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Making it in Big Sky: Black Tie Ski Rentals

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Black Tie Ski Rentals Big Sky branch owner Seth Turner, left, stands with his longest tenured employee, Kevin Callahan, outside the Meadow Village Center rental shop. Callahan has worked with Turner for 13 years. PHOTO BY BAY STEPHENS

By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

Seth Turner stands as one of many locals who talk about their living in Big Sky as something that was meant to be. For years, Turner had his “winter friends” in Big Sky while he spent summers elsewhere instructing kayaking, rafting and climbing. When friends finally convinced him to check out the area in the summer, he wondered why he ever left.

Turner worked for Big Sky Resort ski shop when a friend in Steamboat, Colorado, clued him in on a business idea that two other locals, Ian Prichard and Joe Sternberg, had begun delivering ski rental equipment to guests so they could hit the slopes sooner after flying or driving into town.

The company was brand new, but Turner could see the business model’s promise for a place like Big Sky. Despite the owners’ initial hesitation, he convinced them to let him open a licensed branch in Big Sky, which was born in November of 2004 from a two-car garage.

Today, there are 15 licensed branches of Black Tie Ski Rentals in the West and the Big Sky branch employs 22 full- and six part-time employees out of its Meadow Village Center storefront. They deliver rental gear directly to clients’ accommodations throughout Big Sky Resort, in the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and Moonlight Basin, and sometimes in the Yellowstone Club.

As part of this ongoing series, Turner shared his thoughts on what it takes to make it as a small business owner in Big Sky.

Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?

Seth Turner: I think that [timing] has been pretty key. … Looking at where Big Sky is now and where it’s potentially headed, the thought of trying to start Black Tie right now would seem to me a much bigger undertaking than it was when we started 15 years ago. … Being able to grow with the community has been key.  I also want to mention my incredible staff year after year and other local businesses who have paved the way after many years in Big Sky like Ken and Andrew from Grizzly Outfitters.

EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?

S.T.: The biggest challenge I would say is employees. Getting a) the right staff, but b) enough staff. … It’s hard to find places [for them] to live. I’m sure that’s a common theme around here.

Trying to stay ahead of the game and differentiating yourself from other services. We’re a ski rental shop, we don’t sell retail. Often our clients need a new jacket or a new pair of pants, so often we’ll tell them to go to Grizzly Outfitters or Lone Mountain Sports and say, “Hey when you’re in there, tell them Black Tie Ski Rentals sent you.” Being in a small community, we’re all in it together.

EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?

S.T.: I’ve got a lot of those. As a business owner, my biggest standout is our 10th anniversary. Hitting that as a small business is huge. A lot of small businesses don’t make it past two or three years. You make it past those first couple years and you feel like you’re doing well, but it’s still … tentative from five to seven years whether you’re going to make it or not. Reaching that 10-year mark—anything can happen, it’s not saying you’re good forever—but hitting that 10 years, you feel fairly confident that what you’re doing is going to continue to work. And now we’re at 15 [years].

EBS: What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

S.T.: I think the best was when I found out about Black Tie and went to my dad and said, “Hey, what do you think about this idea.” … His first comment was, “Why didn’t somebody do this 30 years ago when you guys were kids?” … Basically he said, “Go for it. Give it a shot. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? You either try and it doesn’t work and you learn something from it, or you try it, it works and becomes successful.” Had he not said [that] we wouldn’t be here now.

EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?

S.T.: Take the chance is really what it boils down to. Yeah, it might be scary but take the chance because you never know where you’re going to wind up.

EBS: What do you see as the most important areas of focus for Big Sky to thrive as it grows?

S.T.: I think the whole concept of community is huge. … I think just Big Sky as a whole continuing to focus on [being] a community, not just a ski resort [is important]. … My mind goes there more and more now that I have kids. It’s not just about what’s important to me as an individual but, as my children grow up in Big Sky, it’s not all about skiing. What else can they be involved in? … I’m not always so business focused. We’re here for a reason outside of our businesses, which is just as important.

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