By Joseph T. O’Connor Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – A duo of local real estate brokers is collecting a quiver of skis. But they don’t plan to ski on them; instead, these boards will showcase for-sale signs in front of Big Sky homes.
This past winter, with the local real estate market bouncing back, Kevin Butler and Craig Smit, brokers for Montana Living/Big Sky Real Estate, put into practice a dream they’d been sleeping on for months.
Bolting two skis together to form a cross, they hang their real estate signs from a set of eyehooks. With a combined 37 years in Big Sky, these two locals may be on to something.
“They grab your attention,” said Smit, a Sturgis, S.D. native. “They’re not the cleanest, slickest look, but hey, we live in a ski town.”
And that’s what brought both Smit and Butler, who hails from Boca Raton, Fla., to Big Sky. They wanted to live the dream.
Kneeling in his driveway on a warm July morning, Smit, 48, holds together the tips of a pair of Dynastar 4×4 Bigs. Butler is drilling from the topsheet through the bases and wears a T-shirt with their new marketing slogan: liveTHEDREAM.
Smit has held onto the domain name livethedreambigsky.com for nearly three years, he said, while studying the housing market. He wasn’t sure what to use it for, but when he and Butler put their heads together in mid-December last year, liveTHEDREAM was born.
“That’s what it’s about for us,” said Butler, 45. “We really wanted to make a distinguishing name for ourselves, and people can take it or leave it. But we like to help them live their dream, the same as we are.”
Butler and Smit live in Big Sky and make the most of this mountain locale: skiing on and off-piste, mountaineering, fishing, riding dirt bikes, climbing. They say it’s what brings visitors here and what gets them to buy homes in numbers the market hasn’t seen since 2003.
“The lower-hanging fruit has been picked,” said Smit, referring to the housing deals being snatched up in Big Sky. Butler says the next likely scenario could mimic what happened after 2003, when Big Sky home sales drastically increased.
“There was an optimistic tone to the market [then],” he said. “The road could take a different direction, but it’s starting to get healthy again and feels like the same pattern. History does repeat itself.”
In the first quarter of 2013, 20 single-family homes sold in Gallatin Canyon, West Yellowstone and Big Sky, according to Multiple Listing Service numbers, which indicate nine homes sold in the area during the same period last year. And although some second quarter sales haven’t been reported yet, 19 single-family homes sold between April 1 and June 30.
Craig Smit began studying economics at Montana State University in 1985. He has closely cropped greying hair and flashes a broad smile as he talks about growing up in Sturgis, which in August will hold the 73rd annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“We sold T-shirts in seventh grade on Main Street before people sold T-shirts on Main Street,” he said of the rally, known for its throngs of bikers and rowdy atmosphere.
After graduating from MSU, a school Smit says he picked because Bridger Bowl was 15 minutes away, he met Packy Cronin, a Big Sky and Bozeman real estate builder and agent who now lives in Bozeman and who introduced Smit to the area’s construction scene. For three years, Smit built houses and condos in summer and skied all winter, but in 1993, he decided to take a risk.
“I was looking to use my degree and invest,” Smit said. “And the whole time the Conoco [Travel Shoppe] was for sale. Living here I could totally see the potential. At the time, everything else shut down over off-season, except the Conoco.”
After owning the gas station for nine years, Smit sold it to his sister Renae Schumacher and, after a brief stint traveling in Europe he returned to Big Sky, and became an agent at Montana Living/Big Sky Real Estate in 2004.
Kevin Butler, a 6-foot-5-inch-tall business and horticulture graduate from Palm Beach State University, first visited Big Sky in 1990. He immediately fell in love with it, he says. Waking up to fresh snow gave him the same feeling as in Boca Raton, where he knew if the surf was up when his bedroom window was open.
“I’d wake up at 5 a.m., and if the waves were really thumping and [breaking] far apart, I knew I had to get down to surf,” he said.
In 1999, Butler felt the pull of the mountains and moved to Big Sky. He tuned skis at the resort – he still does when it’s busy – but with a family background in real estate, it made sense to enter into the world of home sales. He became a Montana Living/Big Sky Real Estate agent in 2001 and a broker in 2003.
These days he tells people, “I’m from Big Sky now.”
Since Butler and Smit began collecting their ski quiver, the community has responded. Folks drop skis off at their office and stop them on the street to hand them old boards. One day, Butler got a call from Ophir School’s front desk to let him know someone had left a pair.
The two business partners also ski and hike together, and have children around the same age. They work as a team, sharing clients and splitting everything down the middle.
“They’re kindred spirits,” said Martha Johnson, owner of Montana Living/Big Sky Real Estate. “They both have an absolute love for the outdoors.”
In running with their idea to liveTHEDREAM, the pair is combining their passion for recreation with their job, one ski at a time.
Johnson wouldn’t have it any other way: “I’ve noticed a boost on their listings and sales. What it’s done is give them a brand and logo that their client base can relate to. They’re not just throwing up a sign; it shows a commitment to their work.”