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
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
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
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
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
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
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.