In our latest installment of SBC's monthly small business feature, we meet Bryan Whitbeck, 48, owner of Black Mountain Bicycles in San Diego, California. In a recent interview with business writer Susan Caminiti, Whitbeck explains his early days with the retailer, what he learned from the recession, and why it's important to treat any small business as a living thing.
by Susan Caminiti.
SC: You were pretty young when you first started with Black Mountain Bikes. How did that come about?
BW: I was about 16 years old and started out working there after school. A family started the business in about 1973 and I joined as a salesperson in 1982. I worked on bikes as a kid and needed a job so it was good for me. Actually, my grandparents owned a restaurant, so I had an early understanding of what it was like to own a business.
SC: How did you come to own the business?
BW: In around 1994 the economy was really bad out here and I decided to go back to San Diego State University and finish up my college degree. I was still working at the company but the owner, Tony Hughes, was getting on in years. I knew at that point in my life that I wanted to stay involved in the business so in 1995 I bought it. I did it in stages and Tony is still involved, working a few days a week. The customers love to see him.
SC: At the time you bought into Black Mountain what changes did you feel needed to be made to improve the business?
BW: It was actually a very successful business, but it had fallen on some tough times during the economic downturn in the mid-1990s. We needed some fresh energy to build it back up.
SC: What did that involve?
BW: We changed a few product lines and invested more money to beef up the inventory. One thing I figured out early on is that a small business is kind of like a living thing that breathes. You can’t just think it’s going to take care of itself. You have to keep feeding it and make it better, improve customer service regularly. It's never static. I’ve been a customer of small businesses out here and I think to myself, ‘This place hasn't changed in six years. You need fresh paint, you need to clean the place up.’ About a year or two after I bought in we had an opportunity to take some extra space next door to us. A laundromat went out of business and our landlord gave us a good deal to take over the space. Sometimes a little extra space makes customers feel more comfortable because they have more room to move around.
BW: We've always sold mountain bikes and road bikes. We're probably a little heavier in mountain bikes because of our name. Our customers are everyone from third-generation grandparents bringing their grandkids in to get their first bike all the way to people who buy expensive customized bikes. I had a woman recently who bought a customized titanium bike that’s going to wind up pricing out at somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000. We cover the full spectrum, but our business tends to be a lot more family and more affordable bikes. I don’t ever want to neglect the first-time buyer. That market is bigger.
SC: What's the most expensive bike you sell?
BW: We have a $12,000 bike in the store now that has electronic shifting. It's in limited supply and I stock it because I thought someone might like to have the latest and fanciest. If I sell one or two of those a year, that’s a good year. People buy those kinds of bikes because they're unique. I equate it to buying a car that’s $250,000 versus a car that's $150,000. Is there really a difference in the performance or does it come down to exclusivity?
SC: Two years ago you moved the store to another location. What led to that decision?
BW: We're more of a regional business rather than a local business. So a few years ago I sort of established a criteria of what we would want in a new location. We wanted to be next to the freeway, in a nice space with some other big businesses that could be the pull and that could drive traffic. And in a perfect world, I'd like to be next to a Trader Joe's because of all the traffic they get. Well, wouldn’t you know that exact opportunity came up and now we have a 7,000 square-foot store next to Trader Joe's. We moved there in July 2011.
BW: We're open seven days a week and yes, I do work a lot of hours. I could work 24/7 if I wanted to because there's always something else that needs to be done. No one cares how hard the owner works. People think that because you own the business you must be doing really well. What few people realize is that most business owners work many more hours than an employee who works for somebody else. When I leave work, I’m still thinking about it. I can’t turn it off.
SC: How do you manage so that the business doesn't take over your life?
BW: First, you try to make sure you have good employees you can delegate to. That was the hardest thing I had to learn. You need to have people you can trust. I did buy a timeshare a few years ago and I force myself every November to book a week so I can go away. Before that, I wasn’t taking vacations and I wasn’t taking time off. [Having the time share] has forced me to put that week on the books months ahead and now it's built into my schedule. I don’t mind working hard, but I do need to find times to break away.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.