“I worked at the store since I was little, as soon as I could run a vacuum cleaner,” John Sloan said, tracing his history with High Country Outfitters in Atlanta, GA. Now 30 years old and general manager, Sloan described the company’s recent “mega growth mode” with the same boyish excitement. Over the course of 18 months, starting in mid-2014, High Country went from having one, to three brick-and-mortar stores, as well as a seasonal rental and guide service on the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs, GA.
The expansion of the company is only one aspect of the outfitter’s increased commitment to getting people outdoors, not just getting shoppers geared up to go outside. A philosophical shift has taken place, Sloan said, since his father and four friends started the company in 1975.
“We look at what we do now from a totally different perspective. We’re not concerned about having all the latest and greatest gear” to appeal to the hardcore climbers, paddlers, and ultrarunners, the younger Sloan said.
“What people need is direction from someone well-traveled and interesting to talk to; someone who makes them feel comfortable and excited,” he said.
A family calling
Sloan could well be describing himself. But as a boy, he was enamored with his father, Bubba Sloan, and the community of adventurers to which the family business catered. The second youngest of four children, John is the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps. He said his older brother is “a better climber and paddler, and a smarter guy in general.” But he’s a structural engineer, so he has “a real job,” Sloan said. “I’m more of a salesman. Talking to people is fun for me.”
Growing up, John learned to paddle and rock climb. And, after earning a finance degree from Auburn University, he decide to go and “play in the mountains.” He moved to Jackson Hole, WY, and worked for Teton Mountaineering, a reputable rock climbing shop there. Less than a year later, his father called to ask him to come home and help run High Country.
By then Bubba Sloan, who still serves as company president, had simplified things. At one point, seven High Country stores, from Atlanta to Birmingham to Nashville, had cornered the outdoor market. Competition from big box stores changed that. High Country’s original partners split the operation, sold a few locations, and consolidated the retail business in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. For 20 years, that location has stood as the company’s flagship.
High Country didn’t start growing again until John Sloan, in 2013, opened a new outlet in a high-end shopping center in Marietta, GA, then in early 2016 doubled its size by buying an adjacent women’s clothing store.
Even then, the younger Sloan argued for a new way of doing business. “I said let’s not carry the most expensive tents and gear. Let’s merge outdoor apparel with every day apparel,” he recalled.
“Besides, nothing is sacred anymore. There is no such thing as specialty gear. You can get anything you want anywhere because we live in an information era.”
Sloan said his father had always believed providing education was integral to High Country’s mission. The stores rented canoes and kayaks and offered paddling and rock climbing clinics.
Spreading the word about SUP
“Then one day, five or six years ago, dad asked if I had heard of stand-up paddleboarding. I laughed at it. I thought it was a silly activity. Then I tried it and fell in love with it. Now it’s part of everything we do,” Sloan said. “We were among the first to get out there on SUPs. People had no clue what we were doing.” As enthusiasm for canoeing and paddling dropped off for a variety of reasons, interest in SUP exploded.
“That SUP has a lot of sex appeal helps,” Sloan said, referring to the common depiction of fit, 20-something men and women gliding smoothly through flatwater or caught mid-yoga pose on their paddleboards.
“No one has ever said ‘You look really sexy in that canoe,’” Sloan asserted.
Selling canoes and kayaks is still a major part of High Country’s business, Sloan said, “but we’re getting more calls from people wanting to sell or trade their kayaks for SUPs.”
SUPs make up a majority of the rental fleet at the High Country Paddle Shack, open April through the fall. Minutes away from Morgan Falls Overlook Park in Sandy Springs, GA, the seasonal business rents standup paddleboards and guides rafting trips on the Chattahoochee River.
“We get a lot of guys who are used to adrenaline sports out on boards,” Sloan said. “They come back saying how slow and boring it is. Then we spend 20 to 30 minutes teaching them how to move on the boards, spin, and get up to speed. When you do it the right way, you get a lot more out of it.”
For the competitively inclined, there are an increasing number of SUP races. High Country puts on one, Stand Up for the Hootch, in June from the park in Sandy Springs. Most weekends there seems to be a SUP race somewhere in the southeast.
“Races are becoming big, almost too big. We’re stoked about it, but sometimes 500 to 600 people come out for an event. It’s a good problem for us to have, though,” Sloan said.
There are even more people satisfied to glide slowly and serenely on SUPs or fish from one, like Bubba Sloan. (“There’s a couple boards missing from the store right now and I can almost guarantee he’s out on one them,” the son said during a phone interview. ““My dad is more active than I am.”)
Aside from SUP proselytizing—boards are easier to transport and maneuver, lighter, cheaper and provide a better core workout than boats—Sloan focuses on providing visitors to the High Country’s stores with unique products and gateway gear.
“We don’t need to be international in scope,” he said. “What we want is to be relevant in our community so we earn a bigger following.”
This content was produced for your enjoyment, thanks to a partnership among High Country Outfitters, OSM, Osprey Packs, Chaco, and RootsRated.
Originally written for Outdoor Sports Marketing.