By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer
Gallatin River Guides was founded in 1984 by Steve and Betsey French. Steve, one of Montana’s first outfitters, was known for his knowledge, quality customer service, and commitment to conservation. When he passed away in 2005 of cancer, Betsey carried on his legacy until 2012 when she sold the business to current owners Patrick and Brandy Straub.
Brandy is a fourth generation Montanan with roots throughout the state, while Patrick grew up in Gallatin Valley and first skied Big Sky when there was only one gondola and three chairs. The Straub’s carry forth what the French’s started with Patrick’s deep roots in fly fishing, an industry he’s been in since 18 years of age.
As part of this ongoing series, Straub shared his thoughts with EBS about 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?
Patrick Straub: Passion. Passion to treat our staff as best as we can—retirement accounts, health insurance, time to enjoy the off-season, time to spend with their families, etc. Passion to protect the resource we all know and love. And, passion to treat every customer like they’re the best—whether they just want free info and a point in the right direction, or if they want a $2,000 outfit and book a dozen guide trips.
EBS: Do you remember your first customer or first sale?
P.S.: In 1984 one of our earliest customers was Richard Hough. In 2012 it was Jeff Shrader. Both these families still support us today.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
P.S.: Housing for our seasonal shop employees.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
P.S.: There’s a lot more people around on a year-round basis, so that makes the lonely winter months go faster. The diversity of businesses is always fun—my daughters love Sugarbuzz after a day on the slopes or the trail.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
P.S.: Our first year as owners was at the tail-end of the recession. Thankfully, I had over fifteen years of experience in the fly-fishing industry, so we muscled through it—but we were very thankful for every customer that met us for the first time and has stuck with us and grown with us. When the next downturn hits, we hope GRG has enough loyal customers that we can muscle through it again.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
P.S.: The first Pesca Fiesta [festival] we hosted in 2012. The French’s started Pesca Fiesta and we’ve continued it. We donated so many things that day that people still talk about it, and about the damn good BBQ we served.
EBS: What was a business idea that didn’t work?
P.S.: In our first year as owners we did a Local’s Only special: Buy 12 flies, get 12 free. Yeah. We kind of burned ourselves on that one. But it brought a lot of people into the store.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
P.S.: From Paul Roos, one of the first fishing outfitters in Montana—he started in the 1960s. He told me at the start of my first guide trip ever: “If you’re not having fun, the customers aren’t having fun.”
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
P.S.: Big Sky is a very unique place. We’re blessed with some of the best and most accessible outdoor recreation on the planet, and we’re home to people who understand that and work to keep it that way. Be sure to get out and enjoy it all. In Big Sky, if you work hard, good things will come because there is a great network of support organizations to ensure that those who work hard succeed.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
P.S.: Still fishing, teaching, and having fun.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
P.S.: Big Sky has lots of challenges ahead, and they all stem from mitigating the impact of growth. I have faith in the leaders in our community to create solutions that can protect our watershed, allow for access, and keep the soul of Big Sky intact. It won’t be easy, and I think all interests will have to give a little to get what we all want: to continue our lifestyle in a place we all feel proud to call home while protecting the environmental integrity of this unique place.
EBS: Would you do it all over again?
P.S.: Brandy and I feel blessed to carry on what Steve and Betsey French started and we have no intention of stopping anytime soon.
Gallatin River Guides: by the numbers
• Staff: 6 to 30; full time to seasonal
• Years in business: 34
• Longest serving employee: Jimmy Armijo-Grover, General Manager, 16 years; Bob Merryman, fishing guide, 30 years.