PITTSFIELD — This is the epicenter of the American speedskate manufacturing industry. If you’re going to get your blades made, it’s here, in a basement, in a corner of the snow-covered Berkshires.
For the better part of the last 15 years, Mario DeBartolo, a 56-year-old former General Electric quality engineer, has immersed himself in perfecting the design and assembly of the kind of racing blades that zipped around the Olympic rings the last couple of weeks. Let the rest of the world worry about designing a better mouse trap. DeBartolo’s quest is to engineer the world’s best skate blades, and he works at it night and day in the basement of the quaint home he and wife Gretchen keep at the edge of the Housatonic River.
Well, most of the work stays in the basement.
“Don’t discount the kitchen table,’’ Gretchen kidded, when a visitor stopped by the couple’s home/world headquarters last week, while her husband spread all manner of his speedskate inventions and paraphernalia across said table. “A lot goes on at the kitchen table.’’
In part, said Mario, the kitchen sometimes serves as showroom because the basement, official headquarters of his Special Equipment, Co., LLC, is too messy for the clerk of the works to conduct a media tour. He also isn’t keen on having photographs taken of his shop, mostly, he explained, because he cares not to expose his trade secrets. The message is clear: The skate blade industry can be a cutthroat business.
Truth is, the making of skates, once a robust industry in the Connecticut River Valley in the late 1800s and into the 20th century, these days is mostly the domain of the industry big boys, the behemoth sporting goods manufacturers that crank out figure and hockey skates. Not DeBartolo’s domain. He toils in a niche business, courting and catering to that itsy-bitsy subset of skaters who zip down the skate lane less taken.
“My background is engineering and I like to keep my hands dirty,’’ noted DeBartolo, who, even while employed at GE in the 1980s, designed and assembled bicycles as a hobby. “I’ve always been interested in sporting equipment, and I figured this was something I could get in and not get killed by the Nikes and Spauldings of the world.’’
A quick primer on DeBartolo’s blade business:
■ He buys the steel used for the blades, generically referred to as “runners,’’ from a German manufacturer. “It’s exotic, powdered steel,’’ he explained. “Steel often gets contaminated as it’s made. The steel I use has to be hard and free of imperfections.’’
■ The aluminum used in the blade-length “tubes’’ that hold the runners in place, as well as the “cups’’ that attach the tube and runner to a skating boot, is made by a Midwest manufacturer. “Only two manufacturers in the country make the type of aluminum I want — one in California and one in the middle of the country,’’ said DeBartolo. No surprise, he cared not to reveal the city or the vendor.
■ DeBartolo’s forte, his entrepreneurial raison d’etre, is designing the blades, finding the goods, getting them processed to his exacting specs, then putting them together, all at a retail price of $400-$500 per pair. “I probably should charge more, because they’re made in America,’’ he said. “But my overhead is low.’’
The boots are important, obviously, but DeBartolo focuses specifically on the hardware below the sole. His brand name: “Veloce,’’ the Italian term for “fast.” He also designs and sells a gauge for tuning the blades, a small stand (his term: jig) for sharpening them, and sundry other items specific to speedskating.
“I keep plugging,’’ he said, ever the engineer, musing how his current blade design took some 10 years to develop. “You take your best shot and then make adjustments. The secret to business is to listen. People tell you what they like, what they don’t like. Even if they don’t know exactly what they’re saying, it’s important to listen because they are saying something. Your job is to decipher it, make the change, make it better.’’
The current speedskating world, according to DeBartolo, is dominated by a pair of blade manufacturers, Maple and Evo, neither based in America. He acknowledges trying to muscle into market share as a little guy working out of his basement is a challenge. He’s aimed his marketing eye on the world’s best junior skaters, hoping his brand might grow in lockstep with their strides. But that’s all part of what he bargained for when he left corporate America for a life of trying to create the fastest blades on earth. GE, he says, stifled his creativity. Then his years working for a family-owned mold-injections company left him wanting the risks/rewards of owning a business.
Now here he is, proprietor of a one-man, one-cottage industry, the sole American banging out blades for better speed.
“It’s a small market,’’ said DeBartolo, noting that there are only some 2,000 registered speedskaters in the US. “And it’s cyclical, too, with the Olympics. With the Games on, I’m going 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, pretty much. Non-Olympic years it will taper off, shorter days, shorter weeks.’’
Born in Calabria, Italy, DeBartolo moved as a child to New Rochelle, N.Y., with his parents. He earned engineering degrees at the University of Buffalo and Buffalo State College, then made his way here to Western Mass. There is history in these hills. He says he feels part of it. Skates once were made up and down the Connecticut River. Troy, N.Y., he said, once produced the best steel in the land.
One day, DeBartolo figures, skate blades possibly will be made of ceramics or carbon fiber. He’s tinkered some with both and is intrigued by the possibilities. But for now the speed game remains on steel, a material sturdy enough to withstand the pounding, malleable enough to be crafted to a customer’s whim.
“I’m the only one making these blades in America,’’ said DeBartolo, noting there are a few boot makers throughout the US. “No one else understands the steel the way I do — it’s all sort of black magic to them. So, for better or worse, I’m the guy.’’