Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Ken Gart, welcome to the Intrepid Entrepreneur podcast.
Ken Gart: Thank you, Kristin. Happy to be here.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I am so stoked to have you here today. My audience would be absolutely thrilled–and I know this–to hear your founder’s story about how you started the retail empire that you built. I’m not sure if it was only in the state of Colorado, but can you give us a little bit of a background on how you started that? Then we’ll kind of go into some of your new ventures.
Ken Gart: Okay. Well, I’m lucky to be born into a family that was in the sporting goods business. My grandfather started Gart Brothers Sporting Goods Company in 1929. That company grew under my dad, and my brother and I got fancy MBAs and [inaudible] and continued to build that. We sold that company in the late ’80s, managed it for a while, left in the early ’90s. That company evolved into sports authority, which we can talk about if you want to. And then I started Specialty Sports Ventures in 1994 right after non-compete expired.
And we acquired [inaudible], Bicycle Village, Aspen Sports, [inaudible] Sports. We partnered with Vail Resorts and grew that to about 150 stores. After a long partnership with Vail, we sold that company to Vail. So when we sold it, we had about 150 stores. Today, Vail still owns it. Most the team I worked with for 15-20 years is there, and there are over 200 stores today. So we do have a fortunate, successful background in sporting goods and outdoor retail.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Well, I’ll say–and honestly, you’ve given so much back to the state so I just also want to say thank you for all of your contribution and for helping us get out and enjoy this amazing state that we live in. So you seem to have a knack for retail. I have to ask, what’s your take right now in terms of the market transformation that we’re all kind of navigating right now in these markets?
Ken Gart: Well, actually, I’ve been working on a speech for the rendezvous. So I’m going to give a speech at the Outdoor Industry [inaudible] Rendezvous in a couple weeks. It’s about the bankruptcy of Sports Authority and kind of what’s happening in the retail realm, so I have been thinking about it a lot. Amazon, I think, is the biggest factor. They have done a fantastic job. They had a nice advantage by not collecting sales tax for 10 or 20 years, but they have created a model which is unbelievably convenient and unbelievably easy to [price shop?] and compare and have an item on your doorstep.
So the landscape has changed dramatically. I think there’s still opportunities in the retail world, but the applecart has been upset, and it ain’t going to be fixed. It’s going to continue to shatter and be spread out between the Amazons and the Verticals, the manufacturers, but there are opportunities. But I think every retail player is vulnerable, to be very frank.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Yeah. I think everybody’s realizing that. I mean, all of the markets with Verde, bike, outdoors, snow sports, and endurance are the core markets for us with outdoor, and it sees like it hit snow very much so. I think the seasonality makes the snow market a little more sensitive to it. It’s hitting bike. I hear bike’s down globally right now, and it’s not going to stay down. I believe that it’s going to–as you say–it’s going to [inaudible] little transition into something that will be positive again. Then outdoor, I think, for the first time is we’re going into looking all the 2017 planning.
We are actually seeing that people are finally realizing we’ve always had those who have been proactive, but the ones who have been kind of watching what’s going to happen or finally starting to take action, thank goodness, my hope it’s not too late. But I definitely want to–if you could share maybe a couple of positives–I don’t really like to really harp on the negatives here. We all know we’re in a change right now, and I believe change brings opportunity. Would you agree?
Ken Gart: Absolutely. No, I absolutely think there are opportunities. There’s a lot of companies doing innovative things and creating that strong customer relationship. That presents opportunities for companies. The big ones that are stuck with an old model are vulnerable, but the smaller companies that are nimble and willing to do things that create that loyalty, I think, there’ll be terrific opportunities.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I almost feel like in the case of retail, you’d be such a great person to bounce this off of, that there is an opportunity for specialty or any retail, really, to realize the community they’re in, whether it’s an online community that they’ve built or an actual physical community, and go back to that place of being just the absolute hub for the special people you serve within that community around that passion. I feel like sometimes over–some years rather, people have really looked to their brands and thought, “Okay. Well, North Face. How am I going to make money this year?” Or specialized–”How am I going to make money this year?” Instead of really looking at their community and doing the curation that we’re seeing successful online retail due but right there in their community.
Ken Gart: Yeah. No, I agree with that. I think that customer relationship and that service or product that [inaudible] been offered that it’s really distinctive and unusual, it’s going to be an opportunity. Because there’s a lot of same old stuff being sold in the same old way. And those retailers are going to go away. You have to be doing something different. But that presents an opportunity for all those that are willing to try something innovative. I think you’ll see those companies thrive over the next five years.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I think so, too. And also, it’s just a matter of it. I know you know this very, very well, but people have to be–like our brands, for example, like Verde–have tried to protect retail on those relationships that got them to this point for so long. But now they really can’t turn away from the fact that they have to be where their customers, their particular tribe wants to buy from them online. They just have to be there.
Ken Gart: Yeah, I totally agree with that.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Yeah. So it’s just interesting. In these markets, things have gone slowly in terms of change, but then all of a sudden, they’re not going slowly anymore.
Ken Gart: Yeah. I don’t know if you saw this but Golfsmith filed for bankruptcy day before yesterday.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I did not see that.
Ken Gart: Yeah. It’s happening quickly.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Wow. Lots of change, but again, lots of opportunity. So let’s transition to what you have most recently been doing. What I heard that you had this position, I was like, “Wow, that sounds like the best job in the world. The Bike Czar of Colorado. Can you tell us a little bit about how you became that and what that job is?
Ken Gart: You bet. Thank you. So I got to know Governor Hickenlooper like 20 years ago. We’ve been friends for a long time. As I’ve had different opportunities to give back, I’ve gone to him and said, “Where are there things that I can do that would support your efforts?” So 8 or 9 years ago when he was mayor of Denver, we were talking, and after Obama was here for the DNC meeting, the Democrat National Committee left behind $1M in legacy grants to Denver. Then Mayor John Hickenlooper decided to start bike sharing. The red bikes–BCycle Program–bet most of your listeners, I assume, are familiar with–I talked to him–and I was the chair of the board for BCycle for the first 3 or 4 years of existence.
It was super fun and super gratifying because I got to use some of my business skills in terms of ski rentals and other things that might apply to bike sharing. And we launched the fleet with like 600 bikes, one of the largest city-wide bike sharing system in the country. I left the chairmanship 3 or 4 years ago, but that has continued to grow. Obviously, there’s bike sharing now in New York and Washington and almost every place else. I really enjoyed that. I also got to work with Governor Bill Ritter. He was looking for a private business person to help lead the charge in bringing back professional cycling 6 years ago. I got to help with that in terms of coming up with an ownership group and a strategy for the USA Pro Challenge.
So I’ve got to do some fun things, and that led to the conversations with the governor about physical fitness and health and wellness. We focused on bikes. And he came up with the term [inaudible] in the State of The State speech a year and a half ago, to my surprise. But I think it has opened up some doors. I assumed that you were at Interbike last year when he made the $100M announcement investment in bike infrastructure. So he’s taken it seriously. In turn, I’ve taken it seriously. Because if I know he’s committed–and he really wants to do some good things–then I’m willing to put my time in and efforts and money, frankly, to help get something meaningful done for the state of Colorado.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I definitely was there at Interbike, and that was a moment of pride for me as a Coloradan, but also just–that is a really big statement. What exactly did that translate into for the state? Can you name a couple things?
Ken Gart: Yeah, I could talk about that. So the $100M was honestly more of a line in the sand. Just say that he’s serious about it. There was no money taken out of the general fund because that’s not appropriate. Obviously, they’ll have to go through legislature. But what it did was galvanize federal dollars that are at CDOT–at Colorado Department of Transportation–and then [inaudible] money to be [inaudible] trails. So the two biggest points that we focused on early on were the roads and the trails. [inaudible] the governor making the $100M announcement, $70M of that was for CDOT over 4 years and $30M of that was for [inaudible]. So we have been focusing a lot of our efforts on roads and trails, and we’ve continued to build on that pretty aggressively since he made that announcement a year ago.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: That’s awesome. I just think that is so great. Do you guys go mountain biking together, you and the governor?
Ken Gart: You know what? I think you might enjoy the story. Sometimes I get time with him as a friend and then sometimes, he’s hanging out with the president and I won’t talk to him for months and months on end. But we were together around his birthday, and I was pasturing him, which I view as part of my job. In my pastoring, I got him to commit to bike all 16 of the 16×16 trails. By him committing to do that, I got basically [inaudible] availability to his schedule or to say, “Okay, we got to get him out on a bike again.” So I’ve done I think 4 of those trips this summer so far, with maybe two more on the calendar. And we got him a Yeti, I think you’re were talking about Yeti. Ben Davis got him a Yeti, a loner bike, so I got him on a fancy like $7,000 bright green Yeti mountain bike.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: That might be the same one I have.
Ken Gart: You’re probably a lot stronger on it than he is. Don’t tell him I said that. But I have gotten him out there, and I’ll tell you what? It has been fantastic. You know, we rode around Grand Junction, we rode around Eagle, I got him on the High Line Canal. When we do that, we bring out the other people that I think can have the best impact in terms of getting the trail built. So we’ve had the Head of CDOT, Shailen Bhatt on a couple, we’ve had county commissioners, we’ve had a number of different people come out and meet the governor, maybe ride with him a little bit and talk about this trailwork. And I think, in some ways, the most powerful thing is when you get people emotionally bought into it. He’s definitely there and we’ve got a lot of partners that we’ve built, I think, through these efforts.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: That is so cool. So I have [inaudible] ask you this: You have a lot going on. You’re obviously managing multiple things. How much time do you find to ride?
Ken Gart: I am not Mr. Hardcore Mountain Biker or a biker at all. One of my favorite lines is this work is not about mammals, middle-aged men [inaudible], it’s about the broader population of kind of everybody. Disadvantaged communities are bike dents because it’s inexpensive to buy a bike. Some people might buy a bike because they can’t afford a car. So I think my work is really for everybody. I have my fair share of–I have a road bike in Denver, a road bike in mountains and a couple mountain bikes. I have a fleet of 11, 12 bikes. I saw you when I was down at Durango, I got to ride with Ned Overend and Travis Brown which, of course, is thrilling. So I like mountain biking, I like road biking and I like family biking with my kids, but I’m not super hardcore on any of those.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: Well, it’s just a matter of getting out and doing it. It’s definitely your passion. Obviously, with Gart Brothers, you guys sold a range of sporting goods across all over our markets, but you chose to focus on bike in terms of your kind of the next phase in your giveback, it sounds like.
Ken Gart: Yeah. Actually, I think that’s a very observant comment. I probably, through my life, have been more passionate about skiing, but that’s not something you could really give back in terms of general health and wellness. I think bikes is something which is such a great opportunity that I can share. I love to ride, lookout, and do some of the harder rides. I like to climb. But biking can be–kind of everybody can bike. I think it’s such a great way of sharing the outdoors and sharing the lifestyle and the health and wellness initiative through sport whereas skiing and other opportunities don’t have that transferability kind of across all socioeconomical lines. So honestly, I think that’s kind of the cool thing about biking. It’s for everybody.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I agree. I have so much respect for [inaudible] and Tim Blumenthal and the people over at PeopleForBikes, and what they’re doing. I know you have an active role in that organization too, don’t you?
Ken Gart: Yeah. I kind of was a surrogate for the governor last night. I went to a QBP opening and got to see Tim and talk about some of the things we’re doing. PeopleForBikes is a professional national organization that does what they do so incredibly well, and to some degree, what they’re doing nationally is what we’re trying to do in Colorado. So I’ve learned and I’ve pushed them to question what we’re doing, give us guidance, help us accomplish the most that we can because we have this rare opportunity where the government cares about it and I’ve got time and attention focused on it and how can we get the most done we possibly can. PeopleForBikes is just a wonderful tool to help us do the best we can do.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: They really are doing amazing work and I feel so fortunate to be a business owner and a resident in Colorado, having both of those organizations and our entire ecosystem here. I just want to say, Ken, as we wrap up, sincerely, you have done so much for the state and also for the industries that I call home. Lord knows what I would be doing if these industries didn’t find me or vice-versa. Just know how grateful I am, personally, and my entire world, in terms of Verde and Intrepid and the entrepreneurs I’m trying to help. You’re just a great inspiration, and we really appreciate all you’ve done.
Ken Gart: Well, thank you so much for saying that. That’s really sweet of you. And happy birthday coming up to you.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: I know. 24-years-old again. So awesome. And I hope we get to go ride sometime as well.
Ken Gart: Me, too. Let me know. I would love to do it.
Kristin Carpenter Ogden: All right. Thank you so much.