On again, off again

Businesses find ways to even out the ups,
downs of the seasons

 

 

Most businesses are impacted by natural market drops and surges at some point in the year, especially in a waterfront community with a long rainy season, an abundance of agriculture and a university with a student population exceeding 12,000.

John Sands, an instructor of business strategy and entrepreneurship at Western Washington University, said every business needs a functioning business plan that allows them to budget for the slower months so they don’t overspend during busy periods.

“Don’t buy the Mercedes Benz until you know you can make the payment in the lean months,” Sands said.

Looking beyond strategic budgeting and seasonal layoffs, some businesses deal with the ebb and flow of customers in more creative ways. The profiles that follow are of businesses started by people who have learned to be innovative in order make careers out of their pastimes, hobbies and obsessions.

 

La Rue Costumes

When Halloween approaches, costume businesses seem to appear from nowhere to open their doors, only to close them again soon after the year’s major costume season wraps up. But in Whatcom County, one costume shop stays open year round.

LaRue Costumes, on Cornwall Avenue in Bellingham, has dressed the community in wigs and authentic-looking, handmade costumes of all kinds for seven years. Owner Joan Lussier moved the business here from its 20-year home in California, where it began as a vintage clothing store.

Lussier and store manager Malia, the only other employee at the shop, explained there are four costume seasons: Halloween, Christmas, Easter and Mardi Gras. Malia said the biggest off-season in the costume industry is summer, and another is in January.

On a recent January day, a single shopper briskly passed a wall of wigs and headed straight to the mannequin magician, who Malia calls Bob and describes as “handsome.” The customer bought a top hat and cape for her son.

“I don’t know where I would have found this if you weren’t here,” the shopper said before leaving.

La Rue is the only full-functioning year-round costume shop between Everett and British Columbia. In its less visited months, Malia said people shop for mystery, birthday and bachelorette themed parties, and, when boating season opens, pirate parties.

Still, business is fairly sparse in the off season. To keep customers coming through the doors, the store gives students a discount on rented costumes for their book reports, dresses local theater troupes and generally tries to keep their prices low. Malia said they also catch up on sewing and repairing costumes during the slow times. But more than anything, she said, they rely on budgeting well in the busy months to get them through the off season. These strategies had proved successful for the business up until 2007, when the busy season wasn’t as profitable.

“The hardest thing about having an off season is when your on season isn’t on enough,” Malia said.

The store saw a dramatic reduction in sales in 2007, which Malia attributes to the Internet. She said costume shops that have been open in California for 15 to 20 years are having to close shop because their sales, too, have declined.

“This year has been pretty heartbreaking for us,” she said. “A lot of small businesses have been hit really, really hard by [the Internet].”

Malia said she and Lussier are working on ways to keep their prices low while keeping up with the Internet-retail boom. She said they too, are considering Internet sales.

 

Millbrook Clayworks

After 10 or so years of making pottery and working at everything from a convenience store to a marine electronics business, Todd Stephens found a way to make a living doing ceramics all year.

But Stephens, who now owns Millbrook Clayworks, said there is a cycle to the pottery-buying season. The busy season is April through December, with a bit of a slow down in the fall. Stephens found a way to work around the slowdown — in addition to teaching and setting up at the Farmers Market, he attended seven other outdoor festivals last year, has just started giving private pottery lessons and is among 50 artists who sell their pottery at Good Earth Pottery in Fairhaven.

Stephens didn’t take the fast track to success, but took a haphazard stab at life and ended up where he never knew he always wanted to be. Armed with a Western Washington University diploma and unsure of whether he wanted a career, Stephens left Bellingham in 1987 to lead mountain biking and wind surfing tours in Mexico.

Stephens was not looking for a life-long career in Mexico, but he saw the path he would follow in tiles that covered many of the walls and buildings there. He didn’t read his future in the ceramic squares, but he did realize he wanted to spend his time making ceramics.

Once back in Bellingham, Stephens made his way to the first pottery shop he saw in the phonebook.

“I was young and brash and not afraid,” Stephens said. “I asked if I could sweep the floor in exchange for a pottery lesson. I was there for two years.”

In addition to making pottery, Stephens teaches art January through March at three schools in Bellingham: Parkview Elementary, Lowell Elementary and Sehome High School. He also uses that time to stockpile pottery for festivals and fill out the paperwork that comes along with participating in them, including preparation for the Bellingham Farmers Market.

“All that time I’m making, making, making,” Stephens said. “And then April hits.”

The Farmers Market begins its season in April and keeps Stephens working 10-hour days. He started setting up at the market three years ago and said it has really propelled his business. He is making as much money now as he was when he left his marine electronics job seven years ago, which is enough to keep him making pottery and playing outdoors.

 

Island-Mariner Cruises

Island Mariner Cruises, the first certified passenger boat to haul people from Bellingham out to the San Juan Islands, was the brainchild of life-long Bellingham resident Terry Buzzard, who started boating at age 3.

“But I wasn’t allowed to go very far,” Buzzard said. “I had to stay within view of the house. Once I was 12, I could go and do what I wanted.”

Buzzard said he transformed the business into a naturalist-narrated whale watching tour and general charter service in the 1980s. But from the business’ very beginning in 1962, non-summer months tended to be incredibly slow. The boating off-season was not vacation time for Buzzard, though.

Throughout the years, Buzzard has been able to bring in an income by spending non-boating months doing everything from owning and operating a ship yard and a dry storage marina, to running a yacht brokerage, which he described as “like a used car lot, but with a lot of used boats,” to repairing his boats for the approaching season.

Buzzard has watched several of his businesses come and go — building them up then selling them off — but his Island Mariner business has been a constant. And at this point in his life, even though he no longer has to spend his off-season making an income, he hasn’t stopped dabbling.

“I’m semi-retired, but I don’t even know what semi-retired means — I’m retired in the winter, but not in the summer,” Buzzard said.

In his backyard are three greenhouses containing small palm trees and orchids, among an array of foliage. There is also a 10-foot-tall totem pole overlooking the water that borders his yard — a project that took Buzzard and his dabbling partner and childhood friend, Tom Walton, two weeks to carve out from a cedar tree and paint. The two spend their time restoring vintage wood boats and generally keeping busy. In addition to owning and captaining Island Mariner Cruises, Buzzard co-owns Island Commuter, a passenger ferry out of Bellingham that was founded in 1992.

While Buzzard said he may stop captaining his whale watching cruises within the next couple of years, he has no intention of slowing down any time soon.

 

Glacier Ski Shop and Lopez Kayaks

John Adams isn’t your average businessman. At work in loose-fitting camouflage pants and a grin, he explains that he started Lopez Kayaks in 1994 using only ingenuity and a credit card.

“I had a credit card with a $6,000 limit and I maxed it out one year to buy equipment,” Adams said. “That’s how it all started.”

Adams began his summer business soon after serving in the Navy. At that point Adams moved to Lopez Island, where his father was already residing and his younger brother Drew would soon join them.

The business, which began as a sort of kayaker taxi — hauling kayakers around the island — eventually grew to include guided tours and a rental and sales shop, with both brothers sharing the helm. However, the business could not sustain them year round, and even if it could, the chances of Adams spending the rainy season on the island were slim. Lake Tahoe snow beckoned.

“Being out on the islands is great,” Adams said. “It’s relaxing and physically challenging, but summer is the time of year that you’re waiting for winter.”

Adams and his brother grew up in their parents’ ski shop in Truckee, Calif., a small town near Lake Tahoe.

“I don’t even remember learning to ski,” Adams said, concentrating as he drilled into a ski, preparing it for a binding — a skill he learned as a teenager.

Adams would leave Lopez Island, making the voyage back to Lake Tahoe to teach skiing every winter.

Eventually, after growing tired of making the winter trip, Adams put his unconventional entrepreneurship skills to work on his passion. He found Mt. Baker while kayaking in the area and decided to open a ski shop in Glacier in 1999, turning his kayak business’ off season and his snowy obsession into a viable ski business.

“People actually laughed,” he said. “At the time snowboarding was all the rage. People were saying, ‘skiing is dead,’ but growing up around skiing all my life, I knew it wasn’t.”

The Glacier Ski Shop started out small, Adams said. The Adams brothers got the $10,000 in startup capital by maxing out another of John’s credit cards and proceeded to setup shop in the pool hall of Graham’s Restaurant. In 2002, the brothers maxed out an additional three credit cards building their own shop. Construction, which was mostly the handiwork of the brothers, took them approximately three months, Adams said.

“Skiing is what I do when I’m not working in the shop,” Adams said as he lifted the ski with now a fully mounted binding. “Even if I didn’t own one, I’d probably work in one. It’s good spiritual juice.”

With two businesses keeping him occupied almost yearround, Adams now has more difficulty finding time to ski than he does making a steady income, a problem he didn’t have when he started out.

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