Who can say they’ve worked at the same place since junior high school? We know of one person for sure – Eric Burt, owner of Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, Colo.
Burt purchased the store when he was only 19 years old, after his mentor and boss, Jerry Peak, died in a motorcycle accident. The former competitive ski racer decided to forego college and take over a business people in the rural San Luis Valley had grown to love.
It was a good decision because nearly 30 years later the family business (www.slvoutdoor.com) is still going strong and Burt and his wife Lisa Burt (photo, right) are still running the Valley’s favorite outdoor retail store.
Peak, who was a ski instructor, was attending Adams State College and working at a men’s clothing store in downtown Alamosa when he decided to open a ski shop in the closet of his employer’s space.
At the time, Burt was 5-years-old and he remembers visiting the shop to get some skis so he could learn what would soon become one of his favorite sports. Thus began his fascination with Peak’s store, which eventually moved into a proper retail space elsewhere in Alamosa.
Later, when Burt was 14, he had a school project where he had to choose a place to work for a few hours for one day. He chose Kristi Mountain Sports and another business called Alamosa Cycles. He impressed Peak, he said, with the skills he’d learned helping his father at the family’s tire store and ice cream shop.
“Jerry called me up that summer and said he needed to do some remodeling and needed some help,” Burt said. When the summer was over, Peak asked him to stay on as an after-school employee. Burt happily accepted, he said. Back then the store, which now sells equipment for camping, bicycling and backpacking in addition to skis and rentals, was strictly a ski shop, so it closed in the summer, but every other season, Burt was there helping Peak out when he wasn’t at school or racing as part of the United States Ski Association team.
In the summer of 1983, Peak was helping to set up a motorcycle race in Del Norte, Colo., when he was killed while riding his motorcycle.
Burt was devastated by his loss of someone he called another father figure. He said he didn’t want to see the legacy Peak had created go to waste. He sat down with his father and discussed passing up college and purchasing the business.
“Orders had already been placed at the trade shows, everything was due to be delivered,” Burt said. “All I had to do was buy the business and establish credit with the suppliers to make all those changes.”
The last task, he said, was insane but he worked hard from July to October doing just that and getting the store ready for opening.
A 19-year-old Burt was feeling “confident fear” going into the store’s reopening, but received an outpouring of support from the community and Kristi Mountain Sports’ loyal customers.
Of Peak, Burt said, customers “respected him and how hard he worked to bring a higher level of service and goods in an area where there wasn’t a real ski shop before. He was a real stickler for customer service and for accuracy. He was a perfectionist for sure.”
Burt missed Peak and didn’t realize just how much he did until he had to run the business by himself. But soon he got the hang of it and realized opening a business in the agricultural, sparsely populated and somewhat poverty-stricken San Luis Valley presented challenges -- the success of his business being closely connected with the success of the agricultural business for one.
The San Luis Valley is home to two of the poorest counties in the state and it’s “very rural and very spread out,” Burt said. “It is 800 square miles and 40,000 people.”
But many of those 40,000 people of the Valley love the outdoors, whether it’s cycling, hiking, camping or skiing, and Kristi Mountain Sports created a community where active people could get their gear without having to travel to the nearest cities – Pueblo, Colo., or Santa Fe, N.M. It was the place where Valley residents stopped to rent skis on their way up to the slopes of Wolf Creek.
But none of that seemed to matter when the economy tanked in the late 1980s. Burt and his wife Lisa, who he’d met and married in 1984, gave the business everything they had – literally – and kept it afloat by liquidating some inventory.
“Everybody was struggling and scraping the bottom of the barrel ... everybody,” Burt said. “Banks weren’t loaning money. It was a train wreck. On top of that, it was a low snow year.”
But the pair managed to crawl out of the dark period and business became steady once more.
“We learned a lot of lessons,” Burt said. “We made sure after that time period that we never got backed into a corner as far as our ability to secure liquid capital to keep ourselves operating.”
Even though Burt said he and Lisa Burt learned lessons from the 1980s hardships, they didn’t suffer too much during the last recession. Actually, they experienced growth by selling more bicycles when people were opting to ride instead of drive. Plus, he said, the couple is used to not making huge gains in business due to their customer demographic, so they didn’t feel the effects of the recession like the bigger retailers did.
And though business still has its challenges, such as increasing competition from online retailers, the Burts manage to get through it.
Grateful for customers, niches
Despite the challenges, Kristi Mountain Sports just went through a second store expansion in the store’s current location, where it has been for more than 25 years. Customers are still loyal to what remains the Valley’s most trusted outdoor retailer.
“Since we’ve been here so long and have been connected with the community the funnest thing is to see all the generations coming through the door,” Burt said. Customers who frequented the shop as kids are now bringing their kids in to shop.
Another fun thing, Burt said, is being discovered by out-of-towners who frequent the Valley to visit its beautiful mountains and the Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“Most of them are shocked we’re even here and that they can find quality merchandise in such a remote location,” Burt said. Plus, some of those out-of-towners have helped Burt’s business in more ways than one. After a request from one for a snowboard rental in the summer to ride the dunes of the Great Sand Dunes, Burt went in search of sandboards to add to his rental business, which have become increasingly popular.
Kristi Mountain Sports remains a family store, where the Burts’ two sons, Leighton, 13, and Raleigh, 19 (not named after the bike brand) practically grew up, and because he loves doing business with his customers, he expects it will remain in business for years to come.
“One of the reasons why we do this is the feedback from the customers coming back after having a great day playing on the sand dunes,” slopes or trails, Burt said. “It’s not about the money.”