A green way towards a white future

Life and development at the foot of the Karavanke mountain range requires a special type of adaptation. Here, living in harmony and caring for the environment are part of the stereotype and a key element of growth and progress.

Throughout its 77-year history, driven by innovation and the stubbornness innate to the region, Elan has grown from a local cooperative sports gear manufacturer to one of the world’s most recognizable ski equipment brands. The environment in which sustainability is a tradition now hosts a modern company with over 700 employees, who push the boundaries of skiing through hard work and dedication. One of the company's central challenges is making a fast and effective transition to systematic and sustainable operation. The task has been entrusted to Mr. Leon Korošec, long-time Director of the Winter Division and Vice President of Elan. In his office, with a view of the company’s new solar power plant and onwards towards the easternmost two-thousanders of the Alps, we spoke to Leon about the green future of the white sport.

Tell us of one of your memories of being captivated and amazed by nature.

It's no coincidence that it's linked to Elan, and it's a fresh memory. It was at sunrise at the top of Šija at the Vogel ski resort. I went out for a quick ski tour with the head lamp early in the morning. The start was lonely. It was cold and dark, and the silence was only broken every now and then by a sound of nature.
While working my way up I kept thinking about turning back, but I kept coming back to the saying that it is always darkest just before dawn. I pressed on, reached the top, and there, with the first ray of morning light, everything around me changed and fell into place in a single moment. The view from took on a completely different light. The mountains gained color, the image came to life and the journey was rewarded. It is a thought that often accompanies me in business. Doubt and fear sometimes come up even after more than 20 years of working on challenging projects, but you must go through them with a positive attitude.

What was your sporting career like?

Recreational. There was never a single sport I committed to and pursued results in a competitive environment. Nevertheless, sport has always been and still is a constant part of my life. Skiing, ski touring, running, and cycling are activities that I intertwine throughout the seasons.

Do you believe that the competitive spirit of sports, the desire to conquer peaks and the goal-orientation that are part and parcel of business can be reconciled with the balance and sustainability that nature dictates?  

They can be, and they should be. I often say that business is not a football match that ends after 90 minutes with a final score, but an endless game that keeps adding to the overall result from round to round. The point is not just to play the game and stay in business, but to raise the level of the business and the environment we live in through our activities. Of course, we also need measurable goals, measurable "wins" if you like, to show us how successful we are on our journey.

Does the long-term vision take precedence, or do the short-term goals?

Short-term focus and long-term vision are in balance when they are complementary. Short-term goals ultimately show us how well we are doing in pursuing a longer-term direction, but it is also important to know "what counts" in the short term too.

The end of a financial year cannot be interpreted solely in terms of a single figure, through sales or profit. At Elan we measure our objectives as a matrix, including financial results as well as employee satisfaction, growth, and our impact on the environment.

In sports terms, you need partial results and short-term wins. It's what inspires us and provides the fuel and motivation to run long distances. And sometimes you also need to beat someone and be - first.

The environment is showing all signs of imbalance. Glaciers in the Alps are disappearing, the winter snow line is rising, and winters are getting noticeably shorter. Do you feel people are sufficiently aware of the urgency of the changes related to the environmental crisis?

I don't think there is enough awareness yet, and the challenge I see is that too often awareness comes in waves, without any real continuity. We have moments when we are all talking about climate conferences, about environmental change, and it becomes too much to think about, followed by periods of lower intensity when the topic becomes diluted and disappears from our minds. Caring for the environment needs to be developed into a habit, and it is the leap from a one-off impulse to an established habit that is one of the hardest behavioral changes. Awareness raising plays a key role in this, but it is important that it is continuous. Sparse and strong impulses can quickly be perceived as propaganda and even become annoying. It is up to brands, companies, and organizations to adapt their activities accordingly and act as a beacon that flashes and shows the way every night, without exception.

What daily habits do you yourself pursue to make your bottom line more sustainable?

Interestingly, the pandemic has brought about some changes and some good qualities. I have reduced the amount I buy and thought more often about which things are still good enough and don't need replacing. At home we installed two elevated garden beds we now grow some of our own food.

Have your habits in the business world changed as well?

Of course, they have. I have become very selective about business trips. While we still build new acquaintances and partnerships through face-to-face contacts, we have swapped business trips for video conferences with many of our existing partners. It has become clear that we can maintain established relationships over distances, which saves us quite a bit of time. In terms of the environment, we also generate less emissions with less transport, which is clearly a positive contribution.

People look for a genuine connection with nature, escapes from the hustle and bustle, peace and quiet, relaxation, but also adrenaline and excitement. To do this safely and responsibly, the right equipment is essential. But equipment requires complex inputs and energy-intensive processes and through use slowly turns to waste. How has Elan been putting sustainability into perspective in the production and use of its products?

Sustainability is part of Elan's DNA, and it certainly shows in both the manufacturing and in end products. They are durable and long-lasting, high quality in terms of input materials and production processes, and they enable users to spend time in nature in an authentic and environmentally responsible way. The company has also taken on a number of initiatives that directly improve our impact on the environment. As an example - switching from screen printing to digital printing has significantly reduced the level of organic volatiles generated in our manufacturing. We are also the only company of this kind to carry out the entire production process at a single site.

We could move around the world, look for more cost-effective facilities and less demanding environments, but we are here to stay because we believe in our way of developing and growth.

We are an innovator, and we look for solutions within our own constraints. Therefore, we installed a 5,000 m2 solar power plant on our roof that today provides 15% of the company's total energy needs.

If the ski is the tangible thing that leaves the factory in Begunje, the brand is the idea that takes off into the world. What does the Elan name mean to the user?

The role of brands is complex and touches on many different areas. On the one hand, we perceive ourselves as co-creators of the economic and social environment and we want to set an example. We want to show that a better world can be created on the wings of innovation. On the other hand, we respond to the needs of the market and different user groups. As a brand we want to inspire users to live an active and sustainable lifestyle and we want to be the right companion to the user with our products to enable unforgettable moments in nature with friends and family. It is important that Elan stands for trust in safety and quality for the child who needs softer skis, for the female skier who seeks lighter and more manageable skis, and for the top racers who need the best products to create top results.

What about sustainability? What is Elan’s role in this field?

In the digital age, brands have more than ever become platforms on which like-minded groups of users come together. And whereas traditionally the role of brand management belonged solely to the company, in the modern digital world the user engages in this dialogue as a co-manager. Respect for the environment is without doubt one of the core values that we want to stand for in the global environment together with our users. We support global and local initiatives, and our ranks tirelessly develop new sustainability-oriented ones.

More and more companies are facing the challenges and processes of sustainable transformation. What type of leadership and governance will be key for an effective transition?

Collaborative management, and not only in the field of sustainability, but in the entire business. Collaborative management is a cornerstone of how we make decisions at Elan because it brings a wider range of stakeholders into the process and results in a more holistic response to business challenges.

But just as inclusion and breadth are important at one stage of the process, decisiveness and persistence with the decision made is important immediately afterwards. Once a decision is made, we move from the collaboration phase to the implementation phase where we need to follow through to our goal. And of course, there are always micro-corrections along the way. Imagine it like an airplane - the direction of flight and the destination are clear, but in practice the plane never follows the exact route. To borrow a quote from US President D.D. Eisenhower: "Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable", and with this in mind we are always prepared for a step off the charted route as we move towards our destination.

Elan's business strategy is based on the “Triple bottom-line" business concept, which relies on the internal culture (People), the financial result (Profit) and the environment (Planet). How does Elan balance all three P's?

It is essential that we remain in the green under all three lines. This means that we can ensure a positive and healthy company culture, that we address and take care of the impact our business has on the environment, and that we also ensure sustainable profitability of the company.

When it comes to profit many people think that it is incompatible with the other two areas, but if a company wants to operate sustainably, it must provide sufficient resources and added value to implement sustainability initiatives.

People are the generator of ideas needed for sustainable and resilient operation and the company's profit is key for turning ideas into concrete solutions. Only then can the impact of these solutions be translated into a positive environmental bottom line.

Can sustainability and care for the planet be turned into a competitive advantage?

Absolutely, but we need to understand that the company is only one part of the bigger picture. When sustainability is embedded in the company as a core value, this will be followed by the business and the manufacturing of products that will be linked to the values of the user through the brand. And it is on the side of the user that the power to create greater change lies. Small steps made by individual users add up at the company level and when there are enough like-minded people, they bring about greater change.