stories by joe rosato jr

Bay Area Waxman On the Slippery Slope of Winter Sports

NBC Universal, Inc.

It's pretty easy for Terry Hertel to wax poetic about his work. For the last half-century, he's turned out the kind of wax that's helped countless skiers and snowboarders zip down hills a little faster and with a little more control than perhaps nature intended.

As the inventor and maker of Hertel Wax, Hertel's taken a quiet behind-the-scenes role in many Olympic competitions, with athletes turning to his waxes -- with names like White Gold and Hot Sauce -- to give them a competitive edge.

"People just love it because they actually feel that floaty feeling," said Hertel, who manufactures the wax himself in an industrial building in Santa Clara.

On the job, Hertel looks a bit like the Wizard of Oz, sitting behind a curtain pulling levers at the helm of a curious looking machine, which melts the wax and squirts it into small molds that quickly cool into wax bars. Hertel helped design the machine in 1972, about the same time he left his job selling computers in Silicon Valley.

"I remember going to the trade shows with a computer," he laughed, "and the buyers would get all upset and they said 'that thing ain’t going to work.'"

The rat race began to wear at Hertel, and the avid inventor decided to re-invent himself as a wax manufacturer. During the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, he got a panicked call from a ski coach asking him if he could supply the team with wax. Hertel helped wax the U.S. team's skis out of a trailer, then watched as the skiers brought home two gold, two silver and a bronze medal.

While Hertel has a collection of autographed athletes singing the praises of his products, he said many athletes prefer to keep the source of their speed on the down-low.

"Most of them will not tell anybody what they’re using," Hertel said, "because they don’t want their competitor to know."

But judging from the more than 215,000 accounts he has on Amazon and Shopify, his waxes aren't exactly an industry secret.

"Let's just say that if you're using this and finding you can't keep up with your friends," wrote one reviewer, "it's probably not the wax that's the problem."

Hertel has been inventing things since he was a kid -- back then it was taking apart gadgets to figure out how they work. Since then, in addition to numerous lines lines of wax, he invented a friction waxer and a hot waxer to apply the wax to to skis. During the pandemic he invented a spa wax, and even designed and sold a travel pillow.

But the center of his operation is his waxes. He discovered adding surfactant to the wax, the surface agent made water slicker so a ski or snowboard would glide easier.

"I figured out you’re always skiing on a layer of water," Hertel said, demonstrating by pouring a drop of water on a ski, "you create the friction in the wake."

In the beginning of the pandemic, Hertel's few employees left leaving him as the sole manufacturer of his wax. He starts work every day at 9am and finishes by 2pm, having turned out some 500 wax bars a day. But the pace has gotten to him. He's now looking to sell the business -- though he admits he'll always be inventing something new.

"It would be nice to be able to relax a little bit more," Hertel said.

And while he's not sure if his wax is in use on the slopes in the current Beijing Olympics, he figures he's already made his contribution to the world of winter sports.

"It’s satisfying to know I created this beast, I guess," he said.

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