Venture Sports’ Mike Brumbaugh’s life, business have thrived in the Vail Valley
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AVON — When Mike Brumbaugh started dating the woman who’s now his wife of 23 years, she thought he was a successful entrepreneur. That assessment might have been a little premature.
There’s no doubt that Brumbaugh and his business, Venture Sports, is successful today. Back then, though, the business was in its early years and Brumbaugh was a “sweat equity” partner, and usually the first one in the door and the last one out.
That willingness to put in the work has served Brumbaugh well over the years. It’s had to.
Brumbaugh’s dad was a teacher. “I don’t have a trust fund to fall back on,” he said. With that in mind, the only path to success is hard work.
Brumbaugh still works nearly nonstop from Nov. 1 through Jan. 15.
Driving to work making the first tracks on the road, and making the last tracks coming home 12 or 14 hours later, “I knew I’d succeed because the competition wasn’t willing to do that,” he said.
Being in the winter sports business, you might think Brumbaugh has had a life-long love affair with the mountains. But that affair didn’t start until he was a young adult.
Growing up in Florida, Brumbaugh had never seen snow until his freshman year of college in South Carolina. That was the start. Heading west to Gunnison to finish school at what was then Western State College gave that love of winter a more substantial push.
Brumbaugh landed in the Vail Valley in the 1990-91 ski season, ostensibly on a quick break between college in Gunnison and law school at the University of Colorado. That plan didn’t last long.
A family friend was talking about opening a ski shop in the valley and needed someone to run the place.
“God looks after the stupid, and I got an opportunity,” Brumbaugh said. That’s when a dedication to hard work paid off and Brumbaugh’s real education began.
“Even though it’s a fun industry, it’s still a business,” Brumbaugh said, adding there are a lot of people who put money first and relationships second.
“You need everything signed and in triplicate,” he said. “I once asked a guy what the chances were of honoring (a verbal agreement), and he said, ‘Slim and none — and Slim just left town.’”
That said, the owners of the valley’s remaining independent ski shops are a close-knit bunch.
Venture Sports has sold hockey gear or bikes to just about all of those families.
“The little guys all stick together,” he said. “We all want the best for each other.”
After starting in a storefront in the Avon Center building — and where, coincidentally, the Avon location has been the past few years — Venture Sports has six locations these days. Still, the company is a small fish in an increasingly corporate pond.
“It’s very difficult to stay independent,” Brumbaugh said. In the face of chains and online retailers, “I have a buying group of me,” he added.
The secret to staying independent, he said, is prayer, good fortune, hard work and treating people right.
Venture Sports has a simple policy: If it’s not 100 percent right, the store will make it right.
Treating people right extends to employees, too. Venture Sports has always been a 12-month operation.
“Financially, it would be good to shut down” in the slow months, Brumbaugh said. “But people still have mortgages and mouths to feed.”
And people tend to stick around. Of Venture Sports’ 25 or so year-round employees, about half have been with the company for 10 years or more.
There’s also a good number of veterans in the ski-season staff of 80 or so. Many of those people have worked at other ski shops over the years.
“We work hard and we play hard, and we’re here to serve people,” Brumbaugh said.
That service goes far beyond taking care of customers. Venture Sports has a long history of helping out community projects. An employee suggested that the shop help the local Young Life youth group on its bike-ride fundraisers. Brumbaugh and shop employees have helped Buddy Werner ski program athletes, CanDo Multiple Sclerosis and Roundup River Ranch. A crew from Venture Sports also helped feed 3,500 people on Thanksgiving at the Denver Rescue Mission.
Most of that work draws little notice.
“You don’t do charity to be patted on the back,” he said.
But to do good works, a business has to be successful. And staying successful in the recreation business requires keeping up with trends and innovation.
It’s a never-ending job. On the snow, we’ve gone from straight skis to shaped skis.
“It went from who has the longest skis to who has the shortest,” he said.
There’s just as much change and innovation in snowboards.
Road bikes used to be steel and aluminum. Even wheel sizes have shifted.
“Everything was a 26-inch wheel forever,” Brumbaugh said. “Now it’s either a 27.5 or a 29 inch.”
But change is part of the adventure, and there’s no end to the journey in sight.
“I don’t think God put me on this earth to relax,” Brumbaugh said “I live a pretty comfortable life, but I only know one speed … I like the fact that I know I have 20 to 30 people who get to pay a mortgage because I employ them. It’s pretty cool.
“I always say, I’d trade bank accounts with a lot of people, but not lives.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.