A ski bum turns his love of the slopes into a living

Chris Chapman, who sells used ski equipment -- mostly online -- displays his wares at his Lothian, Md., warehouse. His company, Loucon, sold $1.3 million of ski equipment and accessories in 2009 and has made a profit nine out of the past 11 years. A friend's venture started him on the path of entrepreneurship, and his use of the Internet began quietly enough when he sold a pair of racing skis on eBay a decade ago.
Chris Chapman, who sells used ski equipment -- mostly online -- displays his wares at his Lothian, Md., warehouse. His company, Loucon, sold $1.3 million of ski equipment and accessories in 2009 and has made a profit nine out of the past 11 years. A friend's venture started him on the path of entrepreneurship, and his use of the Internet began quietly enough when he sold a pair of racing skis on eBay a decade ago. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Thomas Heath
Monday, March 8, 2010

Chris Chapman owns an Anne Arundel County business that sounds deceptively simple. It brings him a comfortable six-figure income on more than $1 million in revenue, allows him to employ a handful of relatives and is built around a sport he loves.

The company is called Loucon, named for his sons Louis and Connor, and it sells used ski equipment -- skis, boots, bindings, socks and other stuff -- mostly on eBay, but also through Amazon.com and Loucon's own Web site.

Loucon's tale illustrates how to re-envision a bricks-and-mortar business, harness it to the Internet and turn it into a 21st-century success.

The business is straightforward enough: Buy used ski equipment and accessories, advertise them online, then sell them for more than you paid. But it also requires an extensive group of contacts at ski resorts and industry suppliers, which Chapman carefully built over three decades and gives him a competitive advantage over rivals.

Chapman, 53, is a self-described ski bum and military brat who learned downhill skiing in Europe before studying geology at Murray State University in Kentucky. (He now wishes he had studied business, gotten an MBA and become comfortable with numbers.)

He spent six years as an outdoors instructor, teaching climbing and backpacking, then came to Washington when his father was stationed at the Pentagon. He picked up extra cash managing a leather goods retail store in Tysons Corner. Slugging it out in retail, even moonlighting as a bartender at a local Shakey's, taught him how to serve the customer.

"The leather goods . . . taught me to be fanatical about customer service, and the ethic of treating people fairly," he said. "You have to be honest."

The experience also taught him not to oversell. That has served him well in the online marketplace, where the seller risks returns if the buyer feels misled.

Going entrepreneur

Chapman's career as an entrepreneur started when a friend asked him to help run a windsurfing retail store. The shop eventually went bankrupt (too much debt and unsold inventory), but he helped his friend open another that expanded into ski equipment.

After struggling to turn a profit, Chapman had an epiphany: If he could buy less expensive used goods instead of newly made products, he could remove a big part of his cost structure.

"Buying is the secret and key," he said. "The day you buy your goods is the day that determines whether you are going to make it."

Chapman and his colleague started contacting manufacturers. They offered to buy distressed and unsold goods for below what it would normally cost. They bought in volume to grind down prices. They scoured rental shops and Western ski resorts such as Vail, Mammoth and Breckenridge, where rental companies unload old equipment to make room for the new.


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