A conversation with Wilbur Rice, the owner of Equipe Sport

Artistry, energy and a passion for excellence took him from southern California to southern Vermont — and a thriving business

RAWSONVILLE—AS I DROVE PAST the Townshend Dam Diner — that one-of-a-kind best-turkey-croquettes eatery sandwiched between Townshend and Jamaica on Route 30 — I realized how long it’d been since I’d been up that way. And certainly how long it’d been since I whipped through Rawsonville, a tiny crisscross of energy at the junction of Routes 30 and 100.

The spouse and I had motored through this village lots of times in the old days, when the Manchester outlets’ promise of fashion currency was super important to expat New Yorkers and when the lure of an elegant lunch at the Equinox was overwhelming. So, yes, I’d driven through Rawsonville — but I had never stopped.

So this was to be a morning of firsts — stopping in Rawsonville, sitting for a spell there, and talking to Wilbur Rice (the first guy named “Wilbur” I’d ever met).

But before we move ahead to our conversation, allow me an uncharacteristic and shameless plug: You can’t miss Rice’s flagship business, Equipe Sport — clearly the star of the Rawsonville show.

I’d also recommend checking out Rice’s Rawsonville Market at the south end of Equipe Sports’ parking lot. There, you can fill up your tank if you need to, and pick up a cup of coffee and the quintessential doughnut and even The New York Times, if you haven’t yet gotten your copy.

Rawsonville’s hardly out of the way!

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: So how did Wilbur get here?

Wilbur Rice: I got into the ski business back in 1967 — ironically, in this very building.

J.G.: Wait! Hold that thought. Let’s go back to how that happened, please!

W.R.: O.K. I was born in Glens Falls, New York in 1948. My family moved to Bennington, Vermont when I was 5, and I grew up there. Dad worked in manufacturing, and Mom was a homemaker. I have two sisters — one older and one younger than me.

During the summers of my high school junior and senior years, I worked for a Bennington construction company. It was hard labor — no doubt about that — but it was also great for me. I was pretty fit and made a pretty good buck — for a high school kid.

J.G.: College?

W.R.: I enrolled in the University of Vermont in 1966 to study political science and history. In the summer following my freshman year — that would be 1967 — having decided that I’d dug enough ditches, I came up here in search of something more interesting — O.K., easier? — than construction.

J.G.: What did you find?

W.R.: Ironically, this building as it was being built. Woody Woodall, a ski business guru of the time, put me on his crew, so I spent the summer back in construction. It’s fair to say that this very building is where I got into the ski business.

When I finished at the end of that summer, Woody asked me to come back on weekends and learn how to sell equipment. I agreed, and because he was so widely respected, I guess his reputation made me look good, because fairly soon I was in demand as a good seller of skis and boots — especially custom-fitted boots.

I left UVM after 2{1/2} years to join the U.S. Air Force, where I did six months of active duty and a little less than four years as a “weekend warrior.”

J.G.: Hey, thanks for your service. I was a U.S. Army reservist myself from ’60 to ’66.

W.R.: And thanks for yours.

I started at Bromley Mountain right after Labor Day 1970 and ran the ski shop there for two years. At that point, I left to work for Salomon North America.

J.G.: Salomon?

W.R.: Salomon was a French firm that started in the 1950s by manufacturing steel edges for wooden skis. They got into ski bindings and quickly became the world’s premier binding maker.

J.G.: I think I may know this, but would you please tell me what bindings are?

W.R.: They’re mechanical devices that are attached to a ski and that will grip a ski boot. They’ll release in case of a fall.

J.G.: Thanks. I’ve never been on skis in my life!

W.R.: I did that for a year and a half and then went back to Bromley in the fall of 1976 where I started a mail-order business — the Bromley Catalogue. I kept it going for five years until it was sold to the Chris Craft Catalogue people in late ’80, early 81.

J.G.: The birth of an entrepreneur!

W.R.: I guess you’re right. During that time, Bromley was bought by Stratton Mountain. In spring ’81, they moved me over to Stratton, where I ran retail, rental, and repair — the three Rs — for both mountains. I stayed at Stratton until the spring of 1989, when it was sold to a Japanese company.

Although I’d become a vice president, I was pretty sure there weren’t any more rungs up the ladder for me, so I left with the idea of starting a clearinghouse for employment in the ski industry.

If you were a ski-area operator or owner looking for a mountain manager or snowmaking manager, I’d help you. Or if you were a snowmaking manager or ski rep looking for a job, I’d connect you upward.

J.G.: You said that had been your “idea.” I’m sensing something else on your horizon.

W.R.: I bought this building from Stratton in 1984. It had housed their ski shop. In late August 1989, Stratton decided to move to Manchester. There I was with an empty building that had already proven to be perfect for a ski shop, so I started one, and that was the birth of Equipe Sport.

We now have four stores: two in Rawsonville (Equipe Sports and Mtn. Riders) and stores at Stratton Mountain and West Dover. Two years ago, we built the convenience store and gas station at the other end of the parking lot.

J.G.: Tell me — what’s in the business name? First, how it’s pronounced, and second, where did it come from?

W.R.: Say “eh keep,” with the accent on “keep.” It’s from the French for “team” or “sport.”

J.G.: One of my regular questions in these interviews is “Why here?” — such as “Why Brattleboro?” or “Why Wilmington?” — wherever the interviewee has chosen to land. But in your case it seems like this building, this town — these mountains! — chose you.

W.R.: I guess you’re right! I connected with this building, and then the building just seemed to draw me in further.

J.G.: You love it, don’t you?

W.R.: I think so — even though it’s a tough business today. Fred Pabst, another industry guru of mine, used to say that he was going to buy an orchard so he could lose money year-round!

J.G.: Year-round — we’re talking seasons now. And that brings up the w-word: weather. So, has the weather been your friend more often than not over these many years? Or…?

W.R.: It’s a potential adversary. There certainly have been some long-term changes. Back in the ’70s as a kid skiing at Bromley and Stratton, there was a ton of snow.

Last year was the ultimate worst season — even worse than the year of the oil embargo in ’73–’74 when not only didn’t we have enough fuel but we also had very little snow.

Then, to go beyond the weather issue, the economic recession of 2008 was tough on retail.

But, you know, we’ll recover, and we’ll go on.

J.G.: Seems to me you’re going to need marketing help — the kind the state can provide. This goes for both the ski industry and, frankly, the rest of the recreation opportunities Vermont should be promoting. How’s that worked for you over the years?

W.R.: Vermont’s in a tough situation. We have high taxes, and because of our very small population the cost of government’s quite high per capita. That’s an issue. In my opinion, Vermont doesn’t spend anywhere near as much money as it should on marketing itself.

I don’t think our Department of Tourism and Marketing is funded well enough to be effective. That’s unfortunate, because the commissioner and her staff are extremely capable and have a big challenge.

We’re surrounded by three hugely dedicated and strong competitors. To the east, there’s New Hampshire’s Lakes Region, which attracts about 2.4 million people each summer. To the south, there’s Massachusetts, which for about 70 years has done a heck of a job marketing itself — especially the summer season. Then to the west, there’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s spending big money bringing back the brilliant “I Love New York” campaign and applying it to both tourism and business development.

As you say, it’s not just skiing. Take Stowe. What a great example of superb marketing. Stowe has more visitors in the summer than in the winter.

J.G.: Hard to match that!

Seems to me fascination with certain activities goes through cycles. Golf, for instance, has had its ups and downs. Golfer revenue can’t be counted on like it used to be. Have you noticed the profile of the visitor changing over the years?

W.R.: It’s interesting. When I was at Stratton, a big part of our visitor base was retired folks with primary residences down in Florida or North Carolina or wherever, people who would come north for those 2{1/2} months when it’s just too darn hot down there. They’d rent a ski condo for the summer or a large part of it. They’d golf, shop, go out to eat, take in cultural and other activities. In other words, they’d spend.

J.G.: Are you saying they’re not coming anymore?

W.R.: Exactly. I don’t know why, but that group which could once be counted on to fill the rounds at the golf courses are no longer coming. What you’re seeing today is a summer visitor who’s not planning ahead as much as one would have in the past. They’re more spur-of-the-moment, come-for-the-weekend types.

I think this may be related to the earlier question about marketing in Vermont. There should be more done to determine exactly what the demographic profile is and where our customers have gone, what they want and don’t want. I think we could do a better job tracking that.

J.G.: Particularly as pertains to skiing, have you noticed increased interest in the sport by a broader range of people, or has it self-selected to be the same kind of folks? Is it growing — or not?

W.R.: Those are good questions. I’m involved as a stakeholder in working with the mountains on which skiing will be in 10 and 20 years from now. For example, the baby boomers, like you and me, are —

J.G.: You’re too kind.

W.R.: — skiing less or not at all. They’re not being replaced to the degree they should be.

The other unfortunate reality is that the demographic profile of the skier doesn’t match the evolving demographic profile of the United States. The skiers are basically well-enough-to-do Caucasians, and the others — well, we’re not making an impact on that population. Especially the kids who live in the heart of urban centers.

There is so much we can and should be doing to open up skiing and snowboarding and cross-country to them. To everybody.

J.G.: What, if anything, is being done?

W.R.: I was involved in a couple of programs: “Bring a Friend” and “Let’s Ski and Snowboard Month.” These two big programs are supported by the Snowsports Industry America, which all the ski shops, the ski areas, the suppliers, and so forth are involved with.

Burton Snowboards deserves a lot of credit for all the work they’ve done in getting people involved — in skiing as well as snowboarding. Fortunately for us, SIA’s new president is from Burton, so we’re looking for some improvement.

J.G.: Even given the economic collapse of 2008, there are folks who can afford to go pretty much anywhere for recreation. It used to be, “Let’s go to Vermont because we can drive up, it’s easy, doable, and — not that it matters — it’s pretty good value.” But Colorado and Utah came into their lives, and now they can get a deal, hop a plane and go to Vail or Park City — wherever. How has that competition affected Vermont’s ski business?

W.R.: That’s a good question. Here’s how significant this is.

In 1970, Vermont had more skier days than Colorado. Now Colorado has about 3{1/2} times as many skier days as Vermont. If you’re sitting in the New York City metro area and you’re in your 20s or 30s and you have a partner or spouse and maybe kids, you might well say, “We can go to Stratton for the weekend or we can make it three days, fly direct to Park City on Friday morning, be on the snow that afternoon, and leave Sunday night after a full day on the slopes — and probably get on-the-average better ski conditions on top of it.”

That’s a big deal. And it’s not just about skiing. It’s the summer traffic, too.

J.G.: Wilbur, is there anything you wish you could have done differently or better? Decisions that you wish you had made or opportunities you wish you had seized?

W.R.: I’m not sure there’s much I would have done differently. Vermont is a great place to raise a family. It’s a wonderful place to live. I’m not sure I’d want to have been anywhere else.

But from a business perspective, I look at the convenience store and gas station business we built at the other end of the Equipe parking lot. We broke ground in late summer 2014 and were open for Christmas. It’s not a ski business — it’s more stable.

I do wish I had done other things up here besides the ski business. I think I’d have been wise to spread my base around a little more and a little earlier to build stability.

The ski business is volatile. The month of May is one half of 1 percent of the year and December is 19 percent of the year. That’s tough. Over at the convenience store the worst month is about 7.5 percent and the best is maybe 9.5 percent — much more stable. But all in all, I’ve enjoyed the ride.

J.G.: Talk to me about your customer base.

W.R.: About 82–83 percent of our volume is done between Thanksgiving and March 15. Summers are lean.

We don’t have the customer base of a Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters in Brattleboro, which, by the way, does an excellent job. Their customer base, however, is much larger than ours. If you drew a 20-mile radius around Rawsonville, I don’t think you’d find 10,000 people inside it. That’s tough. Our customer base is very transient.

A key part of the problem is that in this business we’re relying on out-of-staters.

J.G.: And with all due respect to Rtes. 30 and 100, they’re not the Interstate — and you’re not near the border of the surrounding states, where you could advertise with billboards. That makes it difficult, too.

W.R.: We did demographic work at Stratton and found that about 82 percent of our high-frequency users — people who came more than six times a year — were from Westchester County and Long Island in New York, Bergen County in New Jersey, and Fairfield County in Connecticut. Or, of course, New York City.

That was our base. It’s literally a gold coast. We’re not getting a lot of people from Springfield, Massachusetts or Boston — or even from Albany, New York.

J.G.: What about Greater Boston?

W.R.: No, they tend to go to New Hampshire.

J.G.: Speaking of out-of-staters, someone comes into the store and you get into a conversation. And along the way they say that they’re interested in starting a business here or relocating with one they already have. And they might say that they’ve heard that Vermont’s not the friendliest-to-business state in the union. What would you say to either encourage or discourage them?

W.R.: First of all, I’d tell them that there’s some merit to what they’ve heard about Vermont and business. I might use my experience in building the convenience store as a startling reminder of that. The permitting. The regulations.

I’d also tell them that it’s tough to make money in Vermont. There, I might use the example of a friend of mine who owns four stores like Equipe down in Westchester County.

The number of people who pass his front door on any given day has to be 20 to 50 times the number that passes mine. If you draw a 20-mile radius around his main location you’ve got, what, a million people? Maybe more and, yes, they’re high income.

I’d also say that although it’s tough here, it’s also a fabulous place to live. If you have a business that isn’t dependent on how many people walk by your front door every day but instead on those reaching you via the Internet or telephone or whatever — or you’re reaching out to them in the same fashion — then I think southern Vermont is a great place to live. It’s hard to beat.

J.G.: I gather you have a healthy online capability?

W.R.: Yes, we do. We’ve made a major investment of money and time in electronic outreach.

It’s an interesting challenge, and I can only tell you from the standpoint of selling sports-oriented products for retail it’s a challenge you hope will bring a good return on investment.

It’s complex, and for people who don’t understand websites and advertising on the web, they’d be startled at how involved it is. Everything costs, and you need guidance.

But it’s critical — if you’re going to mitigate that lean-street-traffic syndrome.

J.G.: Staffing, as I’m sure you know well, is a challenge. Finding the right people, trainable people, for many jobs that come up is tough.

W.R.: You bet it is. There’s a saying: Vermont has two major exports — apples and educated young people. I like to say that these days at a Vermont business of any size, the most important function isn’t finance or accounting, or anything you’d think it is. It’s human resources.

To find people for a business like ours, we don’t go through the employment offices. There aren’t too many motivated folks coming through those agencies. We advertise. We offer good pay. And we train — we spend a lot on training. And we offer health-insurance opportunities through Blue Cross/Blue Shield. But staffing’s a tough deal.

J.G.: As with all businesses and organizations, there’s a story out there about Equipe Sport. What do you think that story is — and is it the one you’d like out there?

W.R.: I’m very pleased that every time I hear about what our reputation is, it’s very strong. I think we’ve earned that by making sure that we treat people really well. I live by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” When someone walks into the store I treat them like they’re family. I do everything I can to make it good for them. That also relates to what we were talking about in terms of skiing and getting more people involved in it. If that first experience isn’t positive, they’re gone.

J.G.: Like with restaurants or a job interview: You get only one chance to make a good first impression.

W.R.: Absolutely. Here’s a scary number: only 17 percent of the people who try skiing for the first time go back again. That’s why on a Saturday you’ll find me down in the rental room making sure that the person renting equipment — someone who might be going out for the first time — is getting everything they need and that they’re happy and confident.

Our industry needs to focus on that — and we are doing so, more and more. Stratton has volunteer ambassadors on the mountain who meet and greet, identify first-time skiers, and make sure they’re in the right line or at the right lift or getting the right instructor.

Again, I’m pleased with Equipe Sport’s reputation in the industry. We’ve won many awards, and I’m proud of them.

J.G.: Let’s talk about Equipe’s involvement in the local community. You’re a successful business, probably among the most successful in the area.

W.R.: I don’t know about that.

J.G.: I hope so, anyway. You’re obviously a presence here. What do you do to help?

W.R.: We get requests from non-profits all the time, and we pretty much never say no. We’re committed to the Stratton Foundation, a wonderful organization that funds many things in this area especially where children are concerned — like getting kids the right clothing and help they need. We’ve also been a longtime supporter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast-cancer research. And we’ve consistently supported Southwestern Vermont Health Care.

When you’re in business, you have to support local organizations like the fire department and the schools. My son’s on the board of the Long Trail School. I used to head up the board of the Northshire Day School and still support that institution.

One of the things the owners at Stratton said to us on the management team was, “We want you to be involved in the town.” So I got on the Planning Commission and the Zoning Board and joined the Chamber of Commerce. It’s important to give back.

J.G.: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about — anything you’d like to add?

W.R.: Yes, there is. This is my 50th year in the ski business. I’ve had a lot of fun. While I want to make sure people understand that there’s a lot about doing business and about our economy that needs fixing, we can and will fix it.

J.G.: This has been terrific, Wilbur. I’ve learned a lot from you. Hey, if I were 10-15 years younger, I’d even let you get me into a pair of skis.

W.R.: It’s not too late, Jerry.