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Providing a Lift on the Slopes

Star Lifts’ measured approach spurs success
Young skiers on rope lift

When Star Lifts USA entered the North American ski lift and supplies market 20 years ago, there was one point its management team immediately agreed on: it’s goal couldn’t be simply to move product.

Instead, management was adamant about being a supplier that would be there for customers in the ski resort business whenever and however needed. It also wanted to adhere to the philosophy of Austrian-based parent company Sunkid, of being a leader in the ski school industry and providing products tailored to the needs of people just getting started in the sport.

That’s why, rather than risk getting too big too fast, Star Lifts has followed a strategy of gradual, but steady growth as it prepares to mark its 20th anniversary in Canada and the U.S. later this year.

“We don’t want to grow too fast or make things that give us after-sales troubles,” said Sunkid CEO Emanuel Wohlfarter. “Some of our competitors went into the market with great promises which they later have not been able to fulfill. That is not our philosophy. We have been in the market for over 20 years, and we would like to stay another 20-plus years in the market. That means we can’t grow too fast.”

Young skiers on conveyor lift
Mt. Rose, Nev., has a double conveyor belt Moving Carpet

That said, Star Lifts has enjoyed some significant growth over the last two decades. The Sunapee, N.H.-based company enjoyed its best year ever in 2019, and is poised to post comparable numbers this year as Covid-19-related health restrictions start to ease.

Perhaps nothing illustrates that better than the success of the company’s most popular offering, the Moving Carpet. First developed by Sunkid for use in Europe, the moving rubber platform allows both kids and adults to climb to the top of a hill easily, thus saving their strength and energy, and allowing them more time for lessons. It comes in lengths starting at nine meters and offers easy-to-operate variable speed controls. It can be used year-round or easily removed from the hill in the summer if there is no need for it. Wohlfarter says Star Lifts enjoys about a two-thirds share of the North American market with its Moving Carpet and installs between 30 and 40 of the systems each year in Canada and the U.S.

Another family-friendly offering from Star Lifts and its parent company is Sunny Stuff, a colorful series of teaching aids and accessories for ski schools that are eye-catching and provide a safe and fun learning environment.

It soon became obvious that many of the products Bruckschloegl developed for use in Europe would work just as well at Canadian and U.S. ski resorts.

“The Sunny Stuff product is really unique here in North America,” said Star Lifts vice president and general manager Conor Rowan. “Putting some color on the slopes is a very European technique for ski schools. It makes things a little more three dimensional and provides a little more interaction for the students in these ski schools.”

The company’s lift system is also gaining some traction in North America. Developed more than 40 years ago by Sunkid for use in Europe, it’s four designs can be combined to offer more than 80 variations. It’s also unique in that the ropes for the lift are never more than three feet above the ground, making it ideal for young skiers. It can also be tailored to adapt to different snow weights or different types of passengers. Over the last several years, Star Lifts has installed, on average, 20 of these lift systems at North American ski hills per year.

“This kind of lift doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” Wohlfarter said. “Our design means the installation and initial costs are much lower than for larger lift systems where you have a lot of concrete.”

Young skiers skiing around large cartoon cut-outs
A selection of Sunny Stuff figures

Although most of the products and parts Star Lifts offers are manufactured in Austria or one of Sunkid’s subsidiaries in France, Switzerland, and Germany, Rowan says the company keeps a full supply of its current offerings on-hand at its New Hampshire warehouse. That means most of their products can be shipped to anywhere in North America within a matter of days, something Rowan says was critical during the pandemic when supply chain interruptions had a severe impact on many North American-based companies.

“We always have a number of pieces here in our warehouse with the theory being that we’re able to supply with a faster turnaround period for the customer here in North America,” he said. “We don’t have to have everything shipped here from Europe. We try to keep a good stock here to keep the speed of service fast for the customer.”

As part of its focus on customer service, Star Lifts has developed a number of partnerships for the service of its products including Marc Wood and Joe Gmuender in the western and central parts of Canada and the U.S., Doppelmayr Canada in Saint-Jerome, Que., and Mueller Lifts in B.C.

“We have been in the market for over 20 years, and we would like to stay another 20-plus years in the market. That means we can’t grow too fast.”

Emanuel Wohlfarter

Even though Star Lifts will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, the roots of the company were planted nearly 10 years earlier. Sunkid founder Max Bruckschloegl began working with a number of American ski resorts in the early 1990s, along with the support of an Austrian friend who was working in the U.S. at the time as a ski instructor. It soon became obvious that many of the products Bruckschloegl developed for use in Europe would work just as well at Canadian and U.S. ski resorts.

“It’s a big market in North America,” Wohlfarter said of the reason behind the company’s desire to enter Canada and the U.S. “When you have a product that works in Europe, the idea to try and sell it overseas in Canada and the U.S. became quite clear.”

Star Lifts started with just two employees in 2001. It’s now headed-up by Rowan, who started with the company as assistant manager seven years ago and moved into his current role two years ago. He is supported on the technical and service side of things by Adam Cummings and by office manager Michelle Lavigne. The company’s 60,000-square-foot facility in Sunapee consists of an office building, two storage facilities and a service area.

Group photo
Star Lifts team (left to right): Conor Rowan, Adam Cummings, Michelle Lavigne, Herbert Zopf, Cynthia Anderson (retired), Peter Kavanagh (retired), Marc Wood and Emanuel Wohlfarther

Wohlfarter says Star Lifts and its parent company have no plans to change its approach to business in North America. That means continuing the slow, but steady approach to growth that has worked for it so far.

On the product side of things, it is developing a new generation of the Moving Carpet that will include the best features of the past 20 years while introducing new standards for useability and remote maintenance. The first prototypes of the new carpets are in use at some European ski resorts and the plan is to make them available in North America by 2022.

Star Lifts is also looking to step up its offerings when it comes to summer and year-round products for ski areas. Wohlfarter says it’s a priority for his company as more and more resorts are looking to attract visitors 365 days a year. One of the company’s first offerings in that category is its Mountain Coaster summer toboggan runs, which he says are cost-efficient, easy to install and have a very low impact on the environment. The company has already installed a number of the runs in Canada, and is waiting for regulatory approval in the U.S.

For more information on Star Lifts visit