In an interview with ISPO.com, Peter Aschauer takes one more look back, explains how he established the ABS backpack, what his view of the future for the market leader in avalanche backpacks looks like, and why he decided to sell his company.
After 30 years, what moved you to part ways with your company and “your baby,” the ABS avalanche airbag?
Peter Aschauer: ABS avalanche airbags defined and occupied my life for over 30 years, and will always be a part of me. However, at the age of 74, now it’s time to bid farewell to my active professional life. A new owner has also been found who’s very well-suited to leading ABS back onto the winning track.
You say that you want to continue making your network and contacts available – in what form will this be able to take place?
Naturally, I will bring the new management and the contacts established over the years together as part of the transfer of the company. Upon request, I will also always be available to, say, give suggestions for product development. This way, ABS will continue to have access to this experience it took years to accumulate.
Let’s look back at your long company history: Just how did you come up the idea to produce avalanche airbags?
I came to the idea rather by accident. While reading the newspaper I came across an article about the patent by the Fraunhofer Society being offered for sale. That interested me because I myself witnessed an avalanche while heliskiing in Canada, which could have gone very badly. From that point on, I was sensitized to the topic. Then, in 1980, I acquired the patent.
You presented the first fully functional ABS backpack at ISPO MUNICH in 1985. What was it like for you back then to have your first exhibition at a specialist trade fair?
Back then we presented the first fully functional airbag system – a system that uses a cable to tap a cartridge of pressurized air, which then fills up the airbag. However, this invention didn’t meet with the resonance we were hoping for. The success was modest, the reactions not very encouraging. Back then, I began questioning the entire project – but my belief in the product ultimately held the upper hand. In the early stages, especially, you naturally need a certain conviction and perseverance.
It just makes more sense to avoid getting buried than to risk it and wait to get pulled out. The idea wouldn’t let go of me, and that tipped to balance towards us continuing. Above all, we also began working on wearing options that, by then, were still far from mature. The first backpacks weren’t comfortable to wear, and weighed about nine pounds.
You shaped the market with your products. Looking back, what are you especially proud of? What were the most important innovations?
Due to the continuous further developments to the system and the decades of experience from practical cases, ABS was able to claim not only innovative leadership, but also market leadership with a mature product tested hundreds of times, Made in Germany.
In addition to our Twinbags, which provided twice the safety, we most recently presented the first production-line partner release system with our P.RIDE system, which can use radio to not only save your own life, but also those of your fellow passengers. We sounded the bell for a new era that way, more than once. Of course I’m proud to have created and continuously developed a new market with several impulses, ideas, and innovations.
You’ve done a lot for the subject of safety. How many people’s lives do you think your avalanche airbags have saved? Do you get a sense of recognition for that, in society as well?
It’s difficult to say how many lives have been saved. And the search for recognition was never my primary driver, but instead the subject of safety on the mountain. My request was to strengthen the awareness for dangers off of the slopes and to launch a product that can prevent a burial.
Do you have any advice you can give your successor to take along?
A full-blooded entrepreneur is taking the helm in Stefan Mohr, I don’t think he needs advice from me in terms of corporate management. I’m certain that he will continue the legacy of ABS in some areas and advance it in others. That’s how it should be and corresponds to the run of things.
What’s coming next for you in the future?
So soon before the winter, as a passionate skier I’m naturally thinking about the upcoming season, and plan to enjoy my new free time to the fullest.
How has skier behavior changed in the past 30 years?
A lot has evolved towards the positive, the awareness of dangers off of the slope being sharpened in particular, unfortunately not least due to some prominent avalanche victims. Nevertheless, we still have a long road ahead of us. Skiers’ awareness has especially increased, and unfortunately also the thought that it’s still easy to pull out of an avalanche. That’s really only possible in the rarest of cases, however.
How would you rate the trend towards ski touring and off-piste skiing – from a business perspective, but also as a friend of skiing sports?
As a passionate tourer, I rate the trend absolutely positively, but it’s everybody’s job to consistently name the topics of safety and environmental protection in the same breath. The mountains are there for everybody, but we also need to abide by the rules and especially make the younger generation aware of the dangers in the countryside, and prepare them for accidents as best as we can.
How has the industry evolved, and what about the competition? What are the biggest challenges in this business, and how have they changed?
The industry has advanced a lot, these days there are a lot of competitors that are all following the same goal. The conflict between stationary retail and online sales has naturally also changed the industry. The customer now has up-to-the-minute transparency. Of course this will lead to increased price sensitivity.