Skirack / Patagonia Burlington's owners pose at the Intervale Center. From left to right: Zandy Wheeler, Karen George, John George-Wheeler. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge.
Skirack / Patagonia Burlington's owners pose at the Intervale Center. From left to right: Zandy Wheeler, Karen George, John George-Wheeler. Photo Credit: Zach Walbridge.
The George-Wheeler family on roller blades, circa early 1990's.
The George-Wheeler family on roller blades, circa early 1990's.

1. Zandy, when Skirack first opened its doors in 1969, what was the initial vision you and your partners had?

Our vision, dream and mission was to create the best ski shop possible. We knew we had competition. But somehow we focused on getting some great brands so that we could give people the best experience possible. We literally won over customers one at a time. We believed that we loved the sport as much as anyone and that made us credible and fun to deal with. Fortunately we had some locals and vendors who believed in what we were doing and took a chance on the new guys in town.

2. How has gear evolved since 1969?

From leather boots and straight skis, the evolution of gear has been profound. It’s not just alpine and Nordic ski equipment, it’s every category - you name it! When snowboards first came onto the scene, the next thing you see are boards made especially for the park to hit rails and the halfpipe. Then the progression of alpine touring and splitboards allowed exploration in the backcountry, which keeps getting lighter and lighter each year as interest continues to grow along with improved skinning accessories.

There’s also versatile run shoes for all terrains and hydration options that fit any need. Clothing continues to evolve to be more sustainable such as using recycled materials and Fair Trade practices with multifunctional garment construction. Today's technologically advanced gear using GORE laminate technology in fabrics for almost every weather condition possible has been incredible.

And of course there are bike technologies discovered and developed to design every style of bike meeting the needs of every age group and different aspirations to ride. The ever trending e-bike craze has allowed people to get back on a bike, ditch or lessen the amount of trips in their car and even keep up with a speedy partner or get back out mountain biking with friends. We’re excited to see how e-bikes will continue to progress and accept they are for everyone.

3. Any memorable gear you used to carry?

Initially we preferred to focus on known brands that people already knew about. Of course that wasn’t always available. That meant we had to be on the lookout for strong options that people could understand and perceive as working as well or better than what the competition. At the tail end of our first season, we brought in Yamaha as a new alpine vendor. We were able to offer exceptional deals with a 2 year warranty. Many customers immediately perceived the quality that they were looking for that they thought would serve them well for years to come. The skis did so well we were challenged to sell the other remaining items we had from the season.

4. What did you do next after the first ski season ended?

Well we knew we needed something after the snow melted. We saw a great opportunity in European road bikes that were just gaining attention in the US. They were so much lighter and faster than the popular Schwinn bikes that everybody owned and liked. We worked with a bike wizard from Essex Junction and began to make trips to NYC to pick up Italian Atala bikes that customers loved from the beginning. Along with Atala’s came Paris Sports from France. In a short while we found ways to import Crescent bikes from Sweden and then Lambert bikes from England. What an education we got when the majority of Lambert’s’ revolutionary components routinely failed to hold up and we had to take care of our customers. It took agility and resourcefulness. Nonetheless, we clearly found out that skiers and Vermonters loved biking and especially loved bikes that allowed them to easily travel all over the community and State.

5. Zandy, thinking back to 1969, do you remember the first piece of gear you sold that got someone stoked for an adventure?

One of my most memorable experiences was helping a middle schooler find his first pair of cross country skis. We both were new to the sport and the technology. It was exciting to explain how the right classic ski would enable him to glide and climb. In those days we were choosing skis based on whether we could easily move a business card from the ‘kick zone’ when both skis were weighted evenly. I ended up doing a lot of crawling on the carpeted floor to discover the pair of skis we thought would be best. Flex boards were not a ‘thing’ in 1970.

Skirack's original location on Center Street, circa early 1970's.
Skirack's original location on Center Street, circa early 1970's.

6. What is something innovative that you did at the beginning?

One innovative risk we took in the early life of Skirack was to create the first edition of Skirack’s Midnight Sales. The plan was simple. We opened the doors at midnight and had a 3 hour plan for prices to drop each hour for the next 3 hours. If you came and found something you liked, you took the risk that someone would buy it before the price got to the lowest possible price. The crowd lined up well before opening and had a chance to view ski movies we were projecting on the concrete wall of the gas station across Center St.. The press of the crowd’s ‘enthusiasm’ broke some small windows in the front door as people tried to enter all at once. People had great fun and we sold a lot of gear. People were excited with the deals and we survived to live another day! The Midnight Sale was one of our first Community Events that people looked forward to each year.

7. Zandy, the move from Center Street to Main Street in 1974 must have been significant. Can you share the reasoning behind the move and how it impacted your connection with the local community?

Every businessperson has important choices when the lease ends. We approached that time with a dream of growing the business and continuing to have a great time doing it. We looked around and weighed renting with buying and getting a lot more square feet to work with. At some point you want to stop renting and pay the bank instead of the landlord. Our passion and commitment to our sports and community easily filled the new, larger space before we spent the first day inside.

8. John, taking the helm from your father and mother, and being part of the second generation running Skirack, what core values from the early days did you want to preserve, and what new directions did you want to take the business in?

Community remains at the heart of Skirack. Our internal community as well as our external community are really the reasons the company exists. Passion for the outdoors runs deep in Skirack, in Burlington and in Vermont. It is what intrinsically connects our community as a whole to each other.

9. Zandy and Karen, how does it feel seeing your son deeply involved in the business you helped build?

It's exciting to see and experience John’s vision and approach to leadership in business. He (smartly) is patient and clear without micromanaging when people take their time figuring out how they are going to grab the reins. He guides and trusts others to step up, learn, make mistakes and keep focused on the results we are striving for. Ah yes, he may also have those moments of frustration as he has observed and heard from his parents over the years.

10. Was there a single thing about Skirack that solidified John’s interest and passion for the company?

John’s focus on sustainability at George Mason was the key connection to Skirack in the beginning. When we had the opportunity to open a partner store with Patagonia in 2011, John got especially interested when he saw he could connect his environmental interests with his entrepreneurial spirit. And he could see that it would take more hands to make the new shop a success.

11. Karen, With the world rapidly moving online, how has Skirack been adapting to the e-commerce trend while preserving its community-centric spirit?

Well before COVID, there was a certain pace for our e-commerce development and growth transferring our always striving superior customer values to our web customers. COVID hit and e-commerce went wild more than we realized was possible!

12. John, How do you manage to maintain this personal touch, even as the business grows and evolves?

Whether it is custom fitting on bikes, footwear, snowboard or ski boots, our company is hands on. What sets Skirack apart is our people, so personal touch is everything.

The George-Wheeler family now: Karen, John and Zandy, with Rya in the middle.
The George-Wheeler family now: Karen, John and Zandy, with Rya in the middle.

13. With the birth of the third generation of George-Wheelers, can we expect a continuation of the Skirack legacy? Have there been early discussions about its future direction?

John: Ha, great question. I asked Rya what she thought and she had no words. In all seriousness, our goal is to steward the company to ensure it endures long into the future.

Zandy: John and Kate are putting their feet down and limiting Rya’s shifts to just a few visits a week. Like many of our part-timers who have school, sports or other important commitments, Rya has a rigorous daycare schedule.

14. Over the years, what's one piece of advice or wisdom about the great outdoors that's been consistently passed down in the George-Wheeler family?

Make sure all staff carefully listen to the needs and aspirations of each visitor and potential customer., regardless of how small or large the listener thinks their goals sound. It’s not about “us”. It's about them, their desires to participate in an active healthy lifestyle.

15. John, when you're not running Skirack, where can we find you?

Right now? Keeping up with little Rya. If I get some flexibility in the schedule, you can catch me on the hiking trail or hitting the pavement. I am looking forward to the upcoming snowboard season although my wife Kate and I are debating whether Rya will be a skier or rider. How about both?

16. What is your favorite part of running Skirack?

John: Seeing it evolve. Building relationships. Meeting new people. Seeing the community continue to expand.

Karen: Finding and choosing innovative products that are not harmful to the planet, and that help people participate and thrive in the outdoors! Then...being open to finding new favorites that do a better job at both. When the brand can provide all that, plus comfort, good size fitting, performance, aesthetically appealing design, and complimentary appearance, what’s not to love??!!

17. How have you seen the outdoor community change both in Vermont and globally since the start of Skirack?

There has been a ton of change within the local and global outdoor community; the outdoor industry has kept pace with designs and performance capabilities to meet the changing interests and individual needs of people. Road biking evolved to get people off pavement and onto dirt roads and mountains where more and more people wanted to go. Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing have done the same and are permitting people to skin up terrain in the backcountry with lightweight gear to explore like never before. Gear is evolving to accommodate new visions and ideas about how to enjoy exploring the mountains. It’s not just about lift service and heading down the groomed slopes.

18. Finally, for budding entrepreneurs reading, especially those considering family businesses, what advice would you give based on your five-decade journey with Skirack?

John: In all honesty, family business comes with its challenges. Communication is everything. It isn’t about what you say, it is about what is heard and what is understood.

Karen: Navigating the age difference, business acumen, family dynamics, and inevitable interpersonal conflict even though never intended, can be an endurance test. Not for the “faint of heart”. But it’s true that what you feel or think will be a “wipe out” or too big a clash/conflict to recover from, does make you stronger if you work it all out. You have to consistently prioritize the day to day essentials, while identifying and seizing opportunities to stay fresh, relevant and take educated risks to grow, and keep pace with what lies ahead in the future in order to offer the best services to our community’s passion to get outside.