A lot can change in 60 years. But B.J Lupton, owner of Snappy sport Senter for half its six-decade existence, learned that the strongest foundational ethics never change. “It is our absolute top priority – people first,” Lupton said. “I guess I figured that out a few years ago. I know my father had it figured out.” The practice of making relationships the most important consideration in daily life and in business has shaped Snappy's as much as it’s shaped Lupton. Fresh off the Evergreen sporting goods store’s 60th anniversary celebration, Lupton took a look back at Snappy’s journey from a 1947 service station to a thriving sporting goods store in 2007.
In 1947, Robert Engelback and Verne Lupton, B.J.’s dad, put in a gas pump and started a fuel-oil distributorship called Snappy ServiSenter at the corner of what is now U.S 2 and Montana 35. The triple-S moniker turned out to be an identifiable marketing tool that kept the name memorable well into the next century. Inside the station, Engelbach and the senior Lupton kept some basic groceries and a well-stocked candy rack – making it one of the first of the area’s early general store/gas stations. As the years accumulated, so did their inventory of fishing tackle, hardware and other household and handy-man needs. In 1954, Verne Lupton bought out his partner and continued to grow Snappy’s inventory. Well into the 1960’s he increased the sporting goods focus and shrank other merchandise lines. The original north-facing building was raised in 1965 to make way for the new four-lane highway. A new 5,200 – square-foot store opened a year later just to the south, with its front door facing Kalispell to the west. Within a half-dozen years, B.J. came back from four years of college and service in the Navy to help his dad for a short time.
He loved it, he said, and the years stretched into decades. Verne Lupton stayed very active in the business for another few years after B.J.’s return, then the younger Lupton bought the store in 1977 and accelerated the sporting-goods growth. Snappy’s had gotten out of the service station business in 1976, groceries were dropped around 1978, then hardware and building supplies were dropped in 1985. Lupton already had introduced footwear by then, and started bringing in more boats and marine products. Both customer demand and his personal interest in sports accounted for the product-line shifts, he said. It helped prompt his 1989 move to join a national buying group based in Lewistown called Sports Inc., giving him greater buying power and previously impossible product relationships with major vendors. “We also knew we couldn’t be everything to everybody,” he said. Getting out of hardware and focusing on sporting goods has paid off. “We’ve been abundantly successful. It’s been great, it’s been a huge blessing,” Lupton said. “And the biggest blessing was the people.”
Some of those key people are his employees, who tend to stay with him for a long time. “They’re awesome, they’re an incredible group of people,” Lupton said of his 28 full-time and 6 part-time workers. “I could leave for a month and everything would purr.” He chalks it up to the quality of people who hire on at the store. But Lupton also takes care to set the tone. If he and the staff put people first, he said, the customer feels cared about. Meet customers with safe parking lots, friendly smiles, clean restrooms, product knowledge and honored warranties, he tells them. “You’ve got to show it by example, try to talk it and teach it and gently correct it if needed,” he said. And it’s important to him that people are happy when they come to work. “We try to put people in their niche,” he said. The gun department is staffed by folks who love shooting sports. Those in the fishing department often go fishing in their off time. The head of the ball sports department is an avid team sports backer. Lupton learned a quarter-century ago that bigger is not necessarily better. In fact, he said, in retail it can be a recipe for empty parking lots if the store owner just doesn’t know what he’s doing. “For me, I’ve just got to be myself, be humble, take care of people,” he said. “And don’t make price the first priority. Make value the first priority. Value comes in a lot of ways,” including the attention to detail and behaviors he tries to instill in his employees,”but it all starts with the people. We don’t want to be a high-brow store,” he said. “We want to be accessible to all, to good, wholesome people.”
In that effort, he established a family and community atmosphere at Snappy’s. Nine years ago he built a courtyard behind the store with batting cages and a pair of fishing ponds. A below-water-level viewing window lets children watch the fish swimming by, and identification charts help visitors learn about the four main species in the ponds. From May through September Snappy’s hosts groups of children and families. There’s a fishing fair at the end of the school year. Fishing Saturdays for youths are coupled with family customer appreciation lunches in the summer. Teams of Pee Wee and Babe Ruth ball players practice in batting cages just about every evening from April though June, at no cost. Lupton clears out clothing racks in the center of the store so he can host and play trumpet with the Rocky Mountain Rhythm Kinds at noon every Tuesday. The casual jazz concerts draw crowds of music lovers that spill across the sales floor and up the staircase. Columbia falls wildlife artist Allen Jimmerson’s second-floor studio gives people a chance to chat while they watch him paint. His work is displayed throughout the store. Dozens of wildlife mounts line the walls and populate the stair landing and display platforms. A play area beneath the stairwell to the second floor keeps kids happily occupied while moms, dads and grandparents shop in peace. “It was just kind of the family thing to do,” he said, adding with a wink that it wasn’t such a great place to squeeze in more retail, anyway. And the coffee’s always on and free gift wrapping is offered year-round.
Snappy’s isn’t done growing. An 8,000-square-foot warehouse is going up and should be finished in a couple of months, letting the staff clear out some of the back-room storage and expand retail into more of the 30,000-square-foot size – in 1989 when Lupton added 4,500 square feet, with a basement on the back side, and again in 1995 when 20,000 square feet expanded the basement and main sales floor and added a second-floor gift gallery. But it appears that growth has only helped Lupton simplify his philosophy. “The most important thing in my life is just relationships- not stuff, not achievement, not acquisition,” he said. “It’s just the people, the wonderful people in my life that’s made it successful… If you try to plant wholesome seeds, you get wholesome fruit.”