evo Founder Bryce Phillips Shares Ten Years Of Retail Insight + Party Pictures

screen-shot-2011-10-04-at-100938-amFor the past several years, we’ve been swamped with tales of retailers closing shop, brands going direct, and what many are heralding as the death knell of independent retail. While we’re still having to write too many of those tales due to bankruptcies and shop closures, stories of good retailers coming out the other side have been popping up with increasing frequency in the last few months.

According to ActionWatch, specialty retailers have seen sales climb steadily over the last quarter, Val Surf is celebrating its 50th year in business, and evo just held its 10th anniversary bash on Friday, October 21.

Leading up to the event, I had a chance to catch up with evo Founder Bryce Phillips to discuss the lessons he’s learned over the last decade, the opportunities he sees on the horizon for smart retailers, and how he’s managing to expand his business through new avenues.

Damn, ten years. Considering everything that went down in the aughts, that’s really impressive. All modesty aside, are you surprised you’ve made it to this point?

No question I’m surprised by some of the twists and turns we’ve encountered along the way but I’m not surprised that we’ve made it to this point. We have a great team, massive market opportunity, and when things got tough, our focus on culture and treating “co-workers” like family ensured that we’d pull through.

Looking back, what are the three best business decisions you’ve made in the last decade?

1.              Marrying my wife Elise

2.             Figuring out how to balance my passions for the lifestyle and growing a business

3.             Focusing on building a team where the common threads are our core values

Here’s a look at what went down Friday night at the anniversary party:

How about the worst and what did you learn from it?

When we made a huge operational move going from a 3pl to an internally operated distribution center, we thought that we had it and in fact we didn’t have the experience needed to augment the ambition and intellect already in house. It was an extremely painful and costly mistake and it just happened to coincide with the crash of the economy and some really tough losses that we experienced internally at evo. Thankfully we course-corrected and we are now in a really good spot.

You recently hired a new CEO. How did you know it was time to hand off the day-to-day management and bring in Atsuko Tamura as CEO from REI? How has that benefited the business?

This question is 100% dependent on the organization and most importantly, managing to your own strengths and weaknesses. I worked closely with our former President Shilo Jones as we built the company up to around $10 million in revenue and we always knew that in order to grow successfully that we’d have to bring in the right talent to make sure that we didn’t break stride. We always knew that we were sitting in front of a massive opportunity and that we’d have to augment the intellect and ambition that grew organically within evo with tried and true experience that could help us unlock the potential.

I’ve never been afraid to hand over the reins when it comes to responsibilities where I know that I can get someone who can do it better. Understandably, I’ve seen other founders struggle with this and often they end up getting in their own way. The opportunity cost of taking on things where they aren’t leveraging their natural talents and vision is immense.

We are extremely fortunate to have Atsuko here as our CEO. Her experience speaks for itself but what you don’t read on a résumé is one’s ability to build and protect a culture and balance all of the stakeholders in a business. For us, if we were to focus solely on one or the other, i.e. employee versus shareholder or vice versa, we’d unravel the very thing that has made evo special. Atsuko gets this better than anyone and she is wired to build a large profitable business while never taking her eye off of the prize when it comes to what she has coined “The four C’s”; commerce, community, culture, and cause.

CEO Atsuko Tamura & Bryce Phillips outside the Seattle store

CEO Atsuko Tamura & Bryce Phillips outside the Seattle store

How different is the retail landscape in the Northwest now from when you started and how have you adapted your strategy to continue to grow?

It’s changed tremendously since 2001 when we launched the site and has continued to change since we opened our store in 2006. The year before we opened our store, seven retailers went out of business in our region. There were two common threads. One is that six of the seven retailers were very narrow in their product offering and didn’t give the customers enough reasons to come in the door. Conversely, one of those seven was too broad. The second common thread was that not one of the retailers had a web presence. By no means am I saying you need a web presence to survive but the combination of those two in this area at the time and the fact that we had a really bad winter in 2005 pushed a lot of folks over the edge.

We’ve “adapted” I guess by working to truly represent a lifestyle that resonates with our customers and we also firmly believe in both stores and a strong web business. Some don’t understand why we put so much into our store, but the store is really the heart and soul of the brand and a physical space where we can truly engage the customer with all of the elements above and beyond stuff for sale. Music, art, film, and a space that is flexible has enabled us to make connections that we couldn’t make if were were solely a web-based business.

It seems like you guys have really thrived by creating a community around evo--what have been some of the keys to doing this successfully?

First and foremost you have to be passionate about it. We throw parties, have a gallery, partner with non-profits and do everything in between because we love it. The rest is really tactical, but for us it boils down to a true commitment to engaging the community. Doing that in an authentic way shines through and is something that we want to be able to do to a much larger extent in the years to come.

evo seattle store

You guys recently secured a round of financing despite the ridiculously tough retail environment. Where are you at as far as implementing your expansion plans that you pitched that around and what have you done so far?

We didn’t have a long punch list of things that we were going to run out and spend money on. We did however want to really bolster our balance sheet and be ready for opportunities so that we could build on the momentum established before, during and now, after the downturn. Having a strong balance sheet is important to ensure that we can create a great path for our employees and also in building more confidence with our all of our vendors.

What’s in the works for the next year?

We have a lot going on. Lots of what we are working on will go on behind the scenes so that we are set to scale operationally. We are also dropping our first catalog that we think puts a big stake in the ground when it comes to snow lifestyle so that’s exciting.

You guys have launched an online catalog site and are rolling out print catalogs to over 300,000 people. Why do you see an opportunity in what many see as an old fashioned sales channel?

The catalog is a huge opportunity for evo as it is a tangible medium that allows us to communicate our brand in a way that can be difficult on the web. We have been able to send a very strong message about what we are all about in our store as it’s a physical experience where we can appeal to all of the senses in one place. The web is great in ways but it has it’s challenges when it comes to telling a brand story so the catalog is a great way to augment the existing evo touchpoints. While it is a traffic and sales driver, we put a lot of focus on the content, voice and aesthetic. There are a lot of catalogs that are simply lists of product and we’ve worked really hard to create something that you’ll want to keep around and the kind of piece that you wait for with anticipation each season.

Where do you see this going with the USPS’s current issues?

We believe that bad print is dying and should ultimately go away but there is good print that will find a way to survive and thrive so there will be a service that can deliver it into the future.

How about goals for the next decade?

We really feel like we have turned an important corner and are at the start of a big run. There will be challenges of course and I don’t want to sound naive when I talk about the future but we have done so much of the heavy lifting needed to make some really strong moves over the next few years and beyond. For a number of our product categories, we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few years we are going to further develop categories that are key to our assortment. We started [with] 100% hardgoods, which is the opposite of most. Because this is the case, we have an especially solid foundation both in snowboard and ski, and specifically the most technical products that are really driven by innovation. That has created a springboard for just about everything else because we can credibly service, market and sell the products that are most difficult to represent.

As we step on the gas when it comes to growing the web business, store business, and print catalog, it’s critical for us to tune every single customer touch-point and keep a keen focus on building the best brand and being the very best retailer when it comes to the all-important operations that will support our growth. We don’t look out 10 years and say we want to do X dollars in sales knowing that with a focus on executing our vision and what makes evo different in the marketplace, the numbers will surely follow. This is a key point because while everyone wants to build a better lifestyle, i.e. make more money for themselves, which we can support as we our successful, evo is really driven by passion for the community, sports, and culture. Being mindful of that as we continue to grow will ensure “success” in all meanings of the word.

Last, and most importantly, we will continue to strengthen our internal culture, stay humble making sure that all of our customers know that “everyone is invited to the party,” and finally, do more in the way of leveraging our business to  help others. More specifically, while we’ve done a lot over the last 10 years to work with organizations that reach out to at-risk youth, we really see an opportunity to ramp that up and ultimately make the evo brand synonymous with the cause of helping under-privileged children. Personally, this is something that both creates angst and excitement. The angst comes from wanting to do more right away and  the excitement from how much we can do into the future.

I’m always jealous of your travel schedule. What’s on the calendar for this winter for you and the Evo travel agency?

There’s almost nothing better than exploring a new place, meeting new people and participating in the sports you love along the way so I can’t wait to really ramp up travel as an offering within evo. I actually just got back from a trip to Chile and Peru where I was able to ski, kitesurf, surf and check out some great new parts of the world with my wife. Along the way we did a story for Powder Magazine on Termas de Chillan and hit it just right with some very deep snow and sunshine. This winter, via “evoTrip” we are taking a group of evo customers to Japan to snowboard and ski so watch the site for that opportunity. I also hope to get back to Europe and plan to make the pilgrimage to Haines, Alaska this spring. Somewhere in there I am hoping to get to surf for an extended period. I love it but am a total rookie so need to start immersing myself after chasing so many winters.

Anything else you’d like to share? Maybe some thanks for hitting the decade mark?

Most importantly I want to say thank you to everyone that has helped us get to where we are. I work with amazing people, am very grateful for my family, have been supported by great investors and of course couldn’t be here without our vendors and customers. The last ten years have been quite a ride and we can’t wait for what’s to come.