Once upon a time, there were two brothers, John and his younger brother Drew, who grew up in their parents’ ski shop on Northstar Mountain in California. When they weren’t outside sliding on the snow, they ran around the ski shop getting in the way of ski techs and other mountain people and generally making a rambunctious nuisance of themselves. Sure, they learned about DIN settings, camber and torsional rigidity but what really rubbed off the on these boys was their love of mountains and skiing.
But all good things must come to an end and so it was with the Adams brothers. Their parents lost the ski shop lease and moved away, John joined the Navy and Drew went to college.
During the summers, Drew worked at his dad’s bike shop on Lopez Island who in 1995 suggested the two boys should start a kayak rental business just as kayaking was beginning to reach peak popularity. A few years later, John drove up to Mt. Baker on his motorcycle and happened to strike up a conversation with Gary Graham, the owner of Graham’s Restaurant and store.
Next thing you know, the two brothers had rented out the pool room and started a ski rental business. It was 1999, the year after Mt. Baker set a world record in annual snow fall, 1,140 inches. That’s 95 feet. You couldn’t beat the free publicity, say the brothers. Or the dumb luck.
“We worked our tails off,” says John. “As far as having a business or marketing plan, zero. It’s purely based upon us being passionate about skiing. You kind of get that feeling when you come into this place, right? It’s built by skiers for skiers.”
“This is the kind of knuckleheads we were,” said John. “We were telemark skiers, that’s the equipment we carried. People would come in to rent, take a look around and ask where the downhill ski gear was. ‘We’re going to the ski area, they’d say.’” After Christmas, John drove down to Lake Tahoe to a friend who had a ski shop. “He had some beat-up ski rental gear, we packed that van and I turned around and drove back home. Down in one day, back in another.” That got the Adams established in the ski rental business.
“If we didn’t have something and people came looking for it, we’d get it. People would come back and we’d say, here’s that thing you were looking for and I think people appreciated that,” Drew said. “Rentals were always the cornerstone of the business because you’re able to get a longer term benefit out of the equipment. You’d use for a couple of years and then you’d sell it. We created a used market along the way.”
Running out of space, the brothers once again lucked out. The lot down and across the highway from Graham’s came up for sale. It was owned by a man, George Savage, who previously had the ski shop up at the mountain but “was run off” by the ski area, said the brothers. He had intended to start a ski shop on the property “so he could stick it” to the ski area but happily sold it to the Adams. “The irony of that was, it was the same thing that happened to our parents at Northstar,” said John.
“We proceeded to build this shop from the ground up,” said Drew. “That’s the beauty about log cabins, once you stack up the logs, you’re done. No drywall, nothing,” added John. Each log was numbered and they’d put a strap on the middle and use a rented forklift to drop it in place. “Just like Lincoln Logs,” said Drew.
“And we did the entire thing on credit cards,” said John. “Back in those days, they gave you convenience checks and everytime a contractor would ask for $10,000, we’d peel off another convenience check and pay them.”
Their timing on starting the kayak business also helped out by providing income they could apply against the credit card bills.
The Adams’ luck continued to hold out. That autumn happened to be one of the driest in years which meant construction could continue without a pause. “The ski area opened December 14. We threw stuff into the store the night before, put the lock on the door, and we opened up at 9 a.m. on the first day of the season,” said Drew.
The original iteration of the ski shop was 24x36 for a total of 836 square feet. Since then, they’ve added a loft, a boot fitting area, and covered over two outside porches. In all, with the used equipment building, the rental shop, the retail and the warehouse, the operation occupies 7,000 square feet of space.
“We were always a ski rental operation,” said Drew. “We didn’t have space for anything else. We gradually added things like gloves but we’d use the equipment for a few years and then we’d sell it. We became known for good used equipment.”
There now is a separate building devoted to used equipment sales. While the shop offers season rentals for families, some people prefer to buy used equipment for themselves or for their kids which then gets passed down to younger siblings.
Asked how the two brothers share responsibilities, both reply that while each has done all facets of the business, they tend to stick to their individual areas of interest and strength. “It’s varied throughout the years,” says John.
“Drew looks after the accounting and the banking and I was here so I was on-site so I deal with operations and buying, he does the paying. At the same time, we both communicate on what we’re doing. If I make a bad buy, Drew gets to ...”
Have they ever disagreed on a major decision? “Nothing large,” Drew said. “Again, there’s never been any vision, it’s just been shooting from the hip the whole time,” John says. “The whole goal was, one person could run the shop, take a ski break and come back to finish the day. On your day off, the other person would show up. We’d both work on weekends.”
Trust underlays the brother’s working relationship. Both trust the other one to do what needs to be done. “That’s the secret sauce,” says Drew. “If John tried to do this himself or if I tried to do it myself, we couldn’t do it.” “No way,” agreed John.
“We just caught it at the right time and we had the right attitude and the rest of it just kind of fell into place,” said Drew.
“We try not to be too serious even though it’s a serious business,” said John. “We focus on the fun and bringing that to the people. We put on a good show. And we love the sport and people pick up on that.”
“The core of our success is that John and I really enjoy the sport and that comes across to the customer,” said Drew.
The shop first started selling online back in 2008. “John recognized that you could get some pretty good deals buying manufacturers lot deals and we started selling them. We had a pretty clunky system, no shopping cart, stuff like that,” said Drew. “We figured we could sell even when there wasn’t a car driving by on the highway.”
“And then the 2014 season came along,” said John. “The worst year in the history of skiing, you remember that, and we thought, boy, we’re pretty vulnerable in this area. So we started pouring money into it, we put up a new website, cleared out [another] building for storage and continued to buy what we knew to be good items from closeouts.”
The online business struggled to make money. “One day Marcella (Dobis, of Mt. Baker Snowboard Shop fame) walked by, we struck up a conversation and she said she could help us with the online stuff,” said John.
“She came in, pro bono, it took a little time, we started to see some sales, started picking up until there was a snowball effect,” said John.
“It’s the same story as the shop,” added Drew. “It grew really fast and we were running out of space. Now she’s kind of the third partner.”
Asked about how the pandemic affected them, the brothers groaned. It turned out to have a silver lining, although. “I saw that there was going to be shortages so I bought like crazy. Trucks were pulling up and would ask where do you want these four pallets to go. I was saying to myself, what did I do,” said John.
“I called Gary Graham and said, ‘Gary, you’ve got to bail us out again.’ It turns out that his building next door was empty and we started piling all of that stuff into it,” he added.
“That’s how we really got into retail,” said Drew. Coupled with fiber optic internet service, people can buy right off of the floor at the same time that people are buying online. That allows the shop to offer an in-store inventory that is probably the best in Washington, if not anywhere.
“If you tried to survive on people driving by on the highway, you could never do that,” said John. “The sky’s the limit when it comes to e-commerce. It’s fun to grow. If you have the right team, it’s fun to see growth.”
Is it tough to get employees? “We have a reputation as a fun place to work but where they live is tricky,” said Drew. “If they live in Bellingham, it’s a bit of a stretch. When we find a good one and they’re local, we really try to cultivate that into a long-term thing.
“It’s kind of pre-requisite to be a skier or a snowboarder, it’s a male dominated sport but we do have good females working here,” said John.
Asked what their next steps will be in growing the business, the brothers grow serious. “We watch these behemoths like REI in the market and watch how slowly they react to trends – we’re able to see new trends because we live on the mountain, we live it, “There’s not a lot of meat on the e-commerce business, so we have to identify exceptional products that no one else can find and if we can’t find them, we make them ourselves,” says John.
The Glacier Ski Shop offers their own house version of a Fatypus ski along with shorty skis with their own skin attached. For snowshoers tired of going downhill at a snail’s pace, these shorties put the fun back into the sport.
“Families. They really love us. Families are huge to our business,” they both agree. “Here’s some secret stuff,” says Drew. “You make the kids happy. That makes mom happy. Which makes dad happy.” X