Art Company changes hands

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Will Bashan recently traded a career as a high-ranking executive in billion-dollar companies for a role running a gift shop in downtown Steamboat Springs.

In November, Bashan and his wife, Beth, purchased the Steamboat Art Company, and its building at 903 Lincoln Ave., from Julie Green. The store features gifts with an emphasis on items produced by artists and craftspeople.

Green purchased the store from Terry and Hutzie Waterman in 1979 and turned it into one of Steamboat's most successful retail stores.

Bashan quickly acknowledges that he and his wife had no experience in retail before the fall. He is confident his background in finance and his wife's design background will allow them to succeed.

"I've run a whole lot of businesses before. I'll tell you, I'm way happier doing this," Bashan said. "This business is no different than any other business. It's all about people."

Seventeen months before the couple purchased Steamboat Art Company, Will Bashan was named executive vice president of retail for Delaware Investments in Philadelphia, in charge of growing the company's mutual-fund and 401(k) business. Before joining Delaware Investments, he spent eight years in senior management positions with CIGNA. He was president of CIGNA health care of New England. Before that, he served two years as senior vice president of CIGNA's newly created e-commerce divisions. From 1995 to 1999, he was president of CIGNA financial services, overseeing the company's retail brokerage operations.

Bashan's ties to Steamboat, however, go back to the days before his financial career. He once lived in Boulder and developed an affinity for Steamboat during trips to compete in bicycle road races.

Bashan got his first taste of the Rocky Mountain West while pursuing his master's degree at the State University of New York at Binghamton.

"I had a wild notion to go out to Wyoming and work in the oil fields," he said with a grin. During his time in Evanston, Wyo., Bashan became hooked.

"It was the first time I was ever out West," he recalled. "I was seduced and captivated by the beauty of the West."

Bashan lived in Boulder for a decade, and the bicycle racing circuit exposed him to all the mountain towns. When he returned to the East to pursue his career, he vowed to friends that he would return. His family began vacationing in Steamboat and couldn't get their minds off the town.

"For my children, their home mountain was Steamboat," he said. "For people that haven't ever left, it's hard to appreciate what's here. It's a tremendous environment to raise kids in. We had never felt part of a community."

Beth Bashan had put her career on hold on behalf of her husband's career and the couple began looking for a business here that could engage both of them. They considered several local businesses and became convinced that they wanted to be on Lincoln Avenue and own the building housing their business.

Green said that after 25 years, it was time for her to move on to something new, but it proved difficult to let go of the business she had nurtured for so long.

"It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be," she said this week, in the midst of discarding old files and stacks of catalogues that had accumulated in her home. "The creative part is what I'm missing. In December, it was like going through a divorce. It was a big hole in my life."

Green has launched a new venture of her own. She purchased a warehouse in the Copper Ridge Business Park and is finishing the interior to begin leasing spaces. She will continue to manage the Bear River Center on Yampa Street.

Bashan said he and his wife are fortunate to have a core of longtime staffers among Steamboat Art Company's 15 employees.

Beth Bashan and Amber Hinton were on a buying trip at a show in San Francisco this week. Hinton deserves a great deal of credit for how the store looks, Will added. Margot Johnson is in charge of shipping and receiving. Jess Seiler tracks down special orders for customers.

Bashan said to attract and retain good employees, he thinks it's important that he and his wife have hands-on involvement in the business on a daily basis.

"Beth is in charge of buying and running the retail floor. I'm the guy in the back opening the boxes," Bashan said.

In spite of his background with larger companies, Bashan said the technical aspects of running Steamboat Art Company are plenty demanding.

The store packs 42,000 items into a 4,000-square-foot display floor. The task of managing that diverse inventory and tracking its performance is critical, he said.

"I am just totally engrossed in this thing," Bashan said. "It's a very challenging business."

He flips open a blue binder and observes that in January, margins at Steamboat Art Company were up 1.9 percent, and the average ticket was up $1.13. While the sale of framed art was down, the sale of candles was up 39 percent.

"Why was that?" Bashan asks rhetorically. "It's a multi-dimensional problem with a lot of variables. This is not a seat-of-the-pants kind of business."

It's one thing to have anecdotal evidence that a beautiful vase is selling well. But it's another to have hard evidence of sales, the number of turns and "weeks on hand," Bashan said.

When Bashan first looked at the business, he knew it was a good sign that Green had managed for so many years without a warehouse.

"What that tells you is, that what's coming in (to the store) is leaving" at a favorable rate, he said.

The Bashans are aware that their customer base is almost evenly split between Yampa Valley residents and visitors. Among the visitors, a significant subgroup are second-home owners.

Steamboat Art Company will continue to sell "fun, artistic, unusual items with a Western flair," while the new owners gradually put their own stamp on the store, Bashan said.

The Bashans don't have retail experience, but neither did Green when she purchased the business 25 years ago.

"I'd never worked a day of retail," she said. "I was a junior high art teacher when I bought the business."

The Bashans said they hope to build on Green's success on Lincoln Avenue.

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