February 25, 2009
Aaron Keeps, not your average 26 year old
Aaron Kreps is like most other 26-year-olds you know.
He loves to snowmobile and does so just about every chance he gets. He likes to mod his sled and pushes the machine to its limits. He doesn’t really know the meaning of the word “trail” unless you’re referring to a mogul-infested path through the trees to the backcountry. He also rides ATVs when the snow finally recedes from the high country. He works hard so he can play hard.
And, like many other 26-year-olds, Kreps has other hobbies. In his case, Kreps pro rodeos in the summer.
There is one distinction, though, that sets Kreps apart from most other sledders in their mid 20s—he owns his own snowmobile dealership.
Yea, how sweet is that?
Kreps knows he’s got a good gig going and, during a recent interview at his dealership, The Outdoor Toy Store in Carson, WA, he talked about the good times and, well, the challenging times.
Kreps graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in marketing in 2006 and went to work managing The Outdoor Toy Store (TOTS) right out of college, trying to put all that book learning to good use. Soon after, then owner Rick Esky approached Kreps about buying the dealership and the young lad—then 24 years old—took the plunge. His two-year anniversary of owning TOTS rolled by this past January.
How could he pass up an opportunity to own a piece of something he loves to do? He couldn’t. “Rick sat me down one day and asked me if I wanted to buy it (the dealership),” Kreps recalled. “We negotiated a price and I bought it.”
Then came the obvious question, in light of a troubled economy, among other issues such as being tied down to a demanding business: Do you regret the decision?
“Yes and no,” he said.
“Having 11 employees makes you grow up real fast,” Kreps said. “But it’s a fun industry. It’s fun to have a job where every day you can go snowmobiling and get paid for it.” Of course, that going snowmobiling every day is somewhat all theory now as Kreps has to stick around as a hands-on owner. He admitted it’s tougher and tougher to find time to ride. And, we pointed out, a lot of things are fun, but you can’t always make money at them. His reply, “Exactly.”
Also, the economy was in much better shape back when Kreps bought the dealership and while the economy in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon is in decent shape, there are still challenges. TOTS is on the Washington state side of the Columbia River about 50 miles east of Portland, OR. His customer base fans out across these two areas of Washington and Oregon but he pulls consumers in from as far away as Montana and Nevada.
Catering To Customers
One aspect of his business that Kreps prides his dealership on is the fact that his employees set up the snowmobiles for the customers’ riding areas, regardless of where that area might be. “That’s why I rode in nine states last year,” Kreps said. So he does find time to ride, just not as much time as he used to enjoy during his college days, which really aren’t such a distant memory—yet.
Kreps went to the University of Montana on a rodeo scholarship and despite carrying 16 credits a semester and rodeoing while in Missoula, he and his buddies still managed to find enough time to snowmobile in the winter.
Well, okay, he planned it that way. “I set up my class schedule so I could ride Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday,” Kreps said. And just how much sledding can you do in those three days a week? A lot, according to Kreps. “I put on 3,800 miles one year while I was in college,” he said. So much for the idea of a poor college student who does nothing but study all the time. Kreps’ sled of choice during his college days was an Arctic Cat M7, which he kept in the back of his pickup, ready to go at all times.
One of his riding buddies during college was Chad Koon of Alticity films fame. “He’s a character,” was how Kreps described Koon. The two rode near Drummond, just down the freeway from Missoula.
Another spot near Missoula that Kreps liked to ride was Sheep Creek, which is fairly close to the University of Montana campus. “But it’s a super dangerous area, so we didn’t go there very often,” Kreps said. Dangerous indeed. Kreps lost five friends in an avalanche in the Sheep Creek area. “I’m super anal now about beacons, probes and shovels after seeing five crosses down at the bottom of a bowl,” he said.
Kreps also did a lot of riding with a couple of guys who ended up being the sales manager and service manager at TOTS after graduating from the University of Montana.
Since it was rodeo that was paying his way in college, Kreps did do a lot of riding on that kind of horsepower as well. “I should have gone to the college national finals but I never did,” he said.
Kreps grew up riding sleds and horses, in no particular order. His family are fifth generation cattle ranchers in the White Salmon, WA, area but that’s not the direction he wanted to go. “I wanted to do my own thing,” Kreps said of going to college at the University of Montana.
Not only did he graduate with a degree in marketing, but Kreps also minored in finance and art, specifically sculpting in regards to the latter.
When graduation came, Kreps was offered the job of managing The Outdoor Toy Store and “I jumped at it,” he said, even though he could have stayed at the University of Montana and rodeoed one more season.
In talking to Kreps about life since his college days, its sounds like it’s been an interesting ride—on and off the snow. He talked about finding (more) time to ride, managing a business, rodeoing, keeping customers happy, working long hours and developing new products and services at his dealership—quite a range of topics for a 26-year-old.
Since he purchased The Outdoor Toy Store, Kreps has expanded his workforce from 5 employees to 11, added the Polaris line to his offering of snowmobiles and ATVs (the dealership had been Arctic Cat-only when he bought it) and is now working to broaden the name and appeal of his TOTS branding of snowmobile mods.
Kreps has tried to staff the dealership with people who are passionate about motorsports, particularly snowmobiling, and said he believes one advantage his dealership has is the fact that “everybody rides” from the salesmen to the techs.
That, coupled with the fact that snowmobilers are passionate about riding, will help TOTS weather the storms that face the industry and other snowmobile dealerships across the snowbelt. He said, “It’s a passion sport. If there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Looking For A Balance
Kreps is also trying to find that balance between finding the best ride for his customers—whether it be stock or with a few mods, which can be tricky, especially during tough economic times. “What I and my employees try to do is create the best sled for that customer and his riding skills,” Kreps said. “I remember when I was riding before I was a part of the industry and people were trying to sell me stuff I didn’t need.” He said he’s trying to remember that when existing or potential customers walk into his dealership and want to buy a product. Kreps explained that about 40 percent of TOTS sales are stock with the rest being some sort of additional upgrades.
While sales are important, service is the key to customer retention and Kreps readily acknowledges that.
It also doesn’t hurt that TOTS is on the way to one of southwest Washington’s popular riding areas, which means customers can drop sleds off for service on the way back down off the mountain. Or sledders can stop by for a belt or oil or whatever on the way to the riding area. That’s an edge city-based dealerships have a tough time competing against.
Kreps hopes to continue another activity that helps him stay close to his clientele—customer rides, which usually takes place on Thursdays. Not only does that allow Kreps to maintain a relationship with his customers, but it also allows him to see how the sleds, and any mods, are working on the snow in real world riding.
Not that Kreps needs to see how things are working on others’ sleds—he’s one of his own best testers. Need proof? He went through three sets of rails last winter. Yea, he gets on the snow a fair amount of the time. In fact, he was headed out just a couple of days after our interview with him in early November for a “shake down ride,” just to make sure everything is running fine on the sleds.
Something else Kreps would like to do is step up his demo rides. “I love demoing,” he said. “Demoing is awesome. You’re just trying to help people have more fun. This is a fun sport. It’s not like owning a pharmacy where only people who are sick are coming in. These people are looking for fun.
“It’s great to sell fun.”
Especially when you can make a buck or two doing it.