by Madison V. Fisler
Feb. 10, 2014. Ski shops come and go seemingly with the seasons in the High Country, but one in particular has not only withstood the test of time, but thrived and grown in this unforgiving economy.
Ski Country Sports in Banner Elk has been a High Country institution since it first opened in 1982. Started by husband and wife team Bill and Susan Leonard, the shop has been catering to the winter sport needs of the area for more than 30 years.
What started more than three decades ago as a small business in an even smaller town grew to be a family affair. Bill and Susan practically raised their three kids, Carrie, Matt and Chris in the shop.
“It’s been a family oriented business since day one,” said Bill Leonard. “The kids grew up here, and worked here, and they always helped out around here. We used to bring the little ones and have a babysitter for them upstairs, We even had a little moses basket behind the counter that Carrie would sleep in, and the twins would run wild around the store.”
And it’s true, as evidenced by the line of family photos marching across one wall of the shop.
“The pictures just progress through the years, and we have a lot of customers come in and say ‘Oh! I remember when they were that age!'”
Having a family oriented business has prepared the Leonard’s to do what they do best – cater to the families who live and visit the High Country looking for a little bit of outdoor adventure.
“We work with families and that is really what we love dealing with,” Leonard said. “Everyone who comes in can relate to us, and that lets us serve them better.”
But the going wasn’t always easy for this family.
“We started here and struggled for a few years,” Leonard said. “But we kept going. And now we have seven other stores and they are all doing great. It didn’t come easy for us, nobody gave us anything. We worked very hard for what we’ve got and we take a lot of pride in what we have accomplished as a family. In today’s market, you have to put in the effort to succeed, and that is just what we’ve done.”
And it helps that the entire crew inside the shop is one big family, whether they are blood related or not. Many of the employees at Ski Country Sports have been working at the business for years and have no plans to stop any time soon.
“When a customer comes in, they want to see a familiar face,” Leonard said. “They will come right up to us and we remember them from previous years. People keep coming back to us because they had a great experience. We are really unique because we are so family oriented, and Susan and I are here all the time. When the owners are always present, the customers can really tell the difference. We are attentive and we build real, lasting relationships with them and that is really important.”
Like many shops in the area, Ski Country Sports is a full-service ski shop offering rentals and retail and even a nifty coffee shop to warm you up, but they also have a few other tricks up their sleeves.
“We have a special ‘wintersteiger’ binding check machine,” Leonard said. “We calibrate each and every ski that we service as well as our rental fleet. What it does is it makes sure that every single binding is set properly and is checked by a computer. We make sure that it is done right before we send it out, to minimize the risk of injury to all of our customers.”
“We also have a ‘hot box’ which a lot of our racers love. They come in before a race and it really helps them out. What we do is pour hot wax on the ski and the hot box will keep the wax hot for about four hours so the wax sets deep into all of the pores on the ski. It is one of those specialized things that we offer, and we call it our secret weapon.”
And customers can trust the expertise of the staff at Ski Country Sports, as all of the staff, including the entire Leonard family, are avid skiers themselves.
“We can all relate to our customers, so we have a pretty good idea of what our customers need, whether it’s clothing, accessories or equipment, and we know from having to deal with it ourselves. We are the guinea pigs and the customers reap the benefits.”
Leonard contributes the wild success of Ski Country Sports to hard work and dedication from all on staff, as well as the family atmosphere.
“The most rewarding part of this is to be able to work with my wife and my entire family,” Leonard said.
And just because you aren’t a Leonard doesn’t mean you don’t get treated like one. Susan cooks lunch for the entire staff every Saturday, so the staff doesn’t have to leave the premises for lunch. There is a hot meal available for every member of the staff, and a home cooked one at that. Previous menu items have included lasagnas, roasts, salads and vegetables.
“Sometimes she thinks that Saturday lunch is the only time these college kids get any real food,” Leonard said. “Everyone takes care of each other here.”
And that family-oriented business model has expanded into all of the various endeavors that the Leonard family has undertaken.
“For the summertime, we bought Mountain Expeditions. We wanted to be able to employ people year-round and that is exactly what it has done for us.”
Mountain Expeditions offers whitewater rafting, outdoor trips, hiking and caving to adventurers looking to do some summertime outdoor activities in the High Country. Since the Leonard’s have purchased the business, it has grown considerably.
And Bill Leonard isn’t just a local businessman. His values that he instilled for his business carries over into his spirit for volunteerism as well, and he is dedicated to giving back to the community that has given him so much.
In the past, Leonard started the old Banner Elk Chamber of Commerce, served as president of High Country Host and served on the Sugar Mountain Tourism Development Association. Ski Country Sports also makes a point to take the students from Crossnore School rafting once a year as a fun activity for the kids.
“One year, Grandfather Home for Children was in need of gloves, so we called around the companies and got gloves,” Leonard said. “One guy called me up and told me that he had 1,000 single gloves and asked if we wanted them. Well, we took them to our church and had what they now call the ‘Great Mitten Match’ and we came up with several hundred pairs of gloves. We just lined them up and matched them, and there were a lot of people with gloves that year.”
With so much going on, one would think that Leonard would be ready to settle down and let things ride with his many business ventures and volunteer work. But as all good businessmen are, he is always ready for the next adventure.
“I spoke to my wife about a new venture and she said she has had enough and doesn’t want to hear about it,” Leonard said with a smile.
“So I told her that I guess we could talk about it later.”
Ski Country Sports is located at 3149 Tynecastle Highway in Banner Elk. For more information about Ski Country Sports, visit the website here or call them up at 828-898-9787.
Photos by Ken Ketchie