Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Weathering the storm

Veteran businesses find ways to survive economic downturn

Express Staff Writer

Backwoods Mountain Sports employee Laura Furtado is kept busy by Ketchum resident Jane Hocking. Backwoods owner Andy Munter, who has owned the shop since 1983, said the economic downturn has forced him to be more discerning when it comes to purchasing inventory and to reduce the number of hours worked by his staff. Photo by David N. Seelig

"I'm really happy that I enjoy my job because it looks like I'll have to work for another decade to rebuild my 401K," said Andy Munter, owner of Backwoods Mountain Sports in Ketchum.

While the economic downturn could mean the postponement of Munter's retirement plans, he is able to consider that possibility with a smile, in part because of past experience. He and other local veteran business owners are finding that the current economic situation is requiring a more careful strategy, but that previous downturns have given them confidence that more prosperous time lie ahead.

Munter first moved to the area in 1977 and "pretty much got stuck here because there were no jobs anywhere," Munter said. "When I bought the store in 1983 it was slow as well."

Munter said that business fell sharply at the beginning of the ski season, but picked up in mid-December when the Wood River Valley received its first serious snowstorm.

"I would have to say that snow trumps the economy to some degree," Munter said, standing between racks of alpine touring ski boots and climbing skins.

That doesn't mean, though, that he hasn't needed to make adjustments in his operation.

Munter said he has worked with his staff members to reduce costs. Rather than laying off any of his employees, he has spread out hours so that some workers are coming in later and leaving earlier.

But some costs cannot be cut, and one is the inventory that Munter purchased months in advance of the crash. He has been forced to begin marking down his stock earlier this winter than usual. In turn, that will lead to a different approach to purchasing in the future.

"To be profitable, we're going to have to focus on our core business and customers," Munter said. "This means getting rid of anything on the fringe. I've spent a lot of time looking at every vendor finding out what hasn't been selling."

According to Brian Furlong, president of First Bank of Idaho in the Wood River Valley, Munter is pursuing the correct strategy.

"The retailers that made it through the hard times in the '80s know it's important to get back to their core businesses and existing customer base," said Furlong, who has been with the bank since it opened in Ketchum in 1997. "No one can afford to keep their head in the sand and just assume things will turn around. It's imperative to look at cash flow and figure out the hard costs that have to be paid and those that can be delayed. Businesses that can cut costs sooner will do better than those just waiting for things to get better."

Furlong said the slowdown experienced in the valley during the early 1990s was different. It wasn't indicative of the nation as a whole, and consumers were still looking to purchase or build homes.

Now, with very few new homes being built, Furlong said, some builders are taking the proactive step of soliciting maintenance or remodeling projects. Some retailers, he said, are looking for new revenue streams, such as sports stores who now may try to provide guiding services.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Spinelli said that he has also noticed more businesses looking for creative solutions and even working together to increase revenue. As an example, Spinelli said that La Reverie Spa and the Wood River Inn are creating a cross-promotional campaign, with hotel guests being referred to the spa for treatment.

This emphasis on providing service was echoed by Wayne Clayton, owner of Hailey's High Desert Sports, a 25-year-old shop specializing in archery.

With his mother, Jean, Clayton runs one of the few stores in the valley that carries bow-hunting equipment, but he said that it's the service that really brings people into the shop.

"They don't get the same personal service at big box stores," Clayton said. "We can't compete with them on some levels, such as inventory, but our prices are the same and local customers don't have to drive an hour and a half for service."

Clayton said that while his business has suffered a bit, he isn't too anxious about the economic situation, because he has always been careful about purchasing inventory.

"You don't want to be too heavy on the top or bottom end," said Clayton, who stocks about 25 to 30 bows, ranging from $100 to $900. "More than anything, though, we want to create an environment that people will be attracted to and want to visit."

Creating a special atmosphere is an important characteristic for Todd Rippo. With two Java coffee shops in Boise and one in Ketchum, Rippo added a fourth last month in Hailey's Meriwether building.

"I've always had the intention to come back to Hailey, it just had to be the right space," said Rippo, who closed his previous shop there two years ago.

Rippo, who opened Java on Fourth Street in Ketchum in 1991, said that in the past, the challenge was finding qualified employees. On Friday, Rippo had 40 highly competitive resumes for just eight positions in his Hailey shop.

"It's a struggle for everyone and it hits every facet of the community, but the goal when we started was to create a recession-proof business," Rippo said, noting the omnipresent popularity of coffee. "People might take lattes out of their budget, but we want to remain accessible and affordable for everyone."

Because of the nature of the coffee business, Rippo said he has always kept a tight inventory and that he continues to purchase smaller amounts often to keep his product fresh.

While Rippo's faith in the irresistible power of the coffee bean led to expansion, Furlong said that other business owners have reason for optimism as well.

"The valley has a great future in front of it," Furlong said. "Hopefully we can get working on some of these hotels in the next two or three years and get some clear direction on the airport in the next three to five years. I think there are a still lot of baby boomers who will be coming here.

"There's a lot to be positive about. We just have to get through the next 24 months."

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