Posted by Ali Levy on January 14, 2016
Twenty years ago, Don Allen was tapped to run a nordic ski shop owned by his then boss located on the Mountain Road in Stowe, Vermont just 3 miles from the Stowe ski resort.
Through a series of lucky breaks and good timing, he ended up taking over that shop in 1995 and has built it into a successful year round specialty outdoor business.
Over the years the Nordic Barn’s strictly nordic focus has evolved. While nordic and telemark equipment are still relevant product categories and continue to see moderate growth, other segments of the business have experienced strong growth, mainly AT, side country, mountain biking and an expanded offering of premium apparel brands. Allen saw the writing on the wall and knew the name The Nordic Barn no longer characterized the true essence of his business. It was limiting and perhaps stunting potential growth.
Looking for the right time and proper alignment of the stars, The Nordic Barn name has been retired and a major rebranding effort is underway. Officially launched in October 2015, the Nordic barn is now Mountain Op’s.
Full disclosure –I work part time at the store on the sales floor and merchandising the shop. I found Don’s story an interesting one. What does a specialty outdoors shop owner do when he or she has a business name and business model that no longer fits their brand identity?
Follow along as I interview Don on his take of doing business in an iconic east coast ski town, working in a real barn he shares with horses built in 1893, plus attending SIA for the first time this year.
AL: Tell me how you got into the ski business?
DA: Well I stumbled my way into a career. As a teenager I thought ski shops were cool. They smelled cool. I was working for a shop in town and the owner was opening a separate nordic shop and asked me to run it. He ended up selling the business to Top Notch Resort (located across the road from the Nordic Barn). In 1995 after Top Notch ran it they wanted out so I bought the business from them and leased the space.
AL: How did you choose the name Nordic Barn?
DA: I did some research on naming start up businesses and what I learned was that when naming a new business you don’t want to leave the customer guessing. There was a gap in shops in Stowe specializing in nordic equipment. The shop was in a barn from the 1800’s so it seemed a logical choice to call it the Nordic Barn. It had a certain cache.
AL: Tell me about the first few years of running the Nordic Barn.
DA: Well, we also ran a nordic area, so we sold primarily nordic equipment. With Top Notch Resort across the road, we had a captive, higher end audience. I started to rent alpine ski equipment and over the first couple of years slowly added ski accessories, like hats, goggles and gloves. The growth was slow because I was using my own money. After about five years we started to dabble in telemark skiing.
AL: What prompted the shift in focus from solely telemark into the AT market?
DA: Well I was out skiing one time on fish scale skis 7 to 10 years into owning the business. I was an experienced tele skier and aware of Randonee style skiing. This guy showed up with skins – this was around 2000. I had never seen skins before and was intrigued with the concept. In 2003 I started selling skins. Just a handful of pairs. But the big break came when a local shop owner who had an exclusive with Scarpa passed away suddenly. With that unfortunate event, Scarpa became available. I got it and that started my journey into AT gear. I was legitimate with one strong brand and that meant I could get others.
AL: Can you talk about popularity of AT equipment in Stowe and how it has affected your business?
DA: Well, our nordic selection never shrunk, the pie just got bigger with everything else growing. So I have invested more money in AT and that is intentional because that is our target market. AT has become a huge rainbow of awesome equipment that fits every single niche – and with that my customers have an opportunity to upgrade their equipment with each new innovation. And they tell their friends – so a lot of business is word of mouth around here. My customers are chasing the market as it progresses. While nordic is smaller, it’s still a great option to have in your quiver for cold snowy day or lift crowded day which is why I continue to support the nordic market.
AL: How has your summer business evolved?
DA: Summers in the beginning were slow. We rented a few bikes and put out a winter clothing sale rack. Slowly we added a bit more product. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started buying into the summer business. I saw what the local Stowe community was doing to promote summer business – I knew that the Stowe Mountain Resort wasn’t too far from offering lift accessed mountain biking and with the potential of global warming – shorter winters and longer summers - I began investing more in my summer business. Historically my business has been 75% winter and 25% summer in terms of revenue but now it’s shifting to more like a 50-50 thing.
AL: And then last summer you added Mansfield Cycles to your business. How did that come about?
DA: Both the Stowe Mountain Resort and the town have been putting forth big city efforts marketing Stowe as a mountain bike destination. I knew I couldn’t do it myself – I needed the right guy who could walk the walk and the right guy (Dave Clifford) became available. It’s still a bit of a learning curve as bikes are a big investment with small margins. So we need to work on that formula.
AL: Turning back to winter, you have a nice assortment of high end, European brands. Talk about how you wanted to be perceived and the brand image you wanted to establish with the Nordic Barn.
DA: Building the clothing brands happened very slowly. The clothing selection was very nordic. Then about 10 years ago I brought in Kjus when no one in town was willing to take a chance on them. I considered myself a high-end store but now I could market myself that way with Kjus. Having that brand opened the door to other premium brands. I’m not exclusively high end but rather high quality. But I don’t have to dip down to the $100 price point because there are other shops in town that have that covered. And the longevity of my business has helped in acquiring other brands. Now a $700 jacket doesn’t seem that far off the target of what I can sell.
AL: The 2015 SIA show was the first you attended. Why did you make the decision to go to Denver this year?
DA: As a small shop it’s a luxury to go to the national shows. I’ve gotten by in the past by attending regional shows and on snow demos. But this year I planned early and decided to go for it. I knew it would be good for the business to get in my face and name in front of national sales managers and reps. I was blown away by the sheer size of the show. I was happy to see brands that weren’t just jackets but entire brands. I picked up about 4 new vendors, which is a lot for me. The trip was expensive but I saw the value to see new brands and value to get face time on a bigger stage from both sides of the fence.
AL: What advice would you give to anyone considering going to the show?
DA: Book the trip early so you can get good pricing on travel. And allow yourself at least three days to see everything at the show. I only had two days and it wasn’t enough time. There’s too much to see. And definitely hit the on snow demo. You can try everything there.
AL: So lets switch gears and talk about the transition from the Nordic Barn to Mountain Ops – which officially happened in October. What was the thought process behind renaming and rebranding the shop?
DA: Well its something that has been in the back of my mind for at least five years. People would come into the store and it was always the same thing, they’d say, “I’ve been driving by this store for years thinking it was just nordic gear and I didn’t know you carried all this stuff.” I think that 90% of people driving by keep driving past our store because they are looking for a ski shop. And the feedback I would get from reps at regional shows was “I didn’t think you would be interested in this product because of your name…” or “I didn’t think you sold this because of your name.” A few reps suggested I consider changing the name. The seed was planted. I could spend a lot of advertising dollars to market the Nordic Barn to every segment out there or change the name. So I waited for the right name to pop up and the right time to make the change. I was also investing in mountain bikes and ramping up the camping category and wanted a name that suggested I was more of an outdoor retailer. So I came up with Mountain Ops Outdoor Gear. Its strong and powerful with a suggestion of what we do without giving it all away. So we bravely go forward but I know we will increase our customer base with this name change.
AL: Ok, so new name, new brand – what’s the future look like?
DA: We will get into climbing next spring and continue to carry camping gear due to our close proximity to Mount Mansfield and Smuggler’s Notch. Stowe continues to grow and support a healthy high-end real estate market. We will offer more spring clothing as well and really fill up our walls with hiking apparel and footwear. And of course continue to grow Mansfield Cycles with Rocky Mountain and Intense bike brands.
AL: So – with all of this going on are you still having fun after 20 years?
DA: This job is not without its struggles. I never have piles of money. But I love everyday.
AL: Finally, what’s your dream set up this winter?
DA: For skis, Black Crows with a Radical 2.0 binding. Outerwear – anything by Ortovox, Dynafit and Black Diamond, which fits me really well. I broke my ski boots so I’m shopping for a new pair. Unfortunately what I want I can’t get. So the search for something that fits my foot continues.
Mountain Ops Outdoor Gear is located at 4081 Mountain Road in Stowe, Vermont across from Topnotch Resort. You can find them online at www.mountainopsvt.com
If you are visiting Stowe, drop by and say hello. And bring the horses some carrots.
All prices are in USD