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Charley French, Scott USA

Charley French

Charley French has worked for some 40 years at Scott USA, starting as a boot tester and engineer with the company's founder, Ed "Scotty" Scott. He has been part of some of the most well-known outdoor innovations to ever come from Idaho.

On the origins of Scott USA:
Ed "Scotty" Scott came to Sun Valley from Detroit as an automotive engineer and wanted to ski. He started skiing and was a ski racer and then he started looking at ski poles being an engineer and decided he could make a better ski pole so he came up with the idea of taking an aluminum shaft and tapering it and then putting all the stuff on it.

And so he developed that concept and then started making poles and he would 100 pair of poles and he'd sell them and get enough money to buy material to make 200 pair of poles and then eventually he went to Europe and got all the Royal Cup racers - because nobody had a pole like that - so he started off on that program and that's how he started.

How Smith Optics got started:
Bob Smith and I were skiing in Kitzbuhel (Austria) and I was being filmed for one of (Sun Valley filmmaker Dick) Barrymore's movies and we were skiing in powder and every turn the snow would come up your thighs and come into the bottom of the goggles and just fill them up and you'd have to pull the goggles away to let the snow out. So we were having dinner that night and he said we ought to be able to figure out a better goggle so I said yeah, let's just make a thermal pane like a window. It won't fog up and we'll close all the vents.

So the next morning in Kitzbuhel we went out, we bought 20 pair of lenses and some acetone - we knew that in German - and we cut the centers out of the lenses and used each one for a spacer and spaced the inner and outer lens and then took electrical tape and taped all the vents off - and walking to the Bon they fogged up.

We spent 3 months - I was working in Homburg and we had an environmental test chamber, so I'd go up all week long and mess with things and then I'd come back and hit Kitzbuhel on the weekend and we'd go skiing and test it.

The end of the winter came - he's an orthodontist so he had to go back to do his practice because he shared a practice with another guy who was a sailor so this sailor would work all winter and Bob would work all summer. So he had to go back to go to work so he said, what do we do with the goggles? I said you take it, I'll never do anything with it and that's how Smith Goggle started.

Branching out into boots and other ski products:
When we started the ski boot Scottie bought the patent and manufacturing rights. The guys delivered 1000 pair of boots and you could stand there on the floor and flex forward and break the boot so we had 1000 pair of boots that - we took them to the dump. Then I started trying to make it work. So every day we would try something new, go up in the mountains and ski on it, come down and change the give. In the first year we did 90 changes and every day we'd go up and ski. There were 3 or 4 of us and we would just ski and see how it worked or try something new.

That's how we did all our products. We decided to do a ski pole grip without a strap and so we made this strap up here and we go that sounds simple. The first time we skied on it the strap twisted in your hand and you'd get bruised knuckles and then you get a sore hand. Each day you go and change something and move something. By having the luxury of testing and coming back and modifying it, it was just awesome.

And the goggles, if they didn't fit right we would change the shape of the nose. You think well, I'll make a goggle fit a perfect head form. The standard head form for the universe doesn't work at all because it only fits one person. So then you figure out okay, how I make a goggle to fit everybody. Do you fit a Japanese nose, do you fit a Greek nose? So you keep kind of compromising these shapes to see how many people you can satisfy.

Charley French riding his bike

Same thing with the ski boot. Whose foot is perfect? I got it to fit me just right. And then you say well, I better I have it fit a couple of other people so you have to compromise the shape a little bit here and there. And that was in the days when if you made one there was no way to make the other one. You couldn't just go on a computer because it was all done by hand. Lofting like you do to make the hull of a boat, you make these lines. So we'd make one boot, get it where we thought it was right and then we'd have to duplicate it into the left. It was a little different then. Now everything is done on a computer.

On learning as you go:
We started out on the motorcycle to make a face guard because when you are racing in competition there's a guy throwing rocks and mud and everything at you and you find out when you're racing, you've got to have gloves on because the dirt is so hard you almost want to let go of the handle bars and it is hitting you in the face so we made a face guard.

We photo typed it and I took it out to go riding and the piece of foam we put here so you could breathe through this hard plastic, and I glued it in and I was sitting there breathing these glue fumes riding my motorcycle and going faster and faster.

How to test products without having too much fun:
When we started with the ski boot I never skied less than 100 days a winter and just bump skiers and so fortunately that's most of it all we do. During the week we'd leave the office at noon time, take our bag lunch and get on a chair and go up and we'd ski until 2:00 or 2:30, come down and we'd work until like 7:00 at night, and we'd usually come in at 7:00 in the morning.

Every day when you are skiing, you are skiing bumps and really skiing hard. And if you're an engineer you're always thinking about what is happening and the other guys, you prompt them. You say okay, now think about this because they're out there just having fun. So you're trying to get them to help you.

One of the problems we have whenever we're doing testing, especially like where you've got motorcycle boots, we'd have to give these motorcycle riders a checklist because they'd just go out there and start going and they forget about everything. … You give them a checklist of what they were doing and why they were doing it and what happened. It's easy to get feedback from an employee but once you go to a professional athlete on your products, you think that guy is going to be a natural and it's like talking to a wall. That's another challenge.

For us, developing products like with this ski boot that was just - it was night and day. You're breathing it, sleeping it, trying it. And we would ski until they ran out of snow here and then we'd go - we went to Colorado to ski on a glacier in the summer because we needed a test. And then the first snow in the fall it would be either Bend or Crystal Mountain. We had a company airplane, we'd take 3, 4 or 5 guys and go over there with the boots and test and figure out what we needed to know and come back. Then once the snow came here every day you are testing stuff.

Do you still downhill ski like you used to?
Not anymore. I think last year I went to the mountain like one time, but I used to ski like 100 days a year and then after a while I got where I'd skin up and walk up and stuff and then one day I realized that I wasn't getting any better and all I did was ski bumps and I thought you know, I'm not quite as good as I used to be and then it quit being fun. So then I thought what other sport can I do where I can learn so I went into cross country skiing and the more I cross countries the less I alpine and now I cross country every day and I race all over. I've been to the world championships and the nationals and all the races in Idaho. I love it because I'm still learning. Like anything we do, if you feel like you are improving you're rewarded and you keep doing it and it is a sport that is challenging enough that you'll never master it. There are just so many fine points to it - plus it's great conditioning and it is harder than biking, it is harder than running because you are using your whole body. That's my passion right now is cross country all winter and I just don't get on the mountain even. Then in the summer I'm dong triathlon. Doing a lot of riding and running and swimming.

On revolutionizing triathlon and time trial bikes:
When Boone (Lennon, a U.S. ski team coach) started the aero handle bars, he and I were racing bikes together and coming back from racing he was telling me about his idea. He was an alpine ski coach and he came up with this idea from working with the skiers in the wind tunnel because they put these guys in the tuck position to reduce drag.

So he made a prototype that looked like a toilet seat. You bolted it here and here and here and we went to a hill down south of Bellevue and we both road down the hill on our road bikes with our hands on the brake hood and we were dead even at the bottom. So then we put the bars on his bike, rolled down a hill, he was 8 bike lengths ahead of me. And we go, huh! So then we put the bars on my bike, I rolled down 8 lengths ahead of him. We said, this might work - because we didn't have money for a wind tunnel or anything. So that's how it started.

And then we started making prototype and he said what will we make them out of? I said make them out of tubing because that will keep the price down. You make them out of carbon fiber or fiberglass, they'll be $300.00 a pair. If you make them out of tubing you can probably sell them for under $100.00. So that's the approach we took and then we started going out and buying conduit and got a conduit bender and we're bending bars with this conduit. We made 2 pair of bars and I went to the Iron Man - it was the first time they'd ever been used in competition - and so I won my age group and set a new course record. Then the next year we started making them for the pro-tri-athletes and we had a guy who was about a 3rd ranked pro - he wasn't a top guy - so we gave him a pair of bars and he beat all the top guys on the bike leg. And the next Monday morning all these guys call up, I've got to have a set of bars. And each weekend after a pro race we'd get calls from the other pros that hadn't had a set of bars. The end of the summer every pro had bars. And that's how it started.

It turns out the bars are still the biggest single aerodynamic advantage of anything you can do on a bike in a bike race. It is better than helmets, better than disc wheels.

On maintaining fresh ideas:
When you go out and do exercise your mind just accelerates. Whatever and it may not be inventing but it's something you are doing for work or something you thought about or forgot about and it comes back. And for me because I like to think I'm going to create something is it is just fun to be thinking of things - or something you forgot to do at work. This comes on just from being active for me - and I think it is for most people. When you think of companies where people never go out and exercise and you see other companies that realize that their executives should be out doing some kind of work-out. I think there is a big advantage to it, at least for me and for what I've done. It could be swimming, it could be running, it could be biking. It could be anything. You're just being out by yourself and getting your heart rate up, it just kind of revitalizes everything.

Even for people who don't want to compete and train hard - a lot of the weekends I'll just come walk up to the top (of Baldy in Sun Valley) then ride down. In the morning when the sun is not on you and you're in the shade. Your heart rate isn't going crazy and yet you're still out being invigorated. And in skiing if you want to go cross country, you don't have to go on a groomed trail. You can just go out and walk through the trees. It's just nice to be out where it's quiet and do your own thing.

On gratification:
It's kind of funny because you get so engrossed in a project like the ski boot. For 2 years we're just doing all the stuff and I can remember putting them in boxes that are going to get shipped to a dealer. I was walking in town one night and I saw a pair of them in the window at Sturtevant's and I thought gawd, look at there. A finished pair of ski boots being sold. I was kind of proud. And now I look back at the amount of effort that went into these things and I think I did that? It is almost overwhelming when you realize the amount of hours and the amount of effort that were involved in creating these things. And nobody seemed to care. It happened and you sold them and people bought them but nobody came around and said, you're a genius. You're just another guy working. So now I sort of reflect back and say yeah, it wasn't bad.

In sports, winning the Iron Man was probably the biggest thing for me, but I think the ski boot was pretty awesome because we had guys on a freestyle circuit and they were winning events and stuff and then with the motorcycle boot we had a lot of guys winning championships and stuff. And then the ski pole. What's so great about that? But there is some satisfaction in making these things. It is pretty much internal but the kind of thing, well, that wasn't too bad.

For me, I've been very lucky because I'd like to design and build and see stuff get done and they are things I like and so I'm living in probably the best place in the world, designing the things that I want to use. It's just been a perfect world. You have good friends and everybody up here has a similar mentality so you've got a lot of friends, a lot of people to do things with. It's just been absolutely perfect for me.