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Cache firm defeats snowmobile giant

Michael Olsen, left, talks with grandfather Verlin Simmons while assembling snowmobile skis Simmons invented. Bombardier Inc. has been selling copycat version.
Michael Olsen, left, talks with grandfather Verlin Simmons while assembling snowmobile skis Simmons invented. Bombardier Inc. has been selling copycat version.
Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

PROVIDENCE, Cache County — Verlin Simmons, who was making a living trimming cow's feet, set out to invent a better snowmobile after an idea came to him suddenly one morning in 1991.

All Simmons did was change the shape of the machine's front skis, but it is a design still without rival that was heralded as revolutionary by trade magazines in 1993 when sales took off.

Snowmobiles outfitted with his flexible plastic skis could corner like race cars, float in deep powder snow, yet hold a straight line in packed, rutted snow. Enthusiasts say there isn't any snow condition his skis aren't good for, and snowmobile manufacturers took notice.

Then Canadian industrial giant Bombardier Inc., which made the Ski-Doo, the world's top selling snowmobile, came out with its version of the Simmons ski three years ago, called the Precision Ski, and announced it also was available as an accessory for other brands of snowmobiles.

As suddenly as the invention came to Simmons, Bombardier's copycat threatened to bury a family business that by 2000 was clearing $1.7 million in annual sales, according to court documents.

"We fought like heck," says an embittered Simmons, 74, who finally won an expensive, three-year court battle for patent infringement in late September. "We had to prove everything."

Simmons said he paid $1.5 million out of company revenues defending his patent against Bombardier, which agreed to settle the case for an undisclosed sum after losing a series of court rulings, just three weeks before it faced a trial over damages.

"We didn't make a killing, so we can't retire," said his 50-year-old son, Val Simmons, vice president of Simmons Inc. "But we can continue with a business — and that product is still the best out there."

The case was closed in Salt Lake City on Sept. 30 when U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell signed a final order making 2005 the final model year Bombardier can offer its Precision Ski. The company didn't admit to violating the Simmons patent and told The Associated Press it was designing a new ski.

"Listen, if we've designed something that people thought was close to them, I have to say they probably have good skis, but that's all I'm going to say," said Pierre Pichette, a vice president for Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. of Valcourt, Quebec, which was spun off last year when Bombardier Inc. decided to concentrate on making aircraft and trains.

At the outset the Simmons family tried to interest Bombardier in a license for their ski design, but court documents say the company broke off negotiations after deciding instead to "design around" the Simmons patent by making subtle differences in the Precision Ski.

Bombardier vigorously fought the case to the very end, arguing the Simmons design was so obvious to any ordinary person trying to solve a mechanical problem it couldn't be protected by patent. It even argued the meaning in the Simmons patent of such words as edge, lateral and base. Cassell reached for Random House and Webster's dictionaries to decide the case.

"Our patent was on trial. They tried everything to discredit and kill the patent," said Val Simmons, as convinced as his father that the legal system is stacked against the little guy. "It's plum rotten."

They liken the battle to a chess game — with each move costing more money than the one before. Business friends told them they'd never prevail against a rich corporation, but they kept at it, paying lawyers as much as $500 an hour out of company revenue, never borrowing a dollar for the business.

Simmons Inc., a private company that doesn't have to report earnings, sells thousands of pairs of skis every year at $396 a set.

"Now people buy a snowmobile and the first thing they do is put Simmons skis on them," said Alan Anderson, the family's lead attorney and a partner with Fulbright & Jaworski in Minneapolis.

Flexi-Skis are as different from conventional snowmobile skis as a catamaran is from a regular boat. They have a deep channel that funnels snow and two sets of runners instead of one to keep the machine on a steady course. The running surface of the ski is concave instead of bulging outward, which makes snowmobiles notoriously jittery on rutted trails.

When Simmons, an inveterate tinkerer whose idea for a flytrap and other products have been lost to the market, devised his first crude prototype, his son told him, "You're off your rocker with this idea, dad."

But Val Simmons bolted the skis on a snowmobile and gave them a run. "I came back down and said, 'Can I be a partner?' " he said.

His father, company president, said his son always has been a partner.

They have the dense yet flexible and slick plastic of the skis molded by Poly Hi Solidur of Fort Wayne, Ind. Verlin's grandchildren, alternately working a single assembly jig, mount a ski-tip tensioner and add hardware to the skis and pack them for shipment.

A granddaughter takes direct consumer orders by phone and ships out sets to about 500 dealers in North America. During an hourlong interview last week a printer spit out a ribbon of 30 shipping labels, as Verlin's wife, Dot, helped work the phones.

They work inside a comfortable new shed behind Verlin Simmons' modest clapboard house on leafy dead-end Main Street here, about 65 miles north of Salt Lake City. The town of Providence is hard against the Wasatch mountains, which fill with deep powder every winter — as much as 40 feet of snow.

Val Simmons said he can easily ramp up Flexi-Ski production by "making another jig and hiring another grandkid." His father, meanwhile, is testing new designs to improve a snowmobile's under-seat suspension.