more, that not only drove his business but boosted the sport’s popularity. Asked what he’s most proud of, Obermeyer added, “I’m not proud of anything. We just always tried to make skiing more friendly and better, so people could enjoy it more.”
2: “Our [company’s] philosophy is win-win: Create win-win situations, with factories, dealers, customers. It has to be good for them, good for us, good for everybody.”
Obermeyer took his concept of making people happy into Sport Obermeyer, a company whose success does not come at the expense of employees or customers. A couple examples: the six-inch powder-day rule, the company lap pool, and the iGrow system on children’s ski bibs and jackets, which extends their useful life with a stitched-in extension in the sleeves and pant legs. Obermeyer even wants to make the environment happy — he recalled feeling bad about building his company headquarters at the ABC on a beautiful wildflower field, so he decided to build it in a way that would be somewhat friendly to the earth. Today, the building is 60-percent powered by solar energy, the pool is 100-percent solar heated, and Obermeyer’s Denver warehouse uses sustainable energy as well.
3: “Aim is a very powerful thing. You get to where you aim to.”
Another simple philosophy that translates well from skiing to business to life goals. Obermeyer also advises to “aim at making it terrific.”
4: “Do your own thing. Do what makes you feel right. And put a smile on people’s faces.”
When asked about who influenced or inspired him in business, Obermeyer replied he didn’t have any — followed by the quote above, which reflects self-confidence and a sense of purpose, along with his humanity.
5: “Keep doing it. If you don’t use your body, you lose it.”
Obermeyer is often asked what his secret to good health is. After noting simply that at 98 he still does Aikido, swims, and skis, he added, “You have to forget the years.”
6: “We’re dancing on a floor that’s moving.”
In the ski business as with many other businesses, Obermeyer explained, things are constantly changing and businesses must constantly adapt. Referring to how technology is changing the world, he sees it only in a positive light, calling it fabulous, dynamic, and incredible.
7: “You have to live with what it is, live with the facts.”
Obermeyer was responding to a question about whether he has any regrets, whether he wishes he could have done something differently. He replied simply … that he does not.
8: “One of the great freedoms we all have is the freedom of perception, how we perceive life around us. We can perceive positively or negatively — the choice, that’s us, nobody else makes us do that.”
Now you can understand Obermeyer’s wide smile, unshakable optimism, and the reasoning behind his oft-repeated mantra: Make it fun.
9: “When a problem comes, be nice to the problem. Because problems in life are our teachers. When a problem comes, learn from it, see why it’s there, see what you need to do to make it a good thing, not a bad thing that happens to us.”
10: “There’s something that happened that skiing did. It broke down the differences in society, it evened it out. What counted was not how much money you had, what counted was how fast you could ski!”
After arriving in Aspen in 1947, Obermeyer taught skiing for 12 years, a time during which he met “the nicest people in the world,” including movie stars like Gary Cooper (who bought his first down parka) and successful businessmen like Walter Paepcke, father of the Aspen Idea, with whom he played chess nightly. Class differences were rarely noticed in the nascent ski town, when “the dishwasher and the movie star rode on the same lift,” he observed.