Brendan Madigan took over the legacy of specialty retailer Alpenglow Sports, proving a life in the field of run and Nordic can be better than any degree or resume job list.
By Jahla Seppanen
Since 1979, Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, CA, has grown to become the oldest, and arguably most knowledgeable backcountry shop in the Tahoe area (and probably beyond).
Donald Fyfe blended two shops into one during his time at the helm, forming an alpinist wonderland in the winter and trail running Shangri-La in the spring and summer. The end result: a legacy mountain retail shop for the charts.
As it came time to retire, you might suspect Fyfe would have passed the ownership reins to a retail pro with a savvy history operating and managing the tasks that can often overwhelm specialty owners. Nope. He chose a full-time ski bum.
The current El Capitan of Alpenglow is Brendan Madigan, 38, who worked at the shop part-time under Fyfe’s tutelage. This will be Madigan’s fifth year running the gambit, and not only does the shop continue to thrive, but it’s killing the retail game by evolving and expanding the business with mountain festivals, demo days and community trail runs. And as a proud ski bum, Madigan came into the position already understanding that quality product is at the center of it all, carefully surrounded by a sales pitch that has nothing to do with selling itself.
What’s your golden selling strategy? It all comes back to our heritage. None of us are in the business to “sell”, ironically, and while we have to make sure the numbers are healthy, our heritage of being educators is well founded. People know they can come here and get good advice. We’re not interested in selling for selling’s sake. That’s dishonest and boring.
Give us one tip on being a better retail educator? Take into account your surroundings and the landmarks around you.
What challenges did you see this past winter, and how do you anticipate for next? This winter has been fantastic for us. But the four winters before it were very meager. The challenge is when you stack low-performing seasons; it presents a real challenge for a small retailer, cash flow and inventory wise. We’re always going to be at the mercy of the weather. It could be smoky, too much snow, but ultimately if you’re running a smart business and have great people, you can be proactive, lean and fierce.
How can others run a “smart business?” Surround yourself with good people, which we’ve always had at Alpenglow. Retail isn’t for everyone. These people have to see the value in helping and being collective. Without your people, you’re nothing.
You’re a Nordic shop at heart, but transition to trail running in the summer. Is this a survival tactic? It’s challenging being two different stores in one under one roof, but it also keeps us on our toes – whether it’s inventory hurdles, too big or too small of winters, fires in the summer, etc. But I wouldn’t want to be a running store 12 months a year, or a backcountry ski store for 12 months. It keeps us doing new and exciting things. When you look closely, we’re a full service Nordic shop from racing, AT and telemark to trail running, backpacking, rock climbing and hiking.
Which brands have been giving you the most love? In winter, DPS is a very good partner. They understand the need to support us from a backend discounting perspective, but also protect brand integrity by not going off-price. If you make a good enough product you should never have to go off-price. Dynafit is also a strong partner. They help us sponsor our mountain festivals. Salomon is a key sponsor year-round, with a little more summer presence. And we have longstanding relationships with Patagonia, Arc’teryx and Kuhl.
What are the biggest changes brands can make to help retailers? It always comes down to product. Your product can’t stink. If you’re a marginal brand and your product is amazing, we want to see it. That’s what is going to sell. Secondarily, retailers align with companies that support and help, so brands should be very aware of that. Our partners believe in us as a trendsetter in the outdoor industry.
You’re a retailer, but you also host a pretty famous mountain festival? We just had our 10th year of the bi-annual festival, and we had more than 400 participants. The festivals have films, presentations, guided backcountry tours or trail runs, and demo days. Our last demo day was the biggest consumer backcountry day in the country.
Was it intimidating taking on everything Alpenglow came with? I’m very transparent about being 38 and still running into challenges with owning a business. But none of us are in the industry to get rich. Alpenglow has been my one-and-only job since I moved to California after attending college in Virginia. I trained under Donald and two key staffers that are still here today. As an owner and athlete, I participate in the mountain events, guide ski tours and fun runs. But I always say my acquired sport is running a business.
Photos courtesy Court Leve, courtleve.com