Larry Weidel: Today we are speaking with my long-time, good friend Galen Bright in Aspen, Colorado. He actually sold me every property I bought in Aspen.
Galen is part of the most successful residential commercial real estate company here in Aspen. Karen Setterfield whom he works with is a dream person, and you all would be privileged to know her.
He didn’t start that way. It was a long road to get to the point where he’s sold approximately $33 million in residential property, thus building an incredible life for himself.
Galen, please tell us what you’ve been able to accomplish and what you’ve learned along the way.
Galen Bright: Well, it definitely didn’t start this way. I grew up with a fairly humble background. My family was a blue-collar, working-class family from Loveland, Colorado. I grew up living part-time with my grandparents, and part-time with my mother. I was the first one in my family to go to college.
I owe a huge thank you to my grandfather for that. There was definitely a moment in time where I could have gone a completely different direction. A letter from my granddad encouraged me to go to college. He helped me out with $100 a month to go towards my rent, and that made all the difference.
Fast forward. I also worked in various jobs. My favorite job was being a cashier at Bonnie’s Restaurant on top of Aspen Mountain. That was an incredible experience.
I did that for two winters, I believe, in 1986 and 1987. I was also working in Vail as a cashier during the same time doing whatever I could do for the free ski pass.
When I came to Aspen full-time it was on my 21st birthday. I still had another year and a half of college, but I was commuting back and forth doing construction in the summers, working retail, and working on the mountain during the winters.
It’s about a five-hour drive in the winter and a four-hour drive in the summer.
I had some discounted airline tickets, too. Sometimes I would take the bus from Fort Collins down to Denver and fly up to Aspen for the weekend or three or four days, and then fly back and go to school. I fell in love with Aspen.
My goal in college was to be a ski patrol or a ski instructor so I could be in Aspen full time. I was working for a real estate company and running some papers over to Aspen Canvas, now Aspen Luggage. We changed the name.
I saw what they were doing, and I had the idea to buy the business. I went back and talked to Karen, now my business partner, and said, “What would it take to buy this business?”
I started going to banks, but couldn’t get a loan, so then Karen offered to back me.
LW: You have to find the motivation that moves you.
There was something about the mountains, the skiing, and Aspen that caused you to come in the first place and check out different locations to get jobs so you could spend extra time here.Until you find whatever turns you on, your internal motivation, you're never going to do anything great. Click To Tweet
At the end of Last Dance, the 10-part series about Michael Jordan’s career, where he won a record six championships, he said that it all began with hope.
You had hope that you weren’t going to spend your life in Loveland. You were going to college because you realized that there’s a bigger world out there. The light was shining out here in the mountains, and you followed it.
What was your motivation, your thinking at that time? What triggered that? How did you narrow that down?
GB: Well, growing up as a skier since I was four years old, I always had this cliché of, wow, that would be the ultimate ski town to live in. I had only been to Aspen skiing once as a kid. I remember enjoying it, but I hadn’t gone back until college.
Then when I did, I thought, “ahh, this is the place.” Aspen has everything. It has the outdoors, the skiing, the mountain biking, the hiking, the cultural experiences, the business opportunities, and an incredible mix of people. You know there are people from all over the world with every kind of background that come to Aspen.
We have the incredible physics institute and the music festivals. There’s a lot to offer here.
It’s unlike any other small ski town. I wanted to do anything I could do to make it work. Then there was an opportunity to buy this small business. I was still in college at the time.
I’d been commuting here for about two years while in college, and my last semester was a fall semester. I went back to class after being in Aspen all summer pounding nails. I was a framer building a house, and I’d go back in August for my last semester.
I had heard that CU Boulder had an entrepreneur program. I was in business school so I asked if CSU had one, and they didn’t. So I asked if I could create one.
My marketing professor and my finance professor agreed to give me a full three credits each for my last semester of those classes if I were to do an independent study on how to buy a business.
I ended up putting the business under contract to purchase, but I also did two senior projects on how to buy a business so they were concurrent.
I didn’t tell my professors that I was actually trying to buy it, and I didn’t really tell the lenders I was doing a project, but it all came together.
My granddad helped back me with very little that he had. He basically had retirement annuities, and my business partner, Karen, put up some of her receivables. We closed on the business on a Friday, and the next day was graduation day.
I drove up to Aspen after that with all my things and started running the business. It was 10 to 15 hours a day nonstop for a while, figuring it out.
LW: I want to point out that it’s one thing to have a dream, have that passion, the thing that you just wish you could make come true, but the thing is, it’s never going to come to you. Aspen and the ski mountains were never going to move to you and Loveland.
GB: You got to do the work. Nothing comes for free. And if it does, it’s probably too good to be true. You gotta be consistent, and you gotta show up.
That’s some important advice I would tell if I had a young entrepreneur that I was talking to today about how to move forward.
You gotta do your due diligence, and one thing I learned was that I didn’t do enough due diligence about that business. We almost went out of business in the first month. It was very close. We got through a couple of hurdles that could have closed us down right away.
It was good after that, but it was always a lot of work.
There were some really simple supply and demand issues right off the bat. I purchased the company on December 16, 1988. We were just starting to wind up the Christmas holiday season. The store looked like it was stocked, but it really wasn’t.
So knowing how little inventory there was, we just weren’t ready. In retrospect, a month or two later, we realized we should have had a lot more inventory.
We’re actually manufacturing a lot of our own products. That manufacturing had been mostly shut down. I was able to revamp it and get it going again within a couple of months, but it entailed opening a new warehouse down valley and finding new people to sew and cut bags and deliver them up here to Aspen.
I found this incredible family. They did all the work for us for the 15 years that I had the store. Our big business was in the products that we made. That’s what we’re known for. We carried other brands as well, but our brand was what kept us going.
We did premium incentives for all the big banks and Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Forstmann Little. A lot of the airlines and golf tournaments used our bags for their incentives and their gifts. It was a great experience. We had the highest-end premium center bag on the market.
We had the highest quality luggage made in the world. There was nothing stronger, nothing better out there. We were a small niche market. We didn’t have a national client or national exposure like some of the big companies. We were made here in Colorado.
So, we didn’t try to compete on volume. We competed on quality. Everything was embroidered. For companies, we had a guarantee. It was a lot of fun.
LW: I can back that up. Everything I’ve ever bought from you, I still have.
GB: I love seeing that stuff. I love seeing it out there in the airports. I sold that company quite a while ago, but I still see those bags all over the world.