How SFO Owner Ken Uyehara built a tightly knit success story.

The idea of “Haight Ashbury” immediately evokes images of the 60s–love, sharing, community, and lots of hallucinogenics.

It's not the 60s anymore, but love and sharing and community are living on at SFO Snowboarding–only replace those hallucinogenics with an extraordinary selection of snowboarding merchandise.

With his store located just one block from beautiful Golden Gate Parkin San Francisco SFO Owner Ken Uyehara has coupled his business savvy with a special consideration for the clientele found on the 600 block of Shrader Street, where he caters to a surprisingly broad demographic of city dwellers.

Open To Everyone “When we opened in '94, all of the reps reminded me that with this location our shoppers would be hardcore skater kids,” says Uyehara. “But I hope I have proved them wrong. It's a snowboarders' shop–a shop big enough for everyone.”

Uyehara steers clear from the inflated images and super-technical jargon so prevalent in the industry. Keeping it simple and friendly are the keys to success, he says.

“When I started the business I brought two things into it,” explains Uyehara, “love of the sport and love for interacting with people.”

The 900-square-foot shop is warm and inviting. Shoppers are greeted by a display housing a wide variety of boards, then see the orderly arrangement of boots on a center table. A side room houses racks and rack of outerwear from ten different companies–seven of which are women's clothing.

A genuine ambition to exchange information with clients is hard to come by in many retail operations these days–especially in large metropolitan areas such as San Francisco, but Uyehara says he's successfully passed on his customer-first ethic to his employees, even in traditionally unpopular segments of business like rentals.

The Importance Of Rentals “Our average rental takes 45 minutes to an hour,” says Uyehara. “We think of every rental customer as a potential future buyer. We don't treat them the way they might be treated at a rental customer in a mountain shop.”

During the season, SFO will do 30 to 40 rental packages per weekend. SFO is unique in that its rental fleet holds a variety of brands to best accommodate the different needs of riders. For a men's size-nine boot, for instance, he carries three different makes and models. “We don't stock according to who gives us the best deal,” he says.

The key to rentals, according to Uyehara, is to give customers the information to become more self-sufficient in the long run.

“Honestly, I hate rentals,” admits Uyehara with a chuckle. “We're not making any money from a 45-dollar rental package for a full weekend. But we educate the beginner on what to look for, so in the future when they're at the resorts, they can make decisions themselves and not rely on someone who may know even less than they do.

“The bottom line is that the customers appreciate it,” continues Uyehara. “I'm always looking for the longtime customer–it's an ethic innate in me from growing up in retail.”

The Family Business Uyehara's father owned a sports' shop in San Francisco, giving Ken exposure to a retail environment from early on. When Uyehara opened SFO in 1994, it was only one year after opening his FTC skate shop next door.

Starting two new businesses within such a short period is a considerable endeavor, but Uyehara modestly says he was merely following external leads. He had prior management experience in retail sports, and after opening, FTC was frequently badgered about not carrying snowboards.

“I had customers and reps from the past contacting me about snowboarding,” says Uyehara. “So in a sense that prompted me along.”

&#His dad's concepts about running a family business still exist at SFO. Not only does Uyehara's mom, Kim Uyehara, serve as controller/general manager and “backbone to the whole operation,” but the staff at SFO have become a de facto extended family themselves. Uyehara says the manager he hired two years ago, Omar Shamiyeh, has been a “godsend” and he points out that employee selection is never haphazard.

“I am very cautious about who I hire. I know most people who apply are enthusiastic, but I want them to prove it to me.”

Uyehara says he looks for humble, hard workers who are less into images and more concerned with creating a constructive environment.

“My biggest challenge is making sure my staff is as good as I want it to be,” says Uyehara. “The business has grown, and I don't have as much time to spend on the floor. I need to have people who can do as well as I do, and I need to have 110-percent confidence in them.”

Fortunately, Uyehara is confident his current staff is doing the right things. With the increasingly ominous presence of chain stores, he says keeping an edge as a specialty store is no easy task.

Whipping The Chain-Store Challenge Uyehara doesn't hesitate to point out that overall, chain stores are affecting independent businesses in negative ways, but he sees himself as an exception: “We're fortunate in that the things independent stores should do well, we do well.”

Mostly, Uyehara says it's SFO's level of service and knowledge that customers simply won't find in the bigger conglomerations. “Customers will come here and tell me they could tell the people helping them in a bigger store were working on commission.”

Uyehara singles out three specifics that enable him to excel beyond larger operations–product knowledge, resort knowledge, and industry knowledge. For a shop his size, Uyehara carries an impressive number of snowboard brands, fifteen including the shop's own line, Solo Snowboards. Boards sold at SFO represent both large and small companies, and Uyehara hopes keep some of the original autonomy of the industry alive.

“As long as these small companies offer a fair product, I want to support the independence and creativity of the business that you don't see as much anymore,” says Uyehara. “As companies get more and more corporate they tend to use all the same marketing formulas.”

Uyehara still sells through with all fifteen board manufacturers, saying he's never been left with just one brand. His buying strategy isn't overly scientific, in fact Uyehara gives Mother Nature–in the form of a succession of good snow years in the Tahoe area–considerable credit for his sell-through success.

“It's a weather-dependent sport–it needs to snow,” says Uyehara. “I'm fortunate to have had solid winters since we opened, so that isn't an issue.”

When ordering, Uyehara tries to determine what he thinks he'll sell through January, and doesn't concentrate all his open-to-buy dollars on one brand or style. In January, rather than discount right away like many of other stores in his area, he looks for closeouts. The timing of discounts are ultimately determined by local competition, but Uyehara sometimes will have sales start as late as President's Day weekend.

“We could delay our price reduction if we didn't have other shops having huge liquidation sales because they bought poorly or didn't have the selection,” he says. “It's frustrating that we have to match.”

The Price Of Consolidation Another common frustration for Uyehara has been the industry trend towards consolidation. He finds not only limited choices as a repercussion, but feels a more personal pain as he has witnessed friends fall out of the business.

“I'm starting to see the industry more as a business reality than the personality side of it, where all the fun was in the beginning,” he says. “Consolidation has made everyone realize the necessity for solid business fundamentals. It doesn't matter how large your love of the sport is anymore.”

While the solid business fundamentals Uyehara speaks of are undoubtedly a key ingredient to SFO's status as “the shop” in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is easily apparent that the love is still there to enhance his business scheme. Uyehara serves as a promising icon for the industry in turbulent times. At least at SFO, independence and passion for the sport can override some of the more impersonal turns the industry is taking.riends fall out of the business.

“I'm starting to see the industry more as a business reality than the personality side of it, where all the fun was in the beginning,” he says. “Consolidation has made everyone realize the necessity for solid business fundamentals. It doesn't matter how large your love of the sport is anymore.”

While the solid business fundamentals Uyehara speaks of are undoubtedly a key ingredient to SFO's status as “the shop” in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is easily apparent that the love is still there to enhance his business scheme. Uyehara serves as a promising icon for the industry in turbulent times. At least at SFO, independence and passion for the sport can override some of the more impersonal turns the industry is taking.