Riding it out: Freestyle survives 36 years of change

Store managre Don Cochrane and lontime employee (and resident skateboard expert) Duane Brown say customized service from real athletes has kept Freestyle competitive. / Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith Store managre Don Cochrane and lontime employee (and resident skateboard expert) Duane Brown say customized service from real athletes has kept Freestyle competitive. / Photo: Amy and Jackson Smith

Remember all those specialty shops that went belly-up when the internet came along? Freestyle wasn’t one of them. Founded in 1983, the local sporting goods store is way older than online shopping—and it’s managed to stay relevant through lots of industry changes. “We want customers for life,” says store manager Don Cochrane. That’s meant operating as both a community-based business and a national online presence.

Back in the early ‘80s, when Hans and Sandy Natterer founded the store, they and co-owner Tom Zimmerman called it Ski & Sport Center and focused mainly on ski gear. Competitive swimwear followed. And Duane Brown joined the company in 1986, bringing skateboard expertise that allowed the store to expand in that direction.

As Brown—who’s now 57, still skating, and still with the company—says, “Skateboarding has gone through ups and downs over the years.” But it’s proved more enduring than, say, in-line skating—one of several fads that have come and gone during Freestyle’s tenure. The store is now owned by Sepp and Measi Kober, and, says Cochrane, is serving its third generation of customers.

How has Freestyle stayed on its feet? For one thing, Brown says, service delivered by actual athletes is a pillar of its business model. “People still like to come in and see the product,” he says, “and talk to somebody that skis or skateboards. We shine in that regard.”

Also, Cochrane says, the company has built a reputation for top-notch servicing of winter sports gear. “We offer some of the highest-end ski and snowboard tuning you can get without going to New England,” he says. “We have people travel from upstate New York, Georgia, Michigan, specifically to come to us to get custom ski boots made.”

As for the online component, rather than ignoring it to focus on brick-and-mortar sales, Freestyle decided to treat it as an important parallel track where the company can compete nationally.

“Our online product, the experience the customer sees, is equivalent to anybody else even if they’re a much bigger company,” says Cochrane, adding that Freestyle has sold to online customers in all 50 states.

This spring, with the opening of the Charlottesville skatepark, the folks at Freestyle noticed a bump in skateboarding sales. “As the parents are bringing their children in to get skateboards, they say ‘I remember doing this when I was a kid; I want to do this with them,’” says Brown. If skating is becoming a family activity, like skiing, then it promises to deliver more generations of customers to this business—now middle-aged, but still going strong.

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