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The Best From High Country Magazine Bill Leonard’s Family Business – Growing Up Working Together

The Leonard family stands out in front of Ski Country Sports, the family business for over 30 years. The Leonard children have practically been on the property from birth. From left-to-right are Matt, Susan, Bill, Carrie and Chris.

By David Coulson (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, August / September 2014)

For Bill Leonard of Ski Country Sports, family goes hand-in-hand with business everywhere but at the dinner table.

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Bill Leonard at his desk. Photography by Ken Ketchie

Leonard and his wife Susan worked side-by-side in building the family business, with their four children growing up in the distinct surroundings across from Sugar Mountain on N.C. Highway 184.

Now over 30 years and many long hours after opening their doors, three of their four children, daughter Carrie and twin sons Chris and Matt, are adding their flare to the business as the Leonard family has expanded from the ski business into more summer recreational fare, from whitewater rafting, to tubing, caving and gem mining.

You can even make a date for limousine service for that special day, or evening event.

On a given spring, or summer day, one, or more family members will work along with other staff members taking reservations for tubing, rafting and cavern expeditions, while others will be organizing bus travel, food and other logistics for excursions on the Watauga River, the Nolichucky River and Worley’s Cave.

Though the days are hectic, this tight-knit family still meets for dinner as often as possible, with just one rule.

“We don’t talk about business at home,” said the elder Leonard. “We all have our areas which we work with and we are all sounding boards for each other. They all still come back and eat dinner almost every Wednesday night.”

The Leonard children have been a part of the family business since they were toddlers.
From left to right are oldest son Billy (who now works for Goggle in California), daughter Carrie and twins Matt and Chris.

Oldest son Billy, who also spent much of his formative years roaming around those Ski Country Sports digs and worked at the store through college, has moved on to the Bay Area and a job with Google, but he remains close to the rest of the family and added to the clan when he and his wife Hope celebrated the birth of twins nine months ago.

All of that time spent together with family through the years is still evident on the days they are together at the shop, eating dinner at the home of their parents, or talking to their brother Billy in California using the Face Time application on the Leonard’s Mac computers.

“I’ve been fortunate in my life,” Bill Leonard said. “You work hard and live right and hopefully things go your way.”

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Ski Country Sports began construction on their building at the beginning of 1983 and opened in September.
It’s located across the street from Sugar Mountain with a wonderful view of the ski slopes.

Leonard’s interest in recreational sports go back all the way to his formative years, growing up in Greensboro, where he learned to swim at Greensboro’s Sherwood Swim Club, played Little League baseball and Midget football.

He became a successful competitive swimmer at the same time he was finding work at the club “mowing grass and pulling weeds.”

By the time he was 18, Bill was working as a lifeguard at Sherwood Swim Club and in 1968, he caught the interest of new Appalachian State swim coach Ollie Larson.

Larson gave this young competitor a partial scholarship to come and attend college in Boone, starting a love interest in the High Country that was never to be quenched.

Two years into his college education, Leonard was drafted into the U.S. Army near the height of the Vietnam War and one of life’s fortunate turns landed him in West Germany.

Instead of the jungles of southeast Asia, Bill found himself both in the midst of the cold war near the border of East Germany and short distance from the heart of the German ski industry. All of the lessons he learned there would serve Bill well when he inevitably returned to the High Country.

Susan and Bill Leonard have enjoyed two recent additions to their family, Billy’s twin daughter and son,
Caroline and William V born nine months ago.

Following a 19-month Army stint, he and a friend purchased a pair of Triumph motorcycles and toured Europe for several months before he returned to Greensboro and eventually made it back to Appalachian State.

He graduated with a non-teaching degree in physical education that featured 19 hours of internships. including one ski business opportunity in Aspen, CO.

A winter working at a ski shop in Denver, CO. and time at the ski shop located at Beech Mountain followed as Bill’s future began to be directed into an unexpected, yet fruitful direction.

Bill had met his future wife, Susan, while he was at ASU, but the two ran in different circles. Susan left ASU with a teaching credential and settled into a school position in her hometown of Greensboro, while Bill started work as a retail buyer for Alpine Ski Center, leasing space from owners Bob Quinlan and Hiram Lewis.

Bill and Susan met again at a Greensboro bank one weekend in December, 1976 and he invited her to a college football game. It wasn’t long before Susan began traveling to Banner Elk on weekends to help Bill in his work at Alpine Ski Center, working for free.

By June 24, 1977, the 28-year-old Bill and the 24-year-old Susan were married.

With Bill still working at Alpine Ski Center and Susan finding employment as a teacher in Trade, TN., the couple started building for the future and Bill was able to open his own store — named Ski Country Sports — in 1983.

It didn’t take long for the family aspect of the business to fall into place when oldest son Billy was born that same year, with the couple juggling diaper changes and serving ski customers.

Less than two years later, daughter Carrie was born in January, 1985 and within five days, she was taking up residence in a Moses-designed basket behind the front counter. In 1988, twins Chris and Matt were added to the family.

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In a picture from 1989 that hints at the company’s future rafting business,
Bill enjoys a moment in a pool with his four children, Billy, Carrie, Chris and Matt.

All four Leonard children learned to ski before they were three-years-old and all of them quickly learned to find their niches in the family business, particularly as Bill began to buy other stores, beginning with a ski shop in Asheville in 1989 and Charlotte Ski and Tennis in 1990.

He purchased 1st Tracks ski shop in 1999 and High Mountain Expeditions in 2002.

The family added several Sports Authority stores in Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greenville, S.C. after Bill received a contract to sell ski equipment in the nationally-based company’s regional stores.

The business that started as Ski Country Sports now has seven sports stores scattered across the Carolinas.

High Mountain Expeditions gives customers a thrill-packed, whitewater rafting experience on a pair of rivers in the High Country. “It’s all about having fun and showing the customer a good time,” said Bill Leonard. PHOTO BY Elizabeth Huff

The summer rafting, tubing and caving businesses began to take flight with the purchase of High Mountain Expeditions in 2002 as a way to diversify and guard against the inevitability of occasional slow winters.

“We had to find a way to keep good people around year-round,” said Bill.

Those summer businesses have grown by leaps and bounds since, particularly with the return of twins Chris and Matt from college at Appalachian State and Montana State, respectively.

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Twins Matt and Chris got their business start running a lemonade stand at Yonahlossee when they were kids. Here at age 9 they set up shop at Ski Country Sports entrance.

Entrepreneurs at heart, Chris and Matt constantly bounce business ideas off their seasoned father, who has learned to try many things and keep building the ones that work.

Most of the summer ventures have worked well and they have provided a needed break from the ski business that is central to the family’s life.

“It reinvigorates you,” said Bill. “It keeps everybody fresh.”

Daughter Carrie Smithey has blossomed after studying fashion merchandising at Meredith College and has been a key component in planning purchases in the store with her mother.

When Susan entered college, she dreamed of a career in fashion merchandising. But a guidance counselor at Appalachian State had other ideas.

“I was told I could never find a job in that field, that I should become a teacher, because there would always be jobs available for teachers,” Susan explained.

Ironically, Susan has found her niche in the world of sportswear fashion in her work at Ski Country Sports and making things even sweeter is the fact she gets to share that love with Carrie.

Mother and daughter spend several enjoyable weeks a year traveling to fashion shows and talking to sales representatives and designers as they plan store purchases for the following year’s ski season.

Carrie ventured off to college study art, but quickly changed her major to fashion merchandising. She went on to spend a year in Paris, studying at the Fashion Institute and then moved to New York City for a year to work for a high-end German fashion giant, Boyner.

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Carrie and Susan Leonard, foreground with the guys looking on, both with a keen eye for fashion,
enjoy traveling together to merchandise shows and designing the store’s look.

“I learned my sense of color from my mom,” Carrie freely admitted. “I like seeing all of the new things and putting it altogether.”

There is one more benefit for a mom and daughter who make no bones about another shared interest. Both of them love the shopping aspect of their jobs.

“The ability to shop is one of the things I love the most about fashion merchandising,” said Carrie.

Susan said she also finds enjoyment in watching how fashion lines develop in companies over the years and the special relationships that grow between the buyers and the sellers.

Susan and Carrie have helped Ski Country Sports develop a hard-earned reputation in the sports fashion world that goes beyond the reach of the family’s small, specialty shop background.

“We’re a small shop in the realm of things, but we have a good sense of things,” said Susan.

The merchandise that will arrive in the store this fall was actually shown to the Leonard family women in November, 2013 and was up to several years in the planning and development stage before being shown to Susan and Carrie before that.

“Susan has a great eye for fashion, color and presentation,” Bill said. “She is one of those exceptional people at organizing things. She has a lot on her table and gets a lot done.

High Mountain Expeditions employs 30 guides in the summer. These guides had just returned from a trip and posed in front of one of the busses used to transport customers.

Not only do Susan and Carrie have to view new items with a feel for color, fabric and style, they also have to consider where fashion trends might travel a full year ahead of time.

“Carrie has done this with me since she was seven, or eight,” said Susan. “She has a real ability for seeing the color of one item and remembering it so she can put it together with another item.”

Besides her work in the family business, Carrie also serves as a buyer and runs the shop at a local golf course.

Like her three brothers, Carrie spent plenty of time growing up around the shop and across North Carolina Highway 184 at the Sugar Mountain ski resort.

“It was fun,” Carrie said of her childhood. “There was always something to do. We always have had a sense of family. It is something we learned early on.”

About the time Carrie was beginning to make trips with Susan, she discovered she had her first loose tooth one day in the shop.

“I had my first tooth pulled here,” Carrie said. “Someone tied a string to one of the doors and pulled it out.”

Her family members also remember Carrie putting on impromptu fashion shows in the parking lot.

One of Carrie’s favorite memories of her three brothers was of them making snow guns.

“They made it snow in our neighborhood and here at the shop.”

Like her brothers, Carrie learned to ski before she was three and developed her skills to the point that one family friend offered to pay for her move to Colorado to take up the sport professionally.

“She fell in love instead,” said her father, Bill.

That relationship with Zach Smithey led to marriage almost two years ago.

Mark Russ – long-time General Manager and go-to guy.
“If something needs to be done, you do it,” said manager Mark Russ, who has been with the Leonards for about 15 years.
“You know that there is nothing they will ask you to do that they are not willing to do, or have done themselves.”

The Leonard family also has constructed a strong sense of relationship with their employees. And all of the activity at Ski Country Sports allows for about 70 employees in the winter and over 100 in the summer.

No matter what the season, customers find a personable, hands-on approach to all of the business endeavors at Ski Country Sports. Family members and employees alike take extraordinary effort to cater to customers, something that is seen in a lot of subtle ways.

“If something needs to be done, you do it,” said manager Mark Russ, who has been with the Leonards for about 15 years. “You know that there is nothing they will ask you to do that they are not willing to do, or have done themselves.”

Bill Leonard reflects on a wall of memories that includes
family pictures and other mementos from 30 plus years at Ski Country Sports.

Strong customer service leads to repeat business and first impressions are important to the both the family and staff.

“Everyone around here cares about things and know how customers should be treated,” said Bill Leonard. “Things change and happen every day. You’ve go to be thinking on your feet.”

The Leonard business model also tries to find price points for a variety of clients.

“We are selling fun,” Russ explained.

Bill Leonard agreed.

“It is all about having fun and showing the customer a good time.”

Matt and Chris Leonard, shown here relaxing in their dad’s office,
are perfectly natural working together in the business world.