In an era when companies with folky-sounding family names are usually owned by huge corporations, it is comforting to know that Potter Brothers Ski & Snowboard Shops are still owned by a pair of cousins who answer to the family name.
Kyle and Jake Potter are the third generation of family members to own what has grown into a six-store empire—with four establishments thriving in the Hudson Valley. Potter Brothers opened its doors in 1945. Basil Potter and his brother Jack launched the store and then handed it down to their sons, Dan and John Potter.
For co-owner Kyle Potter, entering the family business was an inevitability. Beginning in high school, he would work in the store on the weekends and during the Annual Swap & Sell, a controlled-mayhem event that has become a regional tradition. After a brief detour into banking after college, Potter felt the irresistible draw of the Valley.
"I decided it was time for the family business in July of 2000," Kyle said.
The endless racks and shelves of skis, winter jackets, pants, snowboards and fleece accessories currently in Potter Brothers is a far cry from the original store in Kingston, which offered traditional sporting goods. The odds were against this fledgling store, Potter said.
"But somehow we survived, despite being one of several sporting goods stores within a 10-mile radius."
It took a few years but a Poughkeepsie store was added to the family, followed by Fishkill and Middletown. By now, it was the early '90s and winter sports sales were through the roof. (Potter Brothers had shifted its inventory mix to favor skiing in 1967.) When snowboarding had gone big in the late 1980s, Potter Brothers was quick to capitalize on a trend that would exceed all expectations. They now had established their reputation as the go-to full service specialty ski and snowboard shop.
Soon afterward, Potter Brothers planted a flag beyond the Valley, opening the retail concession at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Hancock, Massachusetts. The most recent addition—significant during a putative recession—was at Bromley Mountain in the southern Vermont town of Peru. Potter Brothers will hold its annual Demo Day at Jiminy Peak on December 16, offering customers a chance to test-drive the latest model skis and snowboards.
How does Potter Brothers battle the mall behemoths? The secret weapon, according to Kyle Potter, is a knowledgeable veteran staff, unique in a service industry where turnover is a monthly occurrence.
"Most of our key staff have been with us for over 15 years," he said. "We have 10 people with over 25 years of service.
I like to think our staff is the key ingredient to the loyalty and trust we've built with our customers."
At the peak of the winter season, Potter employs 50 salespersons. In the summer, staff reduces to 15 year-round employees and sells patio furniture out of the Kingston and Fishkill locations. An online store operates 24 hours a day.
To stay on top of a sport that changes with technological advancements in equipment and clothes, Kyle Potter attends the annual ski industry trade show in Denver with three key buyers. Each year, they review hundreds of new products from different manufacturers before selecting items that will appeal to northeast customers.
Among the new items for the 2012-13 ski season, Kyle lays his bets on IPO snowboard binding from NOW Snowboarding as the most innovative. "It pivots like a skateboard to give the rider the ultimate energy transmission from toe to heel. It's definitely cool."
While mild winters certainly pose sales challenges for winter sports merchandisers across the board, Kyle Potter asks skiers and snowboarders to remember that snowmaking machines saved the day last season. (Meteorologists have already predicted heavy snows this winter, to the delight of hot-doggers everywhere.)
Potter Brothers makes sure it gives customers incentive to head for the mountains. They offer more than 80 different discount days, known as Flex Days, when customers can ski or ride at local ski areas for up to 50% off. They've also expanded seasonal and daily rental offerings to encourage novices to take their first steps onto the bunny slopes.
Attitude is crucial to retail success for Potter Brothers, Kyle Potter said.
"It's about continuing to share our passion for winter sports with our customers and to give them every reason to want to hit the slopes again this season. We do everything we can to make it affordable, too."
Potter Brothers Ski & Snowboard Shops