Chris Vanderknokke has a standard answer to the ubiquitous So what do you do? question: “I just tell people I’m in the ski industry,” he says.
In the ski industry. The phrase says volumes, at least to the right people. From sea to sea, the circle of Canadians working in the world of skiing and biking is small and somewhat tight-knit. Names pop up over and over again, with some meandering their way through the circuit of stores, resorts and manufacturers, and others holding strong in one role for decades, honing their craft to a near-legendary level of excellence.
Vanderknokke, recently named Vice President of Winter Sports for Head Canada, began his career at Skiis & Biikes two decades ago, when he truly started at the ground level. “For the first two weeks, I cracked tiles,” he laughs. “Then I got straight to work, stickering items as they came in for the winter.”
And right there next to him, stickering too, was the boss. “That’s the way it worked at Skiis & Biikes. Everyone did everything. When you saw something that needed to be done, you did it,” says Vanderknokke.
Paul Montgomery, who started the business 43 years ago with a single, service-focused shop, looms large in the memory of former employees. Kit Cameron stayed with Skiis & Biikes for 13 years before opening her own outdoor sales agency, and she thinks of Paul as “probably one of the hardest-working people I know. He instilled a very good work ethic in me and was a great role model. And I’ve never met anyone more passionate about the ski industry.”
A team attitude—everyone working together, no matter what it takes—can pull staff through the frantic holiday weeks, filled with demanding customers and hours of overtime. But it’s that enthusiasm embodied by Paul that truly sets the outdoor retail industry apart.
“It really is an industry built on passion,” says Greg Balmer. “You get to share the thing that you love most, be it with your colleagues or your customers.” Balmer, who started with Skiis & Biikes as a teenager, left the store scene after 12 years to join General Motors on their foray into the world of electric bikes. He remembers, “There was never any real hierarchy. You’d be teaching, mentoring, coaching the new guy, all while helping your own customer on the bench next to them.”
Valentine Tomlinson, owner of Riders Cycle and Board in Toronto, remembers his years at Skiis & Biikes as being surrounded by like-minded people: “Everybody had so much passion for the things that we were doing. Even though sometimes it was a lot of work, we were into it enough that we enjoyed it and it wasn’t as hard as it looked.”
And when you’re immersed in a culture of doing what you love, relationships are inevitable. Countless life-long friendships have been forged while shooting the breeze around the ski-tuning bench or getting slap-happy during a long night of bike assembly.
Nick Swyszcz had been with Skiis & Biikes only a couple years when he took a season off to bike across Canada. When he returned, he fell back into his job and back in with his group of shop buddies—including Cara Sweeny. After-work beers led to dinner led to, well, “Paul often says we’re the first married couple Skiis & Biikes produced,” he laughs.
Twenty-one years later, the couple have the industry to thank for their marriage and three young active boys, and both credit their tenure at Skiis & Biikes with kicking off their careers. Swyszcz is now a sales rep for Devinci Bikes, HLC and Bikend—and Sweeny acknowledges early work in retail helped her overcome shyness, leading to professional roles later in life.
Balmer had a similar experience on the sales floor. Starting out as a bike-obsessed 14-year-old, he remembers, “I was very quiet as a kid, not necessarily super-outgoing. But I kind of found myself there. I started engaging with customers, and really came out of my shell.”
But growing as a person is to be expected in an environment where you feel secure and respected. Tomlinson remembers brainstorming meetings back at Paul’s place: “I always thought that was a cool way to bring the whole team together. It seemed like everyone’s input really meant something. You’d see real changes from it, even big changes like opening a new store.”
If working at Skiis & Biikes felt like being part of a family, the individual stores often behaved like siblings. “It was just a great work environment,” says Balmer. “There was almost a rivalry between the locations—kind of a quiet competition that always went on, each one trying to outdo the other.”
But they’re all on the same team, really. “Paul always did a great job at pulling everyone together, giving us opportunities to try out the latest and greatest gear,” says Greg. Sometimes that takes shutting down every store on the same day, ensuring no one is left behind when they head out for a day on the slopes.
Bringing back that real-world product knowledge to the customers was one of the greatest pieces for Vanderknokke. “You’d have relationships with families for years. You’re fitting their kids, then they go away to school, then you’re setting up their grandkids. You’re fitting generations of a family. It was really cool to be part of it.”
An encouraging, family-focused atmosphere, being surrounded by people who share your passions—Ben Bradshaw, who started at Skiis & Biikes and is now the Ontario Sales Representative for Head Winter Sports, can’t imagine any other career. “You’re not getting paid a ton of dough. You’re doing it because you love the industry, you love skiing. You love getting deals. It’s a combination of all those things. At the end of the day, we’re in this industry because we’re passionate about a fun sport that we all enjoy doing.”
Says Vanderknokke, “It’s the characters that make the industry so great. Some people may switch stores or brands, but they’re all in it for the same thing: They’re all passionate. I don’t see any bankers that are passionate about what they do. It’s really unique. And it’s a conversation-starter, worldwide. Anywhere you meet someone, if you can talk to them about skiing, you’re brothers. You’re connected through this incredible international ski family.”