By Bay Stephens EBS Editorial Assistant
BIG SKY – Since 1985, one hardware store has held it down in Big Sky. In 1993, Kevin and Tina Barton bought Mountain View Mercantile, a True Value hardware store, and ran it on their own for the first six to eight months. Their first employee, Dan Schlapkohl, has been their store manager for more than 20 years.
In 2013, they switched to the Ace Hardware family, their store garnering recognition by the Ace Hardware Corporation for performance and growth. In early 2015, just as the dream of moving to a better location was within reach, Tina lost her battle with cancer. Kevin, supported by friends, family and employees, realized the couple’s dream by the end of the year, moving from a location in the canyon to a 14,000-square-foot building near Meadow Village on Lone Mountain Trail. The new space has a special kitchen and houseware department named Sweet T’s Kitchen in Tina’s honor.
Barton told EBS about his success and longevity as a Big Sky small business as part of this ongoing series.
EBS: What has been the key to your success?
K.B.: We took the business over at a very slow point in Big Sky’s history. There was a building moratorium going in ‘93 because … the water and sewage district didn’t have the facilities to handle the population that we had. Construction was very limited. So that gave me the opportunity to kind of jump in without the business going crazy. It was kind of a forced slowdown in development, which… gave me time to learn the business, see where we had success and where we needed more improvements.
I would say my key to success was starting in such a small operation. Essentially, I knew—or I learned quickly—every aspect of the business because I did it all. From stocking shelves to filling orders to deliveries, anything that needed to be done, I was the guy who did it.
As we developed, that let me start to delegate some of those responsibilities to other people but still kept me grounded: I knew how things were supposed to work.
So I guess the key to my success would be personal involvement in every aspect of the business.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
K.B.: Being a retail business, there’s a few regional or local obstacles [such as] the cost of labor. [With] the cost of housing in the area being so high, labor costs are up and in retail now … our main competitor is Amazon, [or] online shopping…their operation [costs] are lower than a brick-and-mortar store like mine. So being cost competitive to the online retailers is a difficult challenge.
I think that’s the biggest one—it’s the changing landscape of retail and staying relevant and current with the technology.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
K.B.: When we started the business, it was before the Yellowstone Club existed, before Spanish Peaks [Mountain Club] or any of the secondary resorts were in operation. The real estate market was vastly different. It was much smaller and concentrated, and Big Sky was a one-company town. Big Sky Resort was the driving actor in the economy.
The change in the landscape came from all of the secondary resorts and development in the early 2000s and in that big growth burst of, say, 2006, Big Sky got much bigger very quickly. And other players came into town. It opened the door to more businesses and obviously, a lot more real estate.
So, the business landscape has changed with, you could say, with the landscape of Big Sky. There was no Town Center, none of the other clubs in existence … all of that secondary development has been driving business and Big Sky Resort has grown along with it.
EBS: Why do you think so many new businesses fold relatively quickly?
K.B.: One reason is Big Sky is its own entity, it’s not like doing business in a lot of other places in the country. I think some business owners may not be prepared for the seasonality of the business, the long shoulder seasons, the offseasons.
We’re fortunate to be in hardware. That was one of the determining factors of getting into the hardware store. What we did was it was a year-round business. We definitely have seasonality, but people need propane, nuts and bolts, and keys all year long. So some of the businesses—be it a boutique or a gift shop or whatever, even a café or a restaurant—[are] much more dependent on the tourism than we are.
We definitely thrive by the tourism, but we survive on the local business. I think maybe that could easily be a contributing factor to the strain on a business, especially a new business. And nowadays, there’s more competition in every aspect, so when a business comes they better by ready to hit the ground running and compete.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
K.B.: Do their research and gain as much experience as possible within whatever business they’re looking to get into.
I was lucky that there was barely enough business in 1993 to keep the door open six days a week. I was fortunate to be the guy in that business without a whole lot of competition and to learn it while I was doing it. I know that it would be very difficult for me to come in today without any experience and try to do what we’re doing. I couldn’t do it. I would fail. I would need the experience of how to run a retail operation prior to just jumping in.
Ace Hardware – Big Sky by the numbers
• Staff: 18-24
• Years in business: 25
• Longest serving employee: Dan Schlapkohl 24+ years
• Number of stocked items 50,000+
• Transactions per year: 120,000+