“20 years is a very long time, comparable to a whole generation. Nevertheless, there are always short, decisive phases that determine the direction of a company. When I look back, the most important moments at FLYSURFER were when new employees joined the company. The zenith of Skywalk GmbH is therefore not exclusively courageous innovations or outstanding products, although there have been plenty of these and there will certainly be many more, it is also the people who shape Skywalk GmbH and who hold everything together. None of the founders intended to turn Skywalk GmbH into a business with more than 50 employees, production across several countries and a worldwide distribution network. All we really wanted was to see our passion for the sport expressed in the products we made.” –Manfred Kistler — General Manager Skywalk GmbH & Co. KG, CEO Technical Director, Head of FLYSURFER Kiteboarding
In honor of Flysurfer’s 20th anniversary, the team at Flysurfer caught up with Manfred to ask him some questions about founding Flysurfer Kites and Skywalk Paragliders.
Who founded FLYSURFER & skywalk paragliders?
FLYSURFER and skywalk paragliders were originally founded by six people: Armin Harich, Arne Wehrlin, Thomas Allertseder, myself, and for a short time Jürgen Kraus and Ralf Grösel were also involved. Our first staff members were Christine Fischer and Maria Schneider in 2001, followed by Sabine Patzelt in 2002. In the early days it was all about survival.
We already knew each other from paragliding. Armin, Arne, Thomas and I – and also Jürgen Kraus and Ralf Grösel, who both left the company. Arne worked with me at another paraglider manufacturer as a test pilot and developer. I was Head of Design there. Armin knew Arne from flatland flying in the Frankfurt area, and I knew Thomas through the paragliding industry because he developed lines for another company. One day we met again and came up with the idea that we could start something together. We philosophised about what we could do better together than in our current jobs. Of course, this process took several months until we actually founded Skywalk GmbH.
Armin brought FLYSURFER, as an already existing brand, into Skywalk GmbH & Co KG. In the end, the synergies complemented each other perfectly. We wanted to found a paragliding company and there was already an existing kite company, therefore we could use a production facility together, because the contacts to Asia were already there. I knew the production manager Mike Lam from my previous job and hoped that he would work with us. Unfortunately, this was not so easy at the beginning, as the global economy was suffering a slump at the time – definitely not an ideal time to start a company. Fortunately, the cooperation with production in Asia worked out in the end. The first three years were very difficult for us, because no one was waiting for us among the end-customers. Especially in the paragliding sector, there was already an established market and there was pure cut-throat competition. However, in the kitesurfing sector, we were the exotic ones with the soft kite system. At that time, Arne and I had already founded the PARAMARINE brand, the oldest of the three brands, which was subsequently renamed WINGAKER.Where were the first products developed and produced?
The kites were often tested and developed on the North Sea, and all over the world, for example in Cape Town. In the beginning we constructed the kites and paragliders in our workshop crawling on the floor on one-to-one paper patterns with curve templates. We built the prototypes in-house and the series kites were produced by Mike Lam in China. Without this essential contact, the beginning would have been much more difficult.
Do you originally come from a watersports or aviation background?
I come from both backgrounds. I grew up by the lake and started sailing at an early stage. I took part in a few regattas in my youth and then started windsurfing as well. I have always had a strong connection to watersports. I got into aviation via model flying, and in the course of that I trained as a mechanic and afterwards studied aeronautical engineering.