When you watch the 33-year-old Utah native behind the starting gate at the Pyeongchang Olympics in the coming days, look beyond his scruffy good looks and check out his jazzy helmet and goggles once he starts careening down the icy course at speeds up to 80 mph. It is not just vital gear to protect the veteran skier — the first and thus far only U.S. alpine ski racer with two Olympic gold medals on his résumé. Notice the spiky-lettered bright red logo for Shred. That's the other side of Ligety's success story.
Shred Optics is the private company he co-founded in 2006 that makes high-tech helmets and goggles and other protective gear for winter athletes and outdoors enthusiasts. That was not long after Ligety, then 21 and making his Olympic debut at the Winter Games in Torino, Italy, shocked the ski world by winning gold in the combined event, comprising downhill and slalom runs. He would mine his record-setting second gold in the giant slalom at the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia, an accolade to go along with the five World Cup GS championships he's won during 15 seasons on the circuit.
Ligety had met Shred co-founder Carlo Salmini, an Italian materials engineer with an MBA from MIT, in 2003. "He was doing a little racing then and had made these carbon-fiber shin guards [worn by alpine ski racers] that I thought were awesome," Ligety told CNBC a few weeks before joining Team USA in South Korea. "Carlo prototyped some for myself and a couple of teammates, and we developed a friendship."
Salmini went on to launch his own company, Slytech Protection, outside of Venice to produce and market protective equipment for skiers and snowboarders. Meanwhile, Ligety, who's always tinkered with his own gear, came up with an idea to make high-contrast ski goggles that accentuated light and dark contours in the snow, technology he developed with a lens maker in Japan. Salmini loved the concept, and the goggles became the original product for Shred, which ultimately merged with Slytech. ("Ted Shred" was a nickname a coach gave Ligety when he was 10 for his all-or-nothing skiing style, and he retains both.)
Ligety barreled ahead, balancing his ski-racing and entrepreneurial careers. In 2013, at an event in Austria, he became the first man to win at least three gold medals at the same world championships since 1968. "Mr. GS," another moniker, also claimed three consecutive giant slalom titles at the biennial competition from 2011–15. A nasty crash in '16 resulted in a right-knee ACL tear and the end of that season, and he sat out all of last year following surgery to fix nagging back pain.
"After those couple of bad years in a row, I'm finally feeling healthy," Ligety said, recalling months of grueling rehabilitation and training. Indeed, he finished third in the GS at the final World Cup event prior to Pyeongchang — on the same Jeongseon Alpine Centre hill, coincidentally, where he won his very first World Cup race, in 2006. He came up short in his first event at these Games, the combined, but still has the super-G and GS races in his pursuit of more podiums.
One uplifting part of Ligety's downtime was the extra attention he was able to pay to Shred. "I was more involved in the day-to-day stuff, generally product-related and brand strategy," he said. The company has expanded its product line to feature helmets, sunglasses, clothing and more protective gear, in particular a back-protection piece that's become a market leader. Shred has developed what it calls "NoShock" padding, a proprietary, shock-absorbing technology for helmets and pads, which pairs two protective foams. Some of Ligety's U.S. teammates —i.e., Tommy Ford and Ryan Cochran-Siegle — and other winter athletes wear and endorse the products. That includes Austria's alpine skier Lara Gut and Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas.
Last fall, Shred launched a Kickstarter campaign to showcase its new collection of Boost sunglasses. "We not only unveiled new lens and super-lightweight frame technology but also enriched our relationships with existing customers while reaching a wider audience," said Salmini, referring to Kickstarter's marketing elements. Shred met its initial $25,000 funding goal within the first 24 hours and ultimately raised more than $116,000.
Shred has moved from Ligety's attic to new offices in Park City, Ligety's hometown, and now employs 25 people, among them six engineers and product designers. He and Salmini recently took on a strategic partner and minority shareholder, John Cumming, CEO of Powdr Adventure Lifestyle, also based in Park City, which owns and operates numerous ski resorts across the country, as well as the adventure cable channel Outside TV. They're still working out details, but exposing Shred products through Powdr's properties should be a marketing boon. "He really understands our industry," Ligety said, "so it helps to pick his brain."
Ligety has his own headful of business know-how. "I've always been interested in the product side of the sport," he said, "and wanted to have my own company in the ski world, an area I love and understand." The time to start Shred was right just after his win in Torino. "I could use myself as a guinea pig to develop products that would make me better, and my success would aid the company," he figured. "It was a good circle in that sense."
Ligety declines to report Shred's revenues, other than to say the company's grown annually by 25 percent over the last couple of years. Owler.com estimates annual revenues at $3.5 million. He's enthusiastic, however, talking about Shred's deep commitment to social responsibility. "We want to be conscious about protecting our playground," he said, explaining alliances with nonprofits POW (Protect Our Winters) and 1 percent for the Planet.
"One percent of our revenues goes to help stem climate change," Ligety said, the effects of which he's seen firsthand. "Over the course of my career, it's been stunning to see how much the winters have changed, so it's something we're definitely sensitive to."
Pyeongchang, thankfully, has had plenty of wintry weather and, save for some high winds, ideal skiing conditions thus far. Regardless of Ligety's achievements in his remaining Olympic races, he'll be back on the World Cup circuit "for a few more years," he said. "I still love racing and want to do some more things in the sport." And along the way, Ted Shred will be the very visible head of his growing company.
— By Bob Woods, special to CNBC.com