Red Rock Wilderness Store
Skis to bikes to canoes...in that order.
Red Rock Wilderness Store got its roots right where it is now located, at Northwind Lodge on Jasper Lake, 15 miles NE of Ely on the Fernberg Road. Northwind Lodge has been here forever (1939) and owned by the Baltich family all of those years from day one to present.
After many years of operation solely as a vacation resort with outfitting and guided fishing trips offererd, we branched out a little further into a retail business. Northwind Lodge had always sold fishing tackle, bait, candy, and the usual resort-type merchandise but we decided to expand retail mainly by default. After beginning a cross country ski trail system and enlarging it every year since 1984, plus winterizing cabins, we needed rental skis for our cabin guests. At that time my family had neither the financial resources nor the desire and know-how to purchase and implement even a small rental ski program for our lodge guests. I turned to the only ski shop in Ely and suggested that they rent skis to our incoming customers since they were already in the business. We were turned down and told that the Ely market was "saturated" with X-C skis that they had already sold, hence, they "couldn't sell another pair" and they were considering leaving the ski business. No matter what I said about our trail development, more winter cabins, etc., he shot me down and said "no". Ok, so now what do I do? My dad, mom brother and I, plus a bunch of volunteers and the U.S. Forest Service were in the process of cutting trails for skiers and the local shop is leaving the ski business and not interested in even trying to build up his business. We needed to implement Plan "B".
We needed rental skis for our guests, it was plain and simple. We didn't have a lot of cash laying around especially in late fall/early winter so I called my life insurance company and found that I could borrow on the cash value of my policy. It was $950 and I took it all. We managed to scrape up an extra $200 for a total of $1150. Bernie knew of a small ski distributor called Exel and we contacted them. We ordered a 15 pairs of waxless skis, 20 pairs of 3-pin boots & bindings and 20 pairs of poles. When the skis arrived, we had to call the company to find out how to mount them. We had a vague idea since Bernie had worked the past couple of winters in Colorado at a ski center but he didn't do much of the ski mounting at that time. Exel explained how to mount those skis with bindings and we put them together.
Bernie built a ski rack that hung from the ceiling, and we hung up 15 pairs of brand new, ready-to-go, Peltonen waxless skis. My stomach didn't feel too well when I looked at all of that money just hanging there with uncertain rentals ahead of us. We decided to try to sell a few pairs to get some of the money back, hearing the defeatist words of Ely's only ski shop at that time echoing in the back of my head. Nonetheless, we would spend $1.50 more on a small classified ad in the Ely Shopper "just to see" if we could maybe sell one last pair in that "sold-out" town.
Since we had ski trails, we offered to allow people to Try-Before-You-Buy. All packages were modestly priced at $99.95 even though I bought my own set of skis 7 years earlier in mid-March from that same Ely shop at a super "End-Of-Season" price of only $130.00 (I thought I really got a good deal, too! Boy!). I knew our prices were reasonable and we would make a modest profit as well if anybody bought a set. The classified ad in the Ely Shopper went out on Wednesday.
Saturday arrived. Sunny, bright, lots of snow and because the lodge building was heated entirely with wood it was cold inside there until we got a good fire going. We got a really late start heating the place up due to no real perceived neccessity. I really didn't think anybody was going to drive way out in the woods to buy skis. Then I heard a car's tires creaking in the crisp snow and looked out the windows. A group, NO, a herd, of cars was driving into the yard. Vehicles were pulling into the lodge driveway and we hadn't even plowed the parking area yet! The question "Who are all of these people and why are they here?" ran thru my brain as they all approached the building. I could see the first guy's breath as he walked in through the front door asking,
"You got cross-country skis for sale?"
Seven cars drove in that first day.
We sold 45 pairs of skis that winter.
The Next Season
We moved into a tiny storefront in downtown Ely and opened a ski shop just down the street from the guy who wouldn't rent skis to our customers. My brother Bernie moved on to bigger adventures. Our retail business continued to grow in more directions. We brought the first mountain bikes to Ely and became a serious ski and bike shop with the main parts and all of the accessories. The business grew and we moved locations in Ely two more times into bigger stores and competed fiercely with other local retailers who did their dead-level best to trip us up. It was (still is) unbelieveable how low competition will go to try to wipe another business out. We brought in skis and the "ski shop" suddenly came back with skis (In all honesty, that WAS fun!). We brought in mountain bikes and the canoe shop down the street (the other way) brought in bikes three years later and then skis as well. In a flanking move, we branched out into Old Town Canoes and faced yet another barage of attacks by the only canoe shop at the time who suddenly became a proud, unauthorized, Old Town dealer. He decided to buy, heavy, plastic Old Town "blems" at a discount from a distributor for the purpose of undercutting our big, introductory sale of first-quality canoes. His ads in the Duluth newspaper used to read a familiar, kevlar brand name across the top, but now they labeled him to be a big Old Town Dealer. He lowered his superlightweight standards for the purpose of attempting to prevent us from getting off the ground in the canoe business, even though we were selling diametrically opposed canoes - super-light kevlars vs. super-heavy plastic. I could easily see and do still condone competing with one's own product and original ideas, but neither of those two shops could ever do that for prolonged periods of time. In Ely, they use the "get-the-other-guys-exact-product-and-use-it-against-him" marketing technique. It was unbelieveable to me how far they would go in trying to acquire our canoes brands, bike brands, and ski brands on a regular basis. That's OK. We had bigger fish to fry.
Old Town just didn't cut it for us after 4 years of selling them. Everybody and his brother was selling Old Towns and they were (and still are) constantly undercutting each other to make about $40 per canoe after everything was said and done. A business cannot survive by earning a $40 profit on a $500 investment in Ely or many other places for that matter. In order to make a living on Old Town Canoes we'd need to "sell at a loss and make it up in volume". Unfortunately, the volume wasn't there and those canoes were heavy and mediocre at best on the water. We needed a canoe that could realistically provide what an aging society of paddlers is seeking - lighter weight. Old Town produced their kevlar Canadienne which weighed about five pounds less than an aluminum canoe but cost 3 times more and cracked up like a Wenonah on the rocks. What WAS the point? There was nothing available except Sawyer. I knew they wouldn't be any tougher than a Wenonah, Mad River or Bell, but at least they were lightweight and could theoretically compete against other kevlar canoes. My parents, who were original boardmembers of our corporation, agreed to borrow a short-term loan of $11,000 to buy a load of Sawyer canoes. They weren't too keen on the idea, but listened to me anyway. I got that same sinking feeling as when I bought those first 15 pairs of skis not too many years ago. We signed all the paperwork, I got the money and the canoes were on their way. Then, in March of 1994, about a week after buying those Sawyers, I met Keith Robinson and his wife, Arlene with a canoe on their van.
Canadians at the Gate
The two of them came down from Ontario, Canada on a business trip and wanted to stay at our resort for some cross country skiing. At first glance they were an unusual looking couple. Keith was about 6'8" tall and Arlene about 5'4". Both were friendly and definitely Canadian. I inquired about their canoe, and he told me that he manufactured them in Atikokan and came to Ely in search of a suitable dealer to take their product and run with it. I said that I was in the market for a good kevlar canoe even though I just ordered a load of Sawyers. He told me that his canoe was unlike any kevlar canoe made today. He talked about epoxy resin, a flexible rib system and how tough the canoe really was. It sounded a bit like the usual mumbo-jumbo about how much better one guy's product is, blah, blah, etcetera, but he was passionate and very committed to his canoe. Keith's next move changed our business in a very big way.
The Rock Test
That beanpole from Souris River Canoes unloaded the canoe and, in 25 degree F weather, brought it over to the deck of our lodge and set it down, right-side-up. It was a beautiful canoe. He then produced a common rock about 3" in diameter and set it on the floor next to the canoe. He covered the rock with a rag, explaining that, while the canoe is tough, it will still scratch. I nodded thinking that he was going to do something unusual to the canoe but not believing it entirely. Then he picked up the canoe and set it right side up and dead center on the rock which was covered by the rag. At this point Keith straightened up and told me again how tough his canoes were. As he bent down again reaching for the gunwales, I told him to hold on. I said he didn't have to wreck his canoe to prove the point. I believed him. It was like a hostage situation. At that point, I lost the negotiaion for what i thought would be the safe release of the hostage. Keith just smiled and pushed down on the gunwales of the canoe forcing that rock up into the bottom of that poor canoe. With the advent of a 100 lbs. of his own weight, I gasped audibly! My dad went "Whoa!", and the bottom of the canoe flexed upwards about 1 to1.5". My mind heard the cracking, crunching sound of tearing kevlar and crushing of foam but my ears didn't register even the slightest peep of noise. To my soon-to-follow disbelief, there was no indication that he'd even placed that canoe on a rock; ever. There were no stress marks even in colder weather than usual for a canoe. Keith proceded to bounce the canoe bottom on the rock flexing the ribs, in between the ribs, up and down the length of the canoe bottom. After every flex, the canoe immediately reformed back into it's natural shape. It didn't take a rocket scientist to know what would have happenend to a foam-core, kevlar Wenonah in the same demonstration. I also didn't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize just how fantastic Souris River Canoes would be when the world got tired of repairing their regular $2000 kevlar canoes after every brush with a rock in the tough-as-nails Boundary Waters. I really wanted to become a dealer!
I Want Them!
"You're looking for a dealer? I'd like to be a dealer!," I panted excitedly.
Keith told me he had some other commitments that he needed to meet with first before he could agree to my dealing those fabulous canoes. I conceded and went about my day and assuming (correctly, I might add - I found out years later) who he might be meeting with to become a dealer. He came back from town and the next day offered me the dealership and gave me three canoes on a handshake. We could pay him after we sold them. No other company had ever done that for us! We sold 18 Souris River Canoes that summer. We had a heck of a time selling the Sawyers. People would ask for a comparison between Sawyer and Souris River and there would be no contest. We eventually moved the Sawyers out and ended it with that canoe line. We also said goodbye to Old Town Canoes and stocked up only with Souris Rivers from that point forward.
Our canoe business continued to grow. When given the chance to paddle a Souris River alongside competitive brands, Souris Rivers were an easy sell. Not only did they prove to be far tougher than any other kevlar out there, they also handled beautifully on the water. My wife Annette was sending people out to Northwind Lodge from our downtown store on Chapman St. on a regular basis to test paddle canoes. Then came the next move.
We came to the point that my mom and dad wanted to retire from the resort business. Because it's a resort, my wife Annette and I needed to live there full time. We considered our options and looked at buying a store front in Ely. We would then need to commute, hire more employees and make adjustments for the store. Annette suggested that we pick up the whole store in Ely and move it out to the lodge since we were sending so many people out there to demo canoes anyway. She said she was positive it would work. My parents were skeptical about the idea. I was too, because of reading all the retail literature that stresses location, location, location. I believe it was a little scary for both of us even though Annette will never admit it. We decided to give it a shot and moved. Along with the move, we renamed the business, removing our corporate name Northwind Outdoor Recreation, Inc. off the shingle and replacing it with Red Rock Wilderness Store. "Red Rock" for the lake's namesake; Jasper, that pretty, striped, red rock that lines the southern shores of our beautiful, little lake. "Wilderness" because unlike any other store in Ely, our store was really in the wilderness and only 300 feet from a waterfall in Jasper Creek as well. Instead of all the noise, cars, and exhaust of Chapman Street our wilderness store was in the woods. We were no longer just descibing wilderness to our customers. They could now walk out the door and see it firsthand. Our retail business, in the course of 10 years, came full circle back to where it began.
After our first year of business at our new, old location by Northwind Lodge, we experienced a 30% increase in store sales which was far better than our best year ever in downtown Ely. Our "walk-in" trade literally disappeared which most retailers believe is a very bad thing to happen. That may be true if you are selling peanut brittle, but for the high-end kevlar canoe trade, walk-ins don't really amount to much business. Not too many impulse canoe buyers out there, but we have met some on rare occasion. One thing that we did lose resulting from our move was the grumpy time-wasters. We always had to babysit (a.k.a. watch) various walk-in "customers" on Chapman Street when they came in and wandered around the shop. They would openly grumble about how they disliked canoes, bikes, skis, etc. When asked why they came in to our shop, it was because their wives were in the ladie's clothing store next door and they were just killing time. Gosh, thanks a lot! We really don't miss those guys. Now, when somebody drives into our parking lot, there's a high probability that those folks like what we stock, or are at least into outdoor-oriented gear.
After 3 years of growth out at the lodge, we decided to expand the store and added on a 50' section to the original building. Over the past 5 years in the woods, sales have been increasing every year. We now order several hundred canoes at a time from Souris River exclusively. Business is very good. Needless to say, Annette was right and, so were those industry publications I read. Location IS everything!
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Copyright © 2001, Northwind Outdoor Recreation. All Rights Reserved.
Last Revised - November 11, 2001