It’s 10:30 a.m. in Tucson, Arizona. It’s only April, and the bank sign down the street reads 91 degrees. The pavement outside Summit Hut Outdoor Store is sending up shimmery waves of heat. I’m still sweating from a morning hike. I am struck by the silly idea that this city would be a great place for a camel rental agency. Then again, I decide, maybe not. That’s the heat talking.¶ I enter the air-conditioned store, and a 20-something man wearing a Summit Hut t-shirt guides me down aisle after aisle past a seemingly infinite variety of outdoors equipment and apparel. We pass through the travel department and a section of a plane’s fuselage. We pass through the ski department, and I notice an old-fashioned metal chairlift painted fire engine red. We arrive at a closed door. I knock. The door opens. ¶ I am welcomed by a dog—a border collie/poodle mix—carrying a ball in its mouth. The dog drops the ball at my feet. I take a seat in the corner. A meeting is underway between four people: two smartly dressed women, representatives of a local P.R. firm; and two other people, a man and a woman. These are the people I’ve come to interview, Dana and Jeremy Davis, owners and officers of Summit Hut, one of the largest outdoor retail stores in the desert Southwest.
Dana is the store’s general manager. She’s a compact, athletic woman with short blonde hair who reeks of both competence and passion. Jeremy is the CFO. He is a wiry, equally athletic man sporting a salt-and-pepper beard. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being neatly trimmed facial hair and 10 being gloriously shaggy like Walt Whitman’s, Jeremy’s beard is a hip 7.
Dana sits in a metal chair on one side of the room, Jeremy on the other. As soon as I sit, I notice that the two principals have very different styles—and points of view. As a young P.R. assistant runs through the agenda, I watch Dana and Jeremy closely. Their communication style is fascinating, complex. They play off each other. Each adds a wildly different perspective. Each adds different value.
“Dana is the good cop, a great listener,” Jeremy says. “She tries to see all sides, and I appreciate that about her. My past is the financial world. I’m more direct. I tell it like it is. We’re different. But we have this in common: We both work our butts off.”
Dana is the empath, the problem solver. She seeks a win-win for all. She reads novels. Jeremy, on the other hand, is more logic-driven. Numbers. The bottom line. When faced with a problem, he doesn’t want to hear a bunch of idle chatter about it. He wants to fix it. Now. I can tell that Jeremy, a former certified financial planner for UBS Financial Services and JPMorgan Chase, is that special type of person who has immense faith in our abilities to prevent catastrophe. He believes that, in business and in life, we can minimize negative outcomes by careful planning and impeccable execution. He likes frugality and facts. He reads self-improvement books.
I’m struck by an odd thought. I am not watching two individuals. I am watching one big Yin Yang symbol in the middle of the room. Dana is the white tear-drop shape within the circle. Jeremy is the black tear-drop shape. Though in some ways the two are opposites, they form a coherent, powerful whole. And here is where I should probably share something else about Dana and Jeremy: They are not only business partners. They are husband and wife.
First agenda item: Ladies Night. The main questions: How many people do they think will come? What about the raffle? Can men win prizes? The latter question inspired by a woman’s complaint via email that last time a man won the prize and that was wrong.
What’s their policy?
The yin yang symbol evaporates, and I see Dana and Jeremy again.
Dana chimes in: “I know where she’s coming from, but we can’t discriminate about who wins the prizes. It’s terribly illegal. Our lawyers told us that we must make prizes available to all.”
I look over at Jeremy. He couldn’t appear to be more disinterested in this conversation. I have a strong feeling that his mind is back on the spreadsheet he was studying a few minutes ago. He gestures, let’s move on.
Item two: Earth Day. On April 22, they will hold a special event sponsored by Mountain Hardwear. The guest, Topher White, of the Rainforest Connection, will be demonstrating how to turn an old cell phone into a special listening device for catching chainsaw-wielding illegal loggers in the rainforest. How many people will come? Should Summit Hut do more promotion on social media? Do they have enough phones to work on?
I look at Jeremy. I can tell exactly what he’s thinking? Are we really getting value from this P.R. company?
As I watch Dana and Jeremy and the P.R. representatives work through the agenda, I see how complicated and demanding running an outdoor retail store has become. Strategies, tactics, websites, social media, special events. Suddenly, Dana and Jeremy have morphed into something else in my mind. Due to the Internet and advent of hypercapitalism, running Summit Hut, and probably any successful outdoor retail business, is like running a ground war. Dana and Jeremy must play the roles of generals, close-air support, tank corps, and infantry. I imagine their tanks having yin yang symbols painted on them.
The meeting moves to item number six: the drone. Jeremy smiles. He likes this idea. An employee has a drone and recently obtained his license. He wants to fly it through the store and out on popular hiking trails and shoot footage.
“Very cool,” Jeremy says. He leans back in his chair. I imagine that his mind has moved from the spreadsheet to the drone. Maybe he’ll get a chance to fly it? He smiles wider. He likes this idea a lot.
Knock on the door. It opens a crack. A 20-something man in a Summit Hut t-shirt and shorts stands peering through the crack. “Um, Jeremy, um, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” he says.
I realize we have arrived at one of those crucial junctures when life and business either go as planned—or don’t. This is the type of moment that Jeremy prepares for endlessly. I watch Jeremy’s face. The employee’s words have instant effect. Jeremy’s smile goes neutral. And then his neutral mouth turns down into a frown. And then his upper lip takes on a surly curl that betrays the embryo of something close to anger.
As I anticipate Jeremy’s answer, I remember a story he told me the day before. In this story, he explained why the floor of the building has a large linear scar running down it. The scar was left by workers who had to dig up the sewer line last year after olive tree roots invaded the sewer line causing backups in the bathrooms. The worst part was that Summit Hut had to pay for the repairs due to a maintenance clause in the lease. I can tell that Jeremy wants no more lip out of this sewer line. I can tell that the young employee, who looks anxious, understands this about Jeremy, too.
“Um, Jeremy, I’m sorry to report that the bathroom is backing up.”
Without a word, Jeremy, who had been sitting stroking his beard, is on his feet. He dashes out the door in the direction of the bathrooms.
Summit Hut’s flagship store is in central Tucson on Speedway Boulevard in a boxy concrete building located between a QuickTrip gas station and a theater school for kids. It’s been here only two years, long enough that most people don’t remember the old store a few blocks away. But nearly everybody—even the younger generation—who shops at Summit Hut understands that the store has a long, rich history in Tucson. This tradition presents to customers as a very high level of professionalism in the employees. They are not just helpful and courteous, they are knowledgeable about both the equipment sold and the recreation opportunities around Tucson. The tradition also comes through in some physical relics of the past. For example, the stained-glass Summit Hut sign that hangs on the wall of the office is from the 1970s.
The sense of tradition comes through in the reverent manner with which both Dana and Jeremy talk about David Baker, the founder of the company. Dave, for short. Dave no longer owns or even contributes leadership to Summit Hut. He’s usually out hiking in the desert. But, in spirit, Dave is still here, walking the aisles, making sales, monitoring the books. Dave’s work ethic lives in both Dana and Jeremy, and, by proxy, in every employee at the store.
The Summit Hut origin story is perhaps not unusual in this industry, but it is cool. The year was 1967. Dave and his buddy, Jeff Conn, both 15 years old, were trying to hack how to get cool gear for outdoors activities and make a buck at the same time. They began ordering gear wholesale and selling it retail to friends and family. Soon, they had moved to a warehouse. And eventually, the college-aged men opened a retail store. Summit Hut, they called it. The store has served Tucson and all of Arizona for the past 40 years. The goal has always been to sell quality gear and provide the best knowledge and service around.
But even Dave will tell you that he wasn’t the sole reason for the store’s growth in the 2000s. In 2003, a 25-year-old blonde skydiver from Ohio showed up at the store and asked for a job. She’d moved to Tucson with her boyfriend, Jeremy, so that she could pursue her dream of being a professional skydiver. (Tucson has a large drop zone.) This was Dana, of course.
She began the next day, and she proved through hard work and canny business sense that she could be relied upon. She was the hardest worker, the most trusted employee. The one who got it done when nobody else wanted to do it. The glue. She doesn’t know exactly when she and Dave agreed that she’d take over the company someday, but I suspect that Dave knew this on her first day of work. She was promoted to store manager. And, in 2011, when Dave stepped down, she and Jeremy borrowed the money from their parents to buy the company.
They’ve built it into a business that Dave could never have imagined, with a massive retail store and a successful website. Their secret has been to blend Dave’s old school work ethic and attention to detail with a willingness to embrace new school strategies of the sharing economy. They understand that to be competitive with the likes of REI and Amazon they must overserve their customers with free clinics, informative blogging, value-driven (not merely flashy) social media postings, free yoga classes, and other special events. They have everything covered. When I hear them describe their daily to-do list, I think, this couple is engaged in an all-out ground war.
The meeting is over, and Dana invites me to take a tour of the store. Given its grand size, it’s not a brief tour. We start in the ski department. Dana explains the merchandising strategy.
“We divide the store into mini-stores, identifiable by the brands.”
I look across the store’s vast landscape, and I see it. Different departments: travel, climbing, hiking and camping, shoes and boots, yoga. And each department is divvied up and marked with signs for brands.
“It’s not a revolutionary idea, but we believe that this format serves the customers. Customers know what fits them well, and they know what they like. We want to help them find what they are looking for. At the same time, we also know that brands know best how to sell their products. So, we let them have a mini-store so that their brand, their ethic, can dominate. Besides, haven’t we all gone to a store looking for a pair of pants and sifted through a hundred pair hung together on the rack to find the brand that you know you want to buy? Our system is win-win.”
Dana leads me into the travel section. I’m struck by the decor: It’s part of an airplane’s fuselage. On one side there’s a metal exterior and on the other side, a row of seats. The prop is meant to imbue the feeling of wanderlust, to make the customer feel like he’s practically on a trip already. Again, the merchandise is divvied up by brand. We move over to the boot section.
“We go to a lot of trouble to sell boots. We are careful. We do it right. We use Brannock Devices” says Dana.
I notice that most of the boots are leather, and I ask about this.
“In the desert, there are a lot of hazards for a hiker. Rocks and cactus, especially. Leather boots are what are customers need and want.”
She adds: “We take this seriously. We even modify boots for our clients. We have an employee who uses a hydraulic press to push out the insoles for people with bunions. This serves our customers who have bunions or other foot issues. We do this free of charge.”
I’m reminded that they are indeed fighting a ground war. They must work hard so that customers don’t settle for buying from Amazon or more nefarious online competition.
We move into the newest section: yoga. Prana signs pop up in several locations. Pretty much everything is Prana. Shorts, hats, pants, yoga shirts, and casual shirts. Dana explains that Summit Hut doesn’t merely sell yoga goods, they also offer yoga classes. Free. Every Thursday, an employee leads a one-hour basic yoga class in the presentation room.
“We get a lot of older folks. The class is important to them.” And, it brings people in.
A quick review: Ladies Night, free clinics, Earth Day event, social media, overflowing toilets, free yoga. It is a damn ground war!
We arrive where we started, in skiing. Dana remains gracious, but I can tell she has a million things on her to-do list. I decide to leave Dana and Jeremy alone for the day and to connect with the outdoors myself. Before we part ways, Dana suggests that I come over for dinner tomorrow night.
“We can talk more about the store—and have dinner and a beverage,” she says.
Day is done. For the owners of Summit Hut, another Friday, another week, is in the books. A lot of little fires have been put out. Various strategies have been put in place for next week, month, and rest of year. Time for desert-style hospitality.
When I arrive, Dana is talking with a friend. Jeremy rushes over and leads me to the fridge so that I can choose a cold beverage. This is the Arizona desert, after all, and one gets parched. It is also Friday at 6 p.m.
I grab a beer, and Jeremy leads me out onto the back patio. The grill, which is set on medium-high, sports three large, beautiful steaks. Jeremy is alternating between flipping steaks and tossing a hula-hoop out into the grass for the dog to chase. A couple of small boys—Ethan, their eight-year-old son, and a neighbor boy—are chasing after birds and rabbits. Jeremy keeps an eye on them, too. He flips the steaks again, and notices that Bacon has left the hula hoop at his feet. He leans over, picks it up, and hurls it out into the grass. Bacon chases after it. He takes a sip of beer and looks over at me.
“Where were we?” Pause.
I ask about the future of community-based outdoor retail.
“We’re very aware,” he says. “Of everything. Everything changes.”
“Wow,” he says. “Look at the mountain.”
I do. I pull my focus off the sizzling meat and look at the shadows moving across the Santa Catalina mountains. Because of the changes as the sun drops in the shadows, the contrast keeps changing. A rock formation that had blended in becomes visible for a few seconds and then blends back in and a different rock formation catches the light. It’s quite a show, not that the steaks and hula hoop are not. It’s the perfect place for two married owners of a thriving outdoor retail store to come home to. They don’t have to leave their yard to feel as if they are in the outdoors.
But, of course, they do.
Weekends, yes, there is some work talk and maybe even a little work. But Dana and Jeremy both are passionate about the outdoors. And as a matter of practice, they make sure they get their exercise and outdoor time. They have a camper. Dana is training for an upcoming triathlon, and so she can be found running, cycling, and swimming. Jeremy is a road cyclist. He gets his miles in. He is also an avid motorcyclist. Recently, he bought Ethan a minibike, and the two of them share that passion now.
It’s clear to me that the Davis’ are a hard-working couple devoted to their business and equally devoted to the outdoor lifestyle and ethic of environmental stewardship. They might be fighting a ground war at the office, but they have a lot of fun in the outdoors.
“We are an active outdoors family. We don’t just sell equipment and apparel, we live the life. We don’t forget the reasons that we work hard: We enjoy each other and being outside. After work, we often eat something on the fly and hit the hiking trails near our house,” Dana says.
I notice that both Jeremy and Dana have paused whatever they were doing and both are staring at the mountains. They seem mesmerized by what I’d been observing. The shadows moving across rock, the various formations coming into focus and then disappearing. It’s as if the light from the setting sun is playing music across the orangish rock. With each passing second, something new is revealed, and, as with music, this new something recedes into the past. Gone forever.
For the next half a minute, I watch Jeremy and Dana as they watch this photonic symphony. They display both patience and curiosity—a deep sense of wonder at what might happen next. Where will the next opportunity present itself. What’s the next note that needs to be played? I realize that I’ve hit on another reason for their success. And then I think, maybe they are not fighting a ground war at all. Maybe they are more like composers writing a symphony.
And then simultaneously both of them turn away from the mountain and resume their work. Jeremy turns his attention back to the grill. He focuses his attention on the subtlety of the meat’s marbling. He carefully cuts into it, analyzing the texture and redness as if reading a complicated spreadsheet. General Jeremy is back into problem-solving mode. He will not be satisfied with cooking a decent steak. He is determined to prepare the perfect steak. He is dead set on eliminating all risk of cooking a mediocre steak.
Okay, I think, the ground war continues.