by Mike Corrigan

Paul Fish started building custom backpacks in Bellingham in 1978. He called his tiny home-based company Mountain Gear.

"It never did much," he says, "But it was fun and interesting. When we moved to Spokane in the winter of 1983, my wife threw my custom pack-building business out of the house and suggested it was time to either get a real job or start a real business."

In August of that same year (20 years ago this summer), he did just that, opening a small store on the corner of Sprague and Division with $3,000 in savings, sewing packs in the evening and selling stuff during the day.

Today, Mountain Gear is a thriving local business. Fish employs about 75 people at his retail store and warehouse locations. Meanwhile, the store's mail order and Internet business is huge. How did he do it?

"We developed a niche and remained true to our roots," he says. "I hate to say that anybody is truly unique, but mountaineering, rock climbing and telemark skiing are the sports we built our business on. I really look at our competition not so much in terms of other outdoors places but in terms of the computer stores and the video stores and the restaurants -- places that compete for discretionary income. In terms of high-end mountaineering, you have to put REI in there, but they don't do what we do in those markets."

Mountain Gear moved to its current Division location in 1989 and began catering to customers who had moved out of the Spokane area (among others) who were looking for the esoteric, high-quality products they could only score from their favorite outdoor outfitter. So Mountain Gear began running small ads in national magazines. That evolved into direct mailings, which, in turn, evolved into a catalog. By 1995, Mountain Gear had established an online presence.

Yet Fish claims there was no single moment when he realized the store had "made it." Instead, the perception of success hit him in increments.

"At the end of the year after REI opened [in Spokane] and we saw our sales continue to increase, we knew we were a real business. After we chewed up the move from 2,500 square feet to 14,000 square feet of retail, I'd say that was a milestone. When catalog became a significant part of our business and we started running this company as a team effort rather than by the seat of my pants, that's when I knew we were going to continue to grow and prosper."

He also has plenty of good things to say about the city he chose as his base of operations.

"No matter what anybody says, I think Spokane is a phenomenal place to start a small business. The startup costs are reasonable, the city is good to work with and there's a quality of life here that makes it easy to recruit good people. There's no place else I could have started my business and not many places I can live in a nice home and be seven minutes from work -- 10 minutes by bicycle."

Publication date: 03/06/03

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