Last summer, friends were apt to catch Marc Sherman on his knees, laying ceramic tile on the floor of his new store. Come winter, they'll be more likely to find the devoted telemark skier genuflecting in the bumps at Mad River Glen. After all, the Vermont entrepreneur's expanding business is already paying dividends, and, well, one does need priorities. "Skiing's the one thing I'm passionate about," confesses Sherman, founder of The Outdoor Gear Exchange, a thriving Burlington-based retail operation that sells discount and used equipment to hardcore outdoor enthusiasts.
After starting on skis as a two-year-old during family trips to Stowe, Vt., the New Jersey native put together a life like that of scores of other suburban sliders: high school, college, a job in New York, weekend ski trips. One weekend at Okemo, Vt., reality hit. "I was like, 'OK, I live in New York and vacation in Vermont, and I never want to go home,'" Sherman recalls. He began to plan his escape.
Fortuitously, his employer at the time, Polychrome printing, was downsizing, and Sherman jumped on a voluntary severance package in 1992. After his sister convinced him that trading Manhattan for Burlington didn't mean the end of dating, he relocated. Landing a job in marketing for the Vermont Teddy Bear Company provided "an instant social life, which was ideal because I literally didn't know anybody up here," Sherman says.
The teddy-bear trade also poured fuel on Sherman's lifelong entrepreneurial flame. "The business was run by the guy who started it," he says. "It was hard not to be infected by his enthusiasm." Armed with new insight on what it takes to launch, build and grow a business, Sherman had an epiphany while camping with a gear-deprived friend on the shores of Lake Champlain in New York's Adirondack Mountains. "I realized there were a lot of people who were just getting into a sport and didn't have a lot of the gear and couldn't afford to buy it new," he says. "And there were also a lot of other people who had stuff they didn't need, and they had no avenue to sell it." A gear-head and good listener by nature, it didn't take long for Sherman to see a business plan developing.
Sherman modeled his venture on the Wilderness Exchange in Berkeley, Calif., primarily selling camping gear and outdoor clothing at prices discounted 20—50 percent below retail. Unsold inventory, factory blemishes, even surplus product churned out merely to keep factories running at capacity are cyclic facts of the outdoor industry, says Sherman, who quickly recognized a supply opportunity. And he already knew the demand was in place.
Manufacturers—even big brands like Lowe Alpine, Black Diamond and Atlas Snowshoes—need alternative outlets as much as Sherman needs products to sell. "We can't get Patagonia, but we keep tapping on the door," says the natural-born salesman. Sherman structured the used-gear segment of his business to attract enthusiasts. OGE takes in all types of gear on a two-tiered consignment plan: Sellers can receive either 65 percent of the sales price in cash or 75 percent in store credit. This system has helped create a community at the shop as regulars frequently drop in, which, in turn, has given the business instant credibility.
After launching his business in 1995 in an 800-square-foot shop with a card table as a front counter, Sherman has grown annual sales to more than $1 million. Though he added a website (gearx.com) and a Lake Placid, N.Y., outpost in 1997, the flagship Burlington store remains the pacesetter, accounting for approximately 75 percent of company revenue. Twice relocated—both times with renovations completed by Sherman and his staff—the store now measures 10,000 square feet.
"We were a successful business in the first month. There was no 'I wonder if this thing is going to work,'" Sherman says. Managing growth while maintaining a balance between work and play is the real trick, he says. "One of the things that was important to me and the reason why I had a partner when I started—and I have one now—was I didn't want to be married to the business. I didn't want to trade the old rat race for a new one."
While encouraging a flexible schedule for employees—"We have one guy who skis every day, no matter what"—Sherman finds he's not racking up that many more days on the hill compared to his New York/Okemo years. "But I'm spoiled," he admits. "When you live in ski country, you tend to ski only when it's nice."
OGE business partner Mike Donohue admires Sherman's business maneuvers almost as much as the telemark turns he lays down on the hill. "He's a visionary when it comes to the store," Donohue says, citing Sherman's willingness to empower staff and to base the business on used and discounted gear—not exactly the high-margin end of the sporting goods market. That said, Sherman also is "absolutely goofy," Donohue adds. "He finally stopped cutting his own hair, but that was good entertainment for a while."
Aspiring entrepreneurs could do worse than listen to a Sherman sermon. "If you go by the book, you're less likely to succeed," he preaches. And the trick to building the right business in the mountains? "It's like playing Scrabble when you have a tray of seven tiles and you don't know what the word is but you know that there's a seven-letter word in there somewhere. If you keep rearranging them long enough you'll find it," he says. Sherman, at least, has spelled out his future.
Name - Marc Sherman
Age - 38
Profession - Owner/founder of the Outdoor Gear Exchange
Personal - Telemark skiing. Anywhere, anytime.
Why Burlington - "I can be a medium-sized fish in a small pond as opposed to getting lost in the city."