The Sochi Winter Olympics do not start for another two months, but already the Canadians are preparing to take full command of the slopes.
The "Canadians" are a fleet of Quebec-built snow-grooming machines that will rumble up and down the ski runs, sometimes at crazy angles, to ensure the Olympic skiers compete on snow that is manicured to perfection – no bumps, ruts or nasty outcroppings of rock that could wreck their high-speed runs, or worse, take them to the hospital.
Their telltale sign is the 2.4-centimetre high "corduroy" ridges they leave in their wake. The machines are built by Prinoth AG, a division of Leitner Group, the Italian company that has emerged as a big name in the global market for ski lifts and, with a little help from the tracked-machine technology developed in Canada by Bombardier Inc., is achieving the same status in snow-grooming machines.
Prinoth is supplying about 60 machines, worth €15-million ($21.8-million), to the Rosa Khutor ski resort in Sochi. Half of them were built in Granby, Que., located midway between Montreal and Sherbrooke. The other half came from Prinoth's factory in the far north of Italy, near the Austrian border.
Prinoth has been working hard to secure the Sochi contract. It sold its first machines to the Russian resorts about five years ago, and tried to improve its odds by building a service centre nearby. "This is a highly specialized niche business and you have to know your customers' needs," said Prinoth president Werner Amort, who gave a presentation about the company at an investment conference sponsored by the Canadian government in Milan last week. "We have built a good relationship with the ski resort operators in the Sochi region."
While it would be impossible to prove, it is likely Silvio Berlusconi's friendship with Vladimir Putin helped. The former Italian prime minister, who was ousted from the senate last week, and the Russian president were famously close, to the point many Italians considered them spiritual twins (the Italian Nobel laureate playwright Dario Fo wrote a play in which Putin's brain was transplanted into Berlusconi's body). During Berlusconi's three stints in office over the last two decades, trade and investment between the two countries boomed.
Prinoth began 51 years ago, when an Italian Formula One driver of middling talent, Ernesto Prinoth, opened an automotive garage. As a mountain man – he was raised in the South Tyrol – he became fascinated with snow vehicles and developed a machine that would not roll over on steep slopes. In 1964, commercial production began and the vehicles became more sophisticated over the years.
Leitner bought Prinoth 13 years ago, and entered the Canadian market in 2005, when it took over the snow machine division of Camoplast Solideal Inc., the maker of off-road tires and rubber tracks for the construction, agriculture and defence industries. Camoplast had bought the site from Bombardier Recreational Products, the Ski-Doo and snow-grooming equipment maker that was spun out of plane and train giant Bombardier Inc. in 2003.
Today, the Granby site employs about 300 workers and makes tracked vehicles primarily for the North American market. They range in price from about $250,000 to $400,000. The machines include industrial vehicles that can clear bush for forestry operators, lay pipelines and transport workers over difficult terrain.
While financial results are not broken out, the entire Prinoth division is expected to have sales of €203-million this year, Amort said, and is profitable.
The industry's ups and downs are largely dependent on snow cover; the more snow, the longer ski resorts stay open. "If you have a lot of snow, the machines work more hours and need to be replaced more often," Amort said.
The Granby factory is supplying the Bison and Beast models to Sochi.
The latter is aptly named. Including the front blade and the rear tiller, the machine is almost 10 metres long and six metres wide, yet can turn on its own axis. It is powered by a 520-horsepower turbo diesel engine.
Of course, being Italian, Leitner has installed the high-tech cabin with Recaro seats, preferred by motorsport drivers.