Escaping The Golden Handcuffs

When Jeff Kabat told his mother that he was leaving his job with the highly respected Boston consulting firm of Arthur Anderson to open an in-line skate shop in a tiny space on New York’s West Side, she nearly drove her car off the road. “You’re going to do what?” she gasped.

It’s not that consulting wasn’t a good job, but the travel was grueling. Kabat had lived in four states and two countries in a short period of time. He was about to be moved to Malaysia for two years. He wanted to sleep in the same bed on a regular basis. He wanted a little more fun in his life. That was nine and a half years ago.

If his mother–and perhaps a few others–thought his career move was a bit wacky, they no longer think so. Kabat now presides over a rapidly growing empire of twenty skate, surf, and snowboard stores and about 225 employees. All but three of the shops go by the name of Blades, Board & Skate.

In early 1990, in-line skating was just taking off, and Blades was one of the first dedicated stores in the country. “We pretty much sold out our inventory the first weekend we were open,” Kabat says.

Looking to find a winter business to complement the skate business, Kabat and his staff turned to the still-young sport of snowboarding. At the time, Burton was looking to expand in New York, according to Blades’ Director Of Stores Harvey Bierman, and it has been a “great partnership” ever since.

Skateboarding was added to the mix around 1992 or ’93, and more recently, surfing has been introduced in some of the stores.

“I think we got very lucky,” says Kabat. The stars lined up for us.” It didn’t hurt that Kabat’s primary area of consulting expertise was in purchasing and inventory systems. “At the end of the day, it’s very much an inventory business,” Kabat says of running retail shops, “and we manage the heck out of inventory.”

Picking in-line skating at the time he did was another boon. “The incredible growth in in-line enabled us to grow out of cash flow the first four or five years,” he says. “We got to such a critical mass with a number of stores, we could afford to make some buying mistakes.”

Snowboarding was another matter. “The sport barely existed in New York in the early 1990s, so Blades did all kinds of grassroots things to get people involved,” Kabat says. “In-line fueled our ability to grow and sow the seeds for the snowboarding business that took a while to grow.”

Grassroots programs are still very important at Blades, which sponsors a number of events and runs regular bus trips out of the New York and Boston stores.

“Our approach has been very true throughout the years. The goal is to build participants,” says Scott Kelliher, director of marketing. Giving customers a complete experience is one way to do that–by selling or renting product, tuning the product, and offering a trip program that includes rentals, lessons, breakfast, and a movie.

A day trip from New York to Hunter Mountain–including everything except the rental–costs 55 dollars, Kelliher says. “We try to keep the commitment to the lifestyle and to customer service at the highest peak,” he says.

The company’s mission is to be “the premier skate and board action- sports retailer in the markets we compete in,” Bierman says. And although they are marketing a lifestyle, it’s not about attitude, he says.

Employees all participate in some or all of the sports they sell and like to share that with their customers. “We’re dealing in fun,” says Kelliher. “We’re selling products that are built for fun. We keep in mind that it’s the customers’ recreation money and make sure they get the most fun for their time and their dollar.” < Understanding that they are selling a lifestyle and selling fun is one key for successful shops, according to Clark Gundlach, Burton national sales manager. "If they focus on lifestyle and not just on hardgoods, they can do very well," Gundlach says of metropolitan stores. "Blades has done a good job of addressing that environment."

Offering the best product selection and lowest prices is one way Blades keeps customers happy. Respect for the customer–which Bierman says is a main component of customer service–is also key.

Taking Care Of Employees While the customer is obviously of paramount importance, Blades also believes in the importance of its employees. Career development is encouraged, and people who start on the sales floor often go on to bigger and better things. Bierman pointed to himself as one example. Kelly Robshaw, who started on the sales floor, managed two stores on Newberry Street in Boston and took over the online store (www.blades.com) in mid November, is another.

Some of the other Blades employees have gone on to careers in the snowboard industry. Tobin Teichgraeber, head of Salomon’s U.S. snowboard program, started with Blades.

With twenty stores ranging from under 1,000 square feet to 4,600 square feet, and locations from tony Newberry Street in Boston to malls in New Jersey and outside of Philadelphia, Blades stores can’t be pigeonholed. Each has a slightly different mix of product and its own personality. A few aren’t even named Blades Boards & Skates.

“They’re not cookie-cutter,” says Bierman, who described the Boston stores as “right of ’core and left of Ski Market/Underground.”

Some things, however, are similar. Demographically, a Blades customer is likely to be between fourteen and 30 years old. Suburban customers tend to be at the further ends of the spectrum–both younger and older–while urban buyers are usually concentrated on either side of twenty, he says.

Each store offers its own challenges, according to Newberry Street Manager Robshaw. Size is one. The original Newberry Street is 1,100 square feet with virtually no storage area. Just across the Charles River, Blades Harvard Square store is one of the largest, at 4,600 square feet.

Some of the stores were originally action-sports shops. The newer shop on Newberry Street used to be Eric Flaim’s in-line skate store, while the newest Boston-area acquisition is EZ Rider, a snowboard shop near the Burlington Mall. The Philadelphia store, across the street from the huge King of Prussia Mall, was once a restaurant that required extensive–and expensive–renovations.

Currently there are nine Blades stores in New York, five in the Boston area and two in New Jersey, plus EZ Rider, the King of Prussia store, Peck & Goodies in New York, and City Sweats in Chicago.

“You need to cluster (the stores) so you can leverage things like salaries and advertising,” says Kabat. Another challenge is to be considered a ’core lifestyle shop while getting bigger, according to Robshaw.

Again, the secret of that goes back to sponsoring the local events and the bus trips, she says. “It’s a growing business, but they give employees the freedom to express their passion for the sports. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Robshaw says snowboard accounts for about 65 to 75 percent of the Newberry Street store’s winter business. In-line, skateboard, and clothing comprise the balance, with the ratio reversed in the summer.

Burton, Salomon, and K2 are the biggest sellers in the snowboard category; shoes are also big sellers. However, Robshaw says the biggest growth segment is in women’s and children’s snowboard products.

Kabat says more stores are planned for the future, although nothing specific is on the drawing board.

When Kabat left Arthur Anderson, he was close to making partner. “The golden handcuffs were beginning to tighten. I wanted to have more fun and more control over my life.”

And that is just how things have worked.awing board.

When Kabat left Arthur Anderson, he was close to making partner. “The golden handcuffs were beginning to tighten. I wanted to have more fun and more control over my life.”

And that is just how things have worked.