Plenty can change in a valley like the Flathead in 50 years.
More people, more houses, more of the modern world continuing its encroaching march on wild places; in 1968, there weren’t yet 40,000 people in Flathead County, compared to about 100,000 estimated living here now.
But as important as it is to keep track of the changes, it’s also key to note what hasn’t changed in all that time: a love for the outdoors, the desire to be in and near nature, and the need to be properly outfitted for such adventures.
And for half a century, folks in the Flathead have been able to turn to Sportsman & Ski Haus, a local powerhouse for outdoor essentials that celebrates 50 years in business in 2018.
“One of the reasons we built this store is because of the community supporting us,” Sportsman & Ski Haus President Mike Gwiazdon said last week. “We’re a big part of the community, and that’s important.”
Gwiazdon said this from his office in Sportsman’s Kalispell store, an 80,000-square-foot behemoth full of the latest and greatest gear and clothing for outdoor adventures on land and water (and air, according to a display tent that can hang in the trees).
But he knows the store wasn’t always this prominent or large. Sometime around 1964, the Sportsman Surplus store popped up in Kalispell, at the junction near U.S. Highways 2 and 93. In 1968, Mel James and Don Burks purchased Sportsman’s, which at that time measured 40 feet by 90 feet. After buying the shop, Burks and James built a 260-square-foot addition for the ski department, officially renaming the shop Sportsman & Ski Haus.
In 1973, Gwiazdon came on board as the ski haus manager, after five years as the equipment and rental manager on Big Mountain. Gwiazdon was the manager for six or seven years before Burks and James offered a partnership in the store, making him the merchandise manager.
In 2000, the original owners retired, and Gwiazdon became the president. Most importantly, the company became employee owned, and those who had been there long enough were able to buy into it.
That option made a big difference to some long-term employees who stayed on. Kyle Joos, who has been managing the store for 17 years, said the employee benefits at Sportsman make the staff feel cared for and important. Lorna Moore, who has been working at Sportsman for 33 years and who others refer to as “the backbone of the Whitefish store,” said there was always room to move up the ladder at the company, and that Sportsman invested in its own personnel.
“We all started in entry-level positions,” Moore said, looking at a group of nine employees who have been with the company for more than 20 years.
“It’s a unique attribute to this company,” Joos said.
The store grew in its original location, adding on over the years to eventually become 22,000 square feet. But it wasn’t enough. The store needed more space, and in 2005, the company made the decision to move from its home for 39 years to north of town in the Hutton Ranch development.
Lin Gwiazdon, who has worked at Sportsman for 38 years, was on staff for nine years before she became Mike Gwiazdon’s sister-in-law. She said the move to the current location was “emotional” after working for so long at the previous location.
“I was so emotional,” she said. “We couldn’t believe what we had built!”
The 55,000-square-foot store opened in 2007, and within six years Sportsman was expanding again, bringing the store to 80,000 square feet and adding more golfing experiences and an archery range.
In 2010, Sportsman’s acquired four Tri-State Outfitters stores in Washington and Idaho, growing the outdoor empire even more.
With 45 years at Sportsman under his belt, Gwiazdon has his eyes set on retirement at the end of June. He’ll still consult for a year, but this will be a big change for a man who has worked ever since he was a teen.
“I’ve been here 45 years, which is a long time,” he said. “I’ve never not worked in my whole life.”
As for his ascendency in the company, Gwiazdon said it came down to luck and hard work.
“I was in the right place at the right time, and I was always the hardest worker of anyone around me,” he said.
He was also passionate about the outdoors, which is a unifying trait among all the employees at Sportsman. Customers buying skis are buying from a salesperson who also skis and knows everything about the products. That personal touch is what sets the folks at Sportsman apart, he said.
“We’re sharing our passion,” said 23-year employee Dave Schmidt.
“We work with great people,” Joos said. “Our customers are amazing, and we sell fun stuff.”
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