Wayne Patterson was a college student looking for a job in 1975 and instead found himself one of five partners in a local outdoor-gear company.
Patterson was working at a store on Higuera Street called Mountain Sports when the manager told him the company was going under and asked whether he’d like to become a partner and try to buy the business.
“It’s been a great ride,” Patterson, 64, said Friday at a celebration the store hosted for family, friends, current and former employees and industry representatives at the Jack House and Gardens in San Luis Obispo. “I was looking for a job to put myself through school, and suddenly I was a partner. Forty years later, I’m still mounting bindings and fitting ski boots.”
The Mountain Air, which officially incorporated in September 1975, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.
The shop, which moved in the mid-1980s to its current location at 667 Marsh St. from 858 Higuera St., is now owned by Patterson and Josh Haring, who started working at the shop in 2002 and became co-owner in 2013 — the same year the store split from its Santa Barbara location.
Patterson declined to say how much he initially invested in the company. The other original partners were Tom Brown, owner of Blackhorse Espresso & Bakery; Lon Lundberg, a real estate adviser and broker in Idaho; Tom Thornberg, who ran The Mountain Air’s former bike shop; and Brian (Bud) Berliner, a former firefighter.
“We all had our expertise at things,” Patterson recalled. “Tom Brown had the business background, whereas Bud was more of the technical expertise. And then Lon and I were working day-to-day operations, and Tom was managing the bike shop.”
In addition, Warren Sinsheimer, a partner at Sinsheimer Juhnke McIvor & Stroh in San Luis Obispo, has served as the company’s corporate attorney.
“It’s been great fun over the years to work with Wayne and the team,” Sinsheimer said at Friday’s event. “They took half of my legal advice and none of my merchandizing advice.”
In 1980, Ken Duddridge became a minor partner to run The Mountain Air’s new Santa Barbara store, with a company name change to Mountain Air Sports Inc. (By the mid-1980s, Patterson and Duddridge were the two partners in the business.)
Patterson and Duddridge split the business in 2013. Patterson brought back the San Luis Obispo store’s original name, The Mountain Air.
There’s not a complex formula to success: Hard work, consistency and treat every customer like it’s the last customer to come into the store.
Josh Haring, co-owner of The Mountain Air in San Luis Obispo
Patterson said the company has shown moderate growth every year since it was founded, though he declined to discuss revenues or profits.
“We’ve had some years where we’ve grown more than others. The only time it was a challenge for us was in 2008 and 2009 when the recession was around,” he said. “We didn’t really decrease in business, but we were kind of flat.”
Besides recessions, the business has been affected by climate — drought, for example, decreases customers’ propensity to buy snow gear.
“The good news is when there’s no snow in the mountains, backpacking is doing really good,” Patterson said. “It’s kind of a trade-off.”
Patterson said business hasn’t been affected much by other local competitors such as Sports Authority and Dick’s Sporting Goods, which he sees as targeting a different type of customer and offering different types of products, such as guns and golf equipment at Dick’s.
The business also didn’t offer online merchandise until November 2014, when it partnered with Moja Gear, which provides content geared toward mountain climbers as well as an online retail sales platform for The Mountain Air.
Co-founders Sander DiAngelis and Natalie Siddique started Moja Outdoors Inc. as a Cal Poly senior project that made its way through a series of programs at the university’s Center for Innovation. The Mountain Air sells products through the site, and Moja Gear receives a commission on sales.
Haring, the current co-owner, said traffic to the site has grown, but it faces competition online from LeftLane Sports and Running Warehouse, because those businesses offer deep discounts. Moja Gear intends to be the central online source for climbing gear, which also encompasses apparel, camping gear and other equipment that The Mountain Air sells.
“We underestimated how trained the consumer is to look for discounts,” Haring said.
Overall, the owners credit their longevity to consistent service, the ability to adapt and having loyal customers.
“We’re more versatile,” said Haring, 39. “Our inventory flow is quicker. Also, on the service side, you can ask for the most outrageous thing, and we’re going to do whatever we can.”
Among the former employees attending Friday’s event was Gary Erickson, founder of Clif Bar and a Cal Poly grad, who worked at The Mountain Air from 1978-80. Over the years, Patterson and Erickson saw each other at industry shows.
“I always felt like it was family,” Erickson said. “Wayne was always positive and excited about the business and the products he carried. What I learned at Mountain Air went into some of the values at Clif Bar — customer service, authenticity and always being nice. You don’t always get that at other stores. No one ever talked down to you at Mountain Air.”