Steve Brownlee took an idea for inn-to-inn trekking and put it in the water

Paddle Peddler

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Steve Brownlee, the founder and owner of Umiak Outfitters in Stowe, credits his parents for insisting that he earn a business degree before pursuing a career in outdoor recreation.

Steve Brownlee carved his niche with a paddle. The "almost-native" Vermonter he was 10 when his father, a GE employee, was trans-ferred to Essex and the owner of Umiak Outdoor Outfitters in Stowe was determined, even in high school, that he would pursue a career in outdoor recreation.

These days, he's grateful that, on hearing this, his parents had other ideas for him first. "When I said this is what I want to do for a living, they said, 'That's fine, but we're not going to help you go to college to be an outdoor professional. You need to have a degree to earn money.'"

Brownlee caved and enrolled at Castleton College, where he earned a double degree in business management and marketing. "I got a lot of good, practical programming and business-related skills, but the reality of my college career," he says with a grin, "is that I majored in what was known as the outing club. I was president of the club at Castleton for four years, and we did all the stuff Umiak does: trips, hiking, caving, canoeing, cross-country skiing all that." He credits the outing club with his introduction to programming: "getting folks into the outdoors and educating them to the whys and whereabouts."

The other thing he credits the outing club for was introducing Brownlee to Sue Porter, his future wife, whose interests paralleled his own.

Following graduation, he and Sue entered a one-year program in Greenfield, Mass., called the Outdoor Leadership School, which taught people to be professional leaders and back-country guides. "You got all sorts of wilderness medical training, search and rescue, and certification, like certified Nordic ski instructor and certified canoe instructor from the American Canoe Association." They were married in 1984, after graduating from that program.

Right away, the Mad River Canoe Co. hired the Brownlees to be primary guides for its inn-to-inn canoe program being launched that year. It was modeled after Vermont Bicycle Tours, says Brownlee, "and the concept was to stay in nice country inns in Vermont and paddle Vermont waterways."

Sue left after the first season, to care for their newborn son, Tyler, the first of their four children. Brownlee remained at Mad River for several years.

"I ran the showroom for a while," he says, "and got some more retail experience. I was running their Indian Canoe tour program at one point, and eventually those two areas grew so much, they needed two people to do it."

The canoe program was called Canoe Vermont, a program that expanded to be called Canoe USA. "We opened an operation in Maine called Canoe Maine; then Canoe New Hampshire and a Canoe Florida," says Brownlee. "Of course, I had the distinguished honor of developing all those programs, particularly the Florida one." He smiles at the recollection. "They sent us down to paddle all the rivers and check out the inns, so I spent a few winters in Florida."

Mike Strojny (right), assistant retail manager, helps run the inside portion of Umiak's business, which sells everything the company uses in its programs plus other outdoor clothing and equipment. Former employee Richard Reynolds of Morrisville stopped in to buy ski boots.

Developing the Vermont tours gave Brownlee familiarity with all the state's rivers, an advantage as he's developed Umiak.

As the inn-to-inn business grew, tour operators were making good money, Brownlee says, until the late 1980s, when savvy innkeepers began running their own tours, taking "a little bit more of a chunk out of the margin of the programs."

Eventually, Mad River decided to put its dollars into other areas and got out of the tour business. "That was when three of us working for Canoe USA decided to start our own business."

The other two were Heidi Krantz and Charlie Lauren. The trio launched Umiak in 1991, booking tours and taking people on paddling trips.

They bandied about several names for their business, but nothing clicked until Lauren came up with "umiak." "At the time, Charlie was reading a story about umiaks," says Brownlee. "Umiak is an Inuit name for an ocean-going canoe paddled by the Eskimos. It is an incredibly versatile craft made from wood or bones with animal skins stretched over; the craft that the Inuit women paddled; the SUV of the day. The women used them to paddle with the children over to an island and forage around for what they could find."

Umiak Outdoor Outfitters opened its store on the Mountain Road in Stowe in the Gale Farm Center, selling Mad River canoes and Stowe canoes made by Tubbs, plus hiking and camping equipment, bird feeders and outdoor clothing. "That was the year that the aluminum snowshoe was introduced," says Brownlee, "so we were the first folks to sell and rent aluminum snowshoes."

While the program side of the business thrived and store sales were good in general, "we didn't sell a lot of boats up there," Brownlee says. "The Mountain Road is a very tourist destination; not as much a local destination, and of course, tourists don't buy boats, they rent them." In 1994, the partners moved Umiak to Stowe's "Lower Village," on Vermont 100, 849 South Main St., "on the corridor for the locals."

Lauren was working two careers: In the summer, he worked for Umiak; in the winter, he worked in the ski industry. Krantz and Brownlee worked full time for Umiak.

"Anybody who's started a business knows it takes a long time to make some money," says Brownlee, "so we were not paying ourselves during the first few years of the business. Charlie could not survive not being paid. He said, 'I need to feed my family,' so he got out of the business, and Heidi and I continued."

A few of the guides invested in the business as silent partners, but Krantz and Brownlee remained the principals until about five years ago. The partners had developed a strong offshoot called Team Resources, which worked with corporate groups on leadership building using ropes courses and other exercises from which evaluations can be made that apply to a business setting. Krantz ran that portion of the business and eventually bought it, selling her interest in Umiak to Brownlee.

Since the move, clothing sales have taken a back seat as the focus has turned more and more to hard goods. "When it comes to the actual tools to play in the outdoors," Brownlee brags, "we have the best selection. For example, in the boating world canoeing, kayaking we stock about 75 to 80 models of boats, and we have a large color choice selection."

While programs have expanded to include winter activities such as snowshoeing, back-country hiking and Telemark skiing, Brownlee confesses that the business still profits most from its summer activities.

"In the winter months, I'm here only one day a week on Thursdays; I'm the financial manager of the store. In the summer, I'm doing a lot more than that. Then, not only am I the marketing director, but I'm also working with all the managers. We have four year-round managers and two part-time managers in the summer. That's because we have 25 to 30 employees in the summer months, and because of all these outposts we have."

He's referring to seven waterfront locations around the state the company staffs seven days a week. "If you want to rent a kayak, sure, you can come to my store, put it on your car, we'll give you a map and all the information you might need, including emergency numbers, provide a roof rack system, make it easy; but better than that, we have multiple locations throughout Vermont where you can go, and the boats are there and an instructor who can get you started," says Brownlee.

"Some river trips are flat water, some have mild whitewater on them. Folks can rent for an hour, for a half day or a full day or take instructional classes. We offer sea kayaking classes at North Beach, rolling to learn the Eskimo roll, and rescue techniques," he says.

Umiak has two focuses: the retail store and the programs. Every employee is certified as an instructor by the American Canoe and Kayak Association. Rochelle Skinner is the program director.

Each manager covers a separate segment of the operation. Rochelle Skinner, the program manager, oversees the summer and winter programs; Joe Henry is the retail manager; Mike Strogny is the assistant retail manager; and Jon Davis oversees instructional programs and the Kids and Kayaks programs. "We have a youth camp," says Brownlee, who adds that in the winter, Davis is the snowshoe tour coordinator and oversees the hiring and training of guides.

One thing Brownlee has insisted since the first is that all of his employees are fully trained. "Every staffer who works for us, whether they're a retail staff person working in the store or renting boats at North Beach, everybody gets certified as an instructor through the American Canoe and Kayak Association governing body," he says. "After they've been through the process, they become better teachers."

While summer is still very much the focus, winter business is picking up. "We carry all the brands and models of snowshoes," says Brownlee, and we are just entering the back-country and Telemark ski business, so we're not there yet, but we will be."

He says his favorite part of the job is developing new products and programs. "Right now what's most exciting for me is back-country skiing and Telemark. It's just jazzed me all up that we're going after something that's been dear to my heart" his great-grandfather Olsen helped introduce Telemark to the United States "but we've been reluctant to go into it, because nobody's been making any money at it. I've crunched the numbers, and we're going at it now.

"Many people told me, 'You're never going to make money at paddle sport,' and I said, 'Well, we're going to do it.' People laughed at us when we opened up the shop in Stowe, came in and said, 'Where are you going to paddle?' and I opened up a map and said, 'Let me show you the Waterbury reservoir, let me show you these rivers.'"

For Brownlee, the best time of his life is "right now: watching my kids develop and grow and head off to college." He reflects on his own college choices, and adds, "I really needed that business degree, or I'd be just guiding trips now and couldn't afford many children."

Originally published in February 2005 Business People-Vermont