Few brand names capture a business more than Spark R&D. In fact, the “spark” itself is a direct reference to the idea that ignited in Will Ritter’s head while on his first backcountry splitboard mission. Will recalls the immediate serenity and beauty of the Bozeman, Montana backcountry, and the satisfaction of self-powered turns. And while the early splitboard setups were better than snowshoes, it was on that initial venture that he resolved to find a better way for snowboarders to travel the backcountry.
This spark led Will to use his background as a mechanical engineer to first improve the existing system on the market. What began as merely a personal project soon garnered attention from friends and fellow splitboarders. In 2006, after a year of prototyping and building bindings for friends, Will launched Spark R&D.
Over a decade later, Spark R&D has come a long way; from Will couch surfing after grad school while conceiving the company, to an expansive factory with nearly 40 employees, all of whom share a true passion for splitboarding, and a dedication to making better equipment. In that time the company has placed an emphasis on moving as much of their production in-house as possible. As such, they now design, 3D scan, 3D print, CNC machine, CNC turn, bend, punch, cut, tumble, anodize, injection mold, print, laser engrave, assemble, inspect, test, package, and ship — all entirely in-house, a reality that allows for improved quality control, prototyping, and production schedule certainty. To top it all off, this do-it-all factory is still located in the heart of Bozeman and is only a 15-minute drive from the Bridger Mountains — a convenience that allows the team at Spark R&D unmatched opportunities for research and development, and as such, a true ownership of their name.
However, to discuss Spark R&D as simply a proficient factory and purveyor of bindings would be to miss the essence of the Montana company. At Spark R&D, splitboarding, community, and culture are regularly celebrated, and each employee brings a key contribution to the table for the finished project. They even have “Shred Wednesdays” where the entire office gets the opportunity to connect in the mountains and ride together mid-week. Because of this emphasis on riding and culture, there is no better way to get to know the company than through the people who fill its walls. Below you will find individual bios for five of Spark R&D’s employees, each of whom is responsible for making the company what it is today.
Zach Bailey - Customer Service / Warranty Wizard
There are some people whose love of the outdoors is their defining character trait, and Zach Bailey is one. Hailing from the mountains of Colorado, Zach grew tired of the ever-increasing population in Summit County and decided to make the move out to Bozeman in 2015. He had been honing his splitboarding skills throughout the Vail sidecountry, and after discovering where Spark R&D was located, reached out with a call to see if there were any openings. Two weeks later, he was on the assembly line.
This ability to recognize opportunity and act with nothing but a positive outlook is a large reason for Zach’s success at Spark R&D, and is a trait that extends into his work as the main liaison between Spark’s customers and the brand as a whole. On a typical day, Zach answers customer questions on phone and email, coordinates any warranty replacements either through Spark HQ or international warranty centers, and helps out with shipping and assembly.
Zach’s known for being one of the fastest up the skin track, and for never being one to miss out on the weekly Wednesday office split days. In the off months, Zach stays true to his love for the board and competes in World Cup Downhill skateboard races for Never Summer. Zach’s love for the outdoors and his dedication to Spark R&D make him the perfect example of a “works hard, plays harder” employee.
Steve Atencio - Assembly Manager
Steve Atencio first joined Spark R&D when he was hired for a three-day stint in 2012 to help fill outstanding orders. Five years later, Steve is the acting Assembly Manager and regularly oversees a crew of ten on the factory floor. A responsibility that includes everything from bending pieces, to pin pressing, pad printing, kitting accessories, and the actual assembling and boxing of bindings.
While his co-workers are quick to point out his brilliant sense of humor, exceptionally endearing personality, and impressive Tinder track record, Steve’s devoted work ethic and attention to detail are the qualities that spurred his growth within Spark. For Steve, the room for personal freedom, and the overwhelming support for employees that Spark R&D offers, sets this job apart from any he’s had before. Steve’s truest source of pride is Spark R&D’s recent fabrication milestones, in particular, this coming season’s Pillow Line Straps.
For years, Spark R&D’s straps were one of the few parts of the binding that were outsourced. Not anymore. The employees take great pride in their “Montana Made” certificate and achieving what they’ve been working on for years. While the process was a continued team effort, Steve takes pride in figuring out a way to print the finished graphics and branding for the straps.
Ethan Marcoux - Machining Manager
If you were to ask any of Ethan Marcoux’s co-workers about him, the first thing you would likely receive is a cracked smile and wry joke about his beard or the number of days he gets on hill. Word has it that Ethan can go from clean shaven to full-fledged growth in just under a day, and often bags more days on snow than nearly anyone else at Spark R&D. If you probe deeper though, you will learn that Ethan is a hardworker in the truest sense of the word, having worked his way up from part-time Assembly Worker to Machining Manager over his six-year tenure. A job that includes not only managing six shop employees, but desiging tools for bending parts, keeping inventory of shop materials, and making sure all of the machines are running properly and making parts in a timely manner.
You would be remiss, however, to assume Ethan’s splitboard binding career began at Spark. Ethan started splitboarding as an engineering student at Monatana State University in Bozeman. Like many, his initial push into splitboarding was defined by a steep learning curve as he worked to master the intrinsically variable system. Unlike many, this led Ethan to design his own custom pair of bindings, which he built with parts from various old bindings and a collection of repurposed metal pieces.
Ethan has watched Spark’s growth; from the early binding designs produced in a small factory to innovative bindings that fuel an expansive business. And while the bindings he produces alongside his team of machinists vary greatly from the first set he made in college, when asked what he is most proud of, Ethan will refer you to the Crossbar Clips he co-designed with Will for the 2017/2018 season. For over a year, the clips have gone through the design, test, and improve cycle. The finished product combines an aluminum crossbar that spans the splitboard seam providing strength and rigidity, and a camlock lever that pulls the board together.
Becca Ritter - Co-Owner/ CFO
As Co-Owner and CFO, Becca has been a part of Spark R&D since the very beginning. Initially, she continued to work in her sustainable land management career which helped fund the business, and filled in at Spark when she could with sales and customer service. After a few years she could tell that Will was in way over his head trying to do the design and manufacturing work while still running the business. So she jumped in with both feet and took over the books and all things business-related.
As CFO, Becca upholds the greater vision of the company while making sure that the products and innovations that Will dreams up actually pencil out. She takes a particular pride in Spark R&D’s ability to design and build an entire binding in house, while still maintaining a reasonable retail price. Most of her day is spent crunching numbers and planning for the long-term while also working closely with the Sales and Marketing Department. Within the same hour she may be discussing a new machine purchase with Will, weighing in on binding graphics, and approving a print ad.
Her coworkers will tell you that while Becca has an amazing attention to detail and holds incredibly high standards, she is also the first to support and motivate everyone around her to accomplish the same. They will also say that it is this collaborative team energy that drives Spark R&D’s employees to always learn and grow as individuals alongside the brand.
Prior to splitboarding, Becca was a long-time ski racer and backcountry skiing enthusiast, and says she found the transition a fun challenge. She looks forward to Shred Wednesdays just as much as the rest of the shop guys.
Matt McKee - COO
Matt McKee was destined to work in snowboarding. After working at various snowboard shops across the country and a stint with Palmer Snowboards, Matt finally left snowboarding after 15 years. Eighteen months after landing a position at a local accounting firm, the opportunity at Spark opened up and Matt was back to snowboarding.
When Becca and Will decided to create a COO position, Matt was the first guy Will thought of. He wasn’t looking for a job, but it found him. They interviewed Matt, offered him the job, and he took it. It only takes one applicant when it’s the right guy. That was three years ago and those around Matt don’t think he misses the accounting world one bit.
As Chief Operating Officer, Matt’s role at Spark, aside from keeping the business running from day to day, is to make sure everyone on the team has all of the tools they need to succeed — a role he does not take lightly. For Matt, one of the best parts about working at Spark R&D is the people that comprise their team and finding ways to creatively troubleshoot issues with them. Whether this means giving the sales department his two cents on buying patterns he’s experienced, working with production to dial in delivery timing, or giving a hand out on the shop floor, it’s all part of an average day at Spark.
He’s said to keep the place running as a strong and kind leader. When asked about his own goals, Matt will simply tell you that he wants to spend more time on hill and in the mountains — a goal that resonates with all of us at Snowboard Magazine.
It is through a close look at these five individuals that the larger picture and brand identity of Spark R&D comes into focus. Because while each employee contributes a certain skill set and unique personality to the brand, it is their shared passions that bring them together and set the brand apart. Their passion for being locally made, for making the best possible products, for unwavering collaboration throughout the process, and most importantly, for the mountains and for splitboarding. It is this enthusiasm that they bleed for splitboarding, the same one that ignited in Will’s core on that first day in the backcountry. This devotion has burned throughout Spark R&D ever since. Because if there is one resounding truth for this Montana company, it’s that a company that rides together, stays together.