Stories

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Black Tie Ski Rental President 

When Ian Prichard ‘98 co-founded a ski rental delivery business in Colorado in 2002, the new concept quickly became successful. Tired customers who had flown cross-country to a ski resort appreciated the convenience of having ski equipment delivered to and fitted in their room, rather than lining up at a rental shop.

But — as Prichard told economics, business, finance, and marketing students during a talk at Nazareth College — he quickly had to deal with issues that they’re studying, such as sources of competition, product differentiation, pricing, marketing, and customer service.

Students peppered Prichard with questions about creating a business from scratch, expanding through license agreements, leveraging competitive advantage, securing seasonal employees, working with independent owners, and growing for the future. Peter Shea ‘18, a business management major, and Carrie Gilbert ‘18, a visual communication and design major, said they appreciate hearing real-world applications of business principles from guest speakers.

Prichard, in turn, had the opportunity to tell his former accounting professor, Phyllis Bloom, that while he’d struggled in accounting class, he now uses those skills and best practices for key decisions in his business.

Prichard’s multi-million-dollar Black Tie business now has 14 locations that serve three dozen ski resorts.

The liberal arts core courses and small classes with supportive faculty at Nazareth provided a foundation for entrepreneurship, says Prichard. “Being well-rounded gave me the courage to jump into something,” he told students.

Among Prichard’s advice for success in business:

  • Do your research before launching. Make sure there’s demand and that you have a good cost structure.
  • Know the work well enough that you can jump in to work alongside employees. He was adjusting ski bindings during Christmas week when his Colorado ski rental delivery business was short-staffed. Besides, “It’s good for morale to see the owner in there.”
  • Stay narrowly focused. “There’s a temptation to be everything to everyone, but we’ve taken the opposite approach. We focus on the higher tier of ski rentals. Especially in delivery, less is more.”
  • “Try not to let competition cloud your vision.” A competitor started a year after Black Tie, seeking the same customers.
  • Be open to possibilities worth pursuing. Prichard and his partner didn’t plan on more than one location, but customers kept encouraging them, and then the partners connected with someone in Big Sky, Montana. They worked out a licensing agreement rather than a franchise arrangement, which has a number of advantages.
  • Make it a win-win for your licensing partners. Each Black Tie Ski Rental location is independently owned but contributes a set percentage for shared marketing. Investment this year in a new digital reservation system will enable each branch to go paperless and run more efficiently.
  • Realize that your competitive advantage may shift over time. Being the first in an area was great, but soon Black Tie needed to stand out in other ways, such as providing great service, to keep customers returning. Prichard’s Steamboat Springs location added heated boots most recently.
  • Keep an eye on quality. Prichard looks at customer surveys and online reviews.
  • Know what you want. Now that he’s married and has a family, his goal for work-life balance influences how much he wants the business to expand. “Is the juice worth the squeeze? When is enough, enough?” he said.

Rochelle Ruffer, economics professor and School of Management undergraduate program chair, and Gerard Zappia, School of Management dean, thanked Prichard for sharing his experience. “You’re validating a lot of the material we teach,” said Zappia.

Ian Prichard, alum of Nazareth College, Black Tie Ski Rental

“Is the juice worth the squeeze? When is enough, enough?” said Ian Prichard, speaking at Nazareth in 2016 about work-life balance and whether further expansion is worthwhile for his 14-location Black Tie Ski Rental delivery business.

Ian Prichard '98

Major: business administration

Minor: sports management

Job: President & Co-Founder of Black Tie Ski Rental, based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado