Extreme ski coach to the stars’ race to the top
How a boy from a Hemel Hempstead council estate went on to be the king of Verbier high-living
The Alps have woken from their summer slumber. It’s time to leave London behind and hurl yourself down powdery slopes while mingling with folk who won’t judge you for drinking in the middle of the day.
For most of us, ski holidays are a chance to bleed money, have fun and escape reality. For the lucky few, however, they’re a chance to make a profit from our winter frivolity. And London entrepreneur Warren Smith is leading the Brit ski-pack.
His freeriding ski school, the Warren Smith Academy is the extreme ski camp for those teetering on the edge of skiing greatness and wishing to learn how to heliski, off-piste or glide off glaciers.
Since setting up shop in the exclusive Swiss resort of Verbier in 1994, Smith has turned his formerly one-man show into an international brand. His courses have grown from a street cred school for the possibly suicidal, to the ski holiday of choice for the hedge fund elite and their bosses.
His books on how to be a freestyle pro have been translated into 36 languages and sold 180,000 copies worldwide. His DVDs sell in the tens of thousands.
Smith’s academies sell out months in advance and have become regular fixtures in the FT’s How to Spend It. They also net him almost £1m a year and help Smith to build up his celebrity rolodex year after year.
He is the private coach to the stars and skies with the likes of rugby god Laurence Delaglio, teenage girl god James Blunt and former teenage girl god Ronan Keating. Director Matthew Vaughn and wife Claudia Schiffer are clients too. Pretty plush.
But the story of how Smith become the king of Verbier is far from privileged.
Growing up in a council estate in north London, Smith had never even though of skiing. He was a BMX bike kid, pure and simple.
When his local BMX park in Hemel Hempstead was knocked down, and a dry ski slope built in its place, young Smith did what any other 13-year-old aggrieved boy would do - he went out and vandalised it
Unfortunately – or if we’re looking at the long-term picture, pretty damn fortunately – Smith was caught spray-can-in-hand. What began as a community service stint cleaning ski boots for the people who tore up his beloved park, turned into a lifelong love affair with skiing.
“It wasn’t an orthodox way of getting started,” Smith laughs. “But when I tried skiing, I found that the balance from BMX to skiing was similar. A bit like snowboarding and skateboarding.”
This niche of figuring out your body’s perfect balance and using it to turn you it into a gravity-defying machine has defined Smith’s brand and style ever since.
“I just got into it and spent all my time from age 13 ½ to 15 skiing. I got good, started racing and eventually at 16 got a scholarship from an Austrian school to train and qualify as an instructor.”
By 23 Smith had landed in Verbier. In the mid-1990s it was a freerider Mecca, a haven for the extreme skier and the perfect place to put his vision of creating an advanced academy teaching a combination of “ski physiology with ski by mechanics” to the test.
As one of only three schools, Smith was in a good place to grow. He and the resort developed side-by side. There are now nine competing schools, but as they stumble in the recession, Smith stays sold out virtually season-round.
Smith’s bright ginger hair and perma-smirk make it easier to think of him as a naughty 13-year-old boy biker than the founder of a multi-million-pound company. But don’t let the appearance cloud your judgement.
When it comes to work ethic, Smith doesn’t stop. He is one of the few people to run a summer ski school off the Zermatt glacier and he also is the only people to have off-piste skiing rights in Niseko Japan where lucky tour groups are usually taken once a year. Him and his team of eight coaches work for 11 months a year, far longer than your average seasonaire and his books, DVDs and branding events never stop.
“When I started, I didn’t call myself a businessman, I called myself a skier,” says Smith. “People used to give me so much advice back in the day and I never wanted to take any. They would tell me that I had to become a businessman and I would always think yeah yeah whatever. But I slowly learnt how to be a businessman. Reluctantly at first but I now definitely monitor the courses very closely to see who comes on when, how, how much they progress etc. We’ve even started building up a video library of the clients.”
The effort has paid off. The academy has around a 96% client retention rate.
People regularly do up to three courses a year. At around £400 for a week-long course, that doesn’t come cheap. But people get hooked. Especially the super driven clients like city workers who want to push themselves and who love that adrenaline kick, explains Smith.
And it’s full speed ahead. Smith has been thinking of branching into designing his own ski gear for a while and thinks it’s probably the next phase for the business. For now though, it’s off to the slopes to live the dream, and leave us eating his snow spray as we look on in envy.