A Stowe business that rents ski and snowboard clothing to people who don’t do either frequently enough to buy their own gear is headed for the tank.
The business, Kit Lender, will be featured on the popular television show “Shark Tank” this Sunday, with company co-founder Forrest Shinners using his 10 minutes in the spotlight to try to land a celebrity investor and persuade millions of viewers to give his company a try.
The company has grown considerably in its five-year existence.
“I don’t know if 100 percent is little by little,” Shinners chuckled last week, and said one person outside the company who has physically noticed the growth has been the FedEx driver.
“There’s somebody who has felt the business grow, literally,” Shinners said.
Kit Lender hooks up with people from all over the world who are headed to the slopes, and otherwise would have to buy jackets, snowpants, goggles and gloves. Those are the four components to the typical kit, although there are boots for rent and hats, socks and base layers for purchase — nobody wants to re-use someone’s underwear.
The box is sent to wherever the people are staying, cutting the need for extra gear in the suitcase.
The potential Kit Lender customer base is vast and often comes from warm-weather climates such as Texas or Florida, where a bomber insulated anorak is about as common as a Nor’easter. Atlanta is a top-five city for Kit Lender, Shinners said.
The customer base also comes from parents with pre-teen kids who grow out of their clothes year after year, and sometimes during a single season.
“Someone from Florida or Texas, or wherever, if they have a wife or a couple of kids and are going on a three-day vacation, it may cost them couple grand, already,” said Art Shinners, Forrest’s dad and behind-the-scenes co-founder of Kit Lender.
The gear is top of the line and from popular brands such as Burton, North Face, Marmot, Patagonia, Obermeyer, Spyder — if you have a brand you want to rep, it’s likely in the lineup.
For skiers who are on the slopes to be seen, there are outfits with plenty of bling and fake fur. For riders who want to look like they’re hitting the parks like the pros, there’s plenty of that gear, too.
“We have one customer who comes to us four times a year,” said Sarah Boes, Shinners’s right-hand manager.
Art Shinners started AJ’s Ski and Sports on Mountain Road in Stowe in 1976, and the place is still going strong. Forrest is the youngest of four Shinners siblings, and grew up with access to closets full of gear from the shop.
So, whenever a buddy would come to Vermont from New York City — where Forrest was working at an investment firm — that friend would get all geared up from the Shinners’s stash.
One of them suggested that Shinners could charge for this kind of thing. And that’s how the company started.
“I am very, very proud of him,” Art said. “He’s a smart guy.”
“Dad was, like, why don’t you set it up?” Forrest said. “At first, it was just me and my dad.”
Boes and Shinners went to Stowe High School together in the 1990s, and she moved back to the area just as Kit Lender was getting started.
All Kit Lender gear is from the current season or the previous one, and gets rotated in and out.
Decades of ski shop experience allows the Shinnerses to cultivate a broad liquidation network to get rid of old gear and make way for the new.
The company headquarters, recently relocated in the former Parker and Stearns hardware store off South Main Street, is filled with racks of jackets and pants and crates full of gloves and goggles.
Shinners estimates they shipped 21 tons of clothing last year.
Swim with the Sharks
This time of year is always busy for a company that outfits people for ski trips, and the TV show could make it much busier.
Shinners said there are countless tales of post-Shark Tank companies whose websites crashed or ran out of product.
About five years ago, at its peak, the show drew upward of 7 million viewers. Lately, it’s been around 3 to 4 million.
Shinners and his crew are contractually obligated to be mum about the show until it airs, but he did say he and Boes flew out to Los Angeles in September to make their pitch. Boes was offstage, “pointing and making fun of me,” Shinners said.
About 130 burgeoning business owners try out for the show, and only 86 actually make it to the air. Sometimes, no one gets a shark to invest in them; sometimes, the pitchers land more than one shark.
The investors on Shark Tank — a rotating cast that includes celebrity zillionaire Mark Cuban, former shopping channel host Lori Greiner, and prickly Canadian investor Kevin O’Leary, better known as Mr. Wonderful — are actually putting their money on the line.
As far as reality television goes, Shark Tank has a reputation for being relatively gimmick-free and, no matter how the episodes are edited, the hourlong pitch — viewers see only the edited, 10-minute final cut — is a serious exercise in high-stress business.
There will be no viewing party for the Kit Lender crew Dec. 1. In fact, quite the opposite. They’re going to work an overnight shift, because as soon as Kit Lender’s 10-minute Shark Tank pitch begins, and for the rest of the night, things could get mighty busy. But they will bring a TV to work to watch the episode.