This summer, I met the companies’ founder, Chad Worley. Chad has a great story: one that begins with family, determination and struggle, and always circles back to family.
I hope you enjoy it.
Like so many stories in ski country, this one starts with snow.
When Chad Worley was 18, a friend invited him to drive from Hobart, Indiana to Keystone, Colorado for a family ski vacation.
When he returned home, Worley couldn’t shake the Rocky Mountains from his mind. So the following year, he and a friend moved to Breckenridge. They planned to stay for four months.
As fall turned to winter, the first snows fell. Worley and his friend packed their bags and prepared to move back to Indiana. And then, on what was to be one of his last days in Colorado, Worley followed a stranger under a rope and together they scored the season’s first powder.
It was Worley’s first powder experience—and a revelation.
Worley unpacked his bags and bought a season pass. It was time to find a job.
Silent Phones and Trash Cans
When you live in a ski town, you take what you can get and you make the most of it.
After working in restaurants and retail for four years, Worley was hired by Marty Lessow, the fifty-something owner of Marty’s for Kids in downtown Breckenridge. The two had become friends working in side-by-side shops. When Worley lost his job, Lessow hired him.
It was 1997, and after one year of working at Marty’s for Kids, Worley convinced his boss to start a catalog.
“I’d see these families come in, looking for kids’ ski clothes,” explains Worley.
“Mom and Dad are arguing, the kids are cranky. I knew there had to be a way to outfit the kids before they got to Colorado.”
While skeptical, Lessow agreed to provide introductions to the brands and vouch for Worley for a 50% cut of the business. With financial backing from his father and uncle, Chad launched WinterKids and distributed 65,000 catalogs.
Full of optimism, he waited for the phone to ring.
A few days later, Worley saw one of his catalogs in a trashcan at the Breckenridge post office. That same afternoon the phone finally rang. It was someone asking to be removed from the mailing list.
Retail is a tough business, with a 75% failure rate after two years. After one year, WinterKids was debilitated with debt and Lessow wanted out.
Worley wasn’t yet ready to give up. “For me, failure was not an option. My father’s life savings from decades of work at the steel mill was on the line.”
Graciously, Lessow supported Worley’s decision to continue with WinterKids alone and helped him to maintain open accounts with all brands.
At the end of year two, WinterKids was under so much debt, that it looked as if going out of business was inevitable. Worley’s father found himself further in credit card debt, and eventually sold his home to provide additional backing.
And then a friend suggested a yard sale.
Hard Work, Determination, and Five Big Breaks
In case you didn’t know, it’s illegal to hold a yard sale, featuring brand new merchandise, in Summit County, Colorado.
But, it also turns out that breaking up yard sales is a low priority for local law enforcement.
So when Worley’s yard sale was finally shut down after nine weeks, he’d cleared enough cash to pay his bills and move into a third year of business.
From this point on, the trajectory was up.
Looking back, it’s clear to Worley that he received five big breaks that helped him move forward.
The first came from his father and uncle, both of whom backed him with money they didn’t have to lose.
The next was from Marty Lessow, who vouched for Chad with his brands, even as he left their partnership.
By not shutting down Worley’s yard sale until weeks after the first complaints, the Summit County sheriff gave Worley his third break.
And then, during his third year of operations, and after six weeks of daily phone inquiries, Worley earned the break that catapulted WinterKids: a mailing list from a competitor who was going out of business. According to Worley, this list advanced his company by several years.
But the biggest break that came Worley’s way was the World Wide Web.
Growth and Good Times
In 2001, WinterKids went online. Worley readily admits that he knew very little about computers and the web. But his friends did. And, Worley knew enough about business to recognize that putting his inventory online made more sense than printing 100,000 glossy catalogs.
Manufacturers, however, were skeptical.
In the early 2000s, the Internet was still seen as a fad and many brands required retailers to maintain at least one physical space. Worley had an outlet in Frisco, Colorado and a store in Denver. Neither was doing very well.
Today, WinterKids.com is one of the largest children’s ski and snowboard apparel retailers in the world, and WinterWomen.com is growing rapidly after five years in business.
Worley’s endeavors have come full circle. He is no longer in debt to his father and uncle, both of whom ended up making money on the venture. Through contributions from the company, Worley’s father was also able to buy a new home.
Worley now works hand-in-hand with his brother Leigh Woodbury, a very talented Chief Operating Officer for both companies. He also feels very fortunate to be surrounded by a team of dedicated and loyal staff.
Best of all, Worley is married with two young children, dividing his time between the mountains and Denver.
In 2015, after four years of debilitating illness, Worley spent three months at a clinic in Arizona being treated for chronic Lyme Disease.
His lengthy illness, along with the death of his mentor Marty Lessow a few years ago, help Worley keep things in perspective.
Reflecting back over his nearly 20-year retail ride, through personal and professional triumphs and losses, his time of illness and the blessing of his family, Worley expresses just one thing: gratitude.
“I’m so grateful for all that I’ve experienced. I’m grateful that I didn’t give up, that I pushed through the hard times. I’m grateful for the people who’ve been with me and I thank them all the time.”
“Looking back, I realize how fortunate I am to have had so many wonderful people helping me along the way and picking me up when I was down.”
Failure was just never an option.
It’s just one more way Worley, through WinterKids.com, expresses his gratitude and says “Thank You.”
This Season’s Ski Fashion:
- Ski Fashion 2015-2016: Big Styles, Little Rippers, October 5, 2015.
- Ski Fashion 2015-2016: On-Trend Styles for the Women of Winter, September 28, 2015.
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