Appalachian Outdoors: 50 years of integrity, customer satisfaction


By Holly Riddle 

Most Happy Valley residents don’t know a downtown State College without Appalachian Outdoors. Geoff Brugler started the business in 1974 and, since then, the outdoor adventure and sports-focused retail store has served the community with its industry expertise. Now, Brugler is 73 years old and eyeing retirement.

“I’m ready to make a transition,” he told us. “The store will be there no matter what happens. The staff will be there. It will go on… but I have some other things I want to do in this lifetime.”

Before Brugler jets off on his next adventure (when we spoke with him, he was gearing up for a whitewater rafting trip in Guatemala, and he’s no stranger to other extreme outdoor adventures, like mountaineering in the Canadian Rockies, cross country skiing and mountain biking), we needed to know: How do you succeed in business for 50 years?

Here’s what he had to say.

Integrity made all the difference

Brugler is originally from Lewistown and attended Penn State. After graduation, though, he says he was “totally un-hire-able.” Starting his own business seemed like the only option, so, with $400 in his checking account and a $45,000 loan, he opened Appalachian Outdoors.

“It worked out. It was a long haul. I’ve been in business 50 years and a lot of those years were…just living and breathing it constantly,” he said.

While Brugler and Appalachian Outdoors might seem like a classic entrepreneurial success story, where hard work equals success, a lot can happen in half a century. There have been challenges and even times when Brugler wasn’t sure that he’d stay in business.

For one, business has changed quite a lot over the last 50 years. Over his career, Brugler has witnessed the rise of online shopping, as well as shifts in the outdoor industry. He pointed to the trend toward shorter outdoor trips, and how gear has changed accordingly (when you’re not headed into the woods for one or two weeks, you need less pack space, for example, so packs have become smaller). When he first opened, he added, climbing was in its infancy, and there was no such thing as an indoor climbing gym. Now, he also noted, outdoor apparel and gear have become more mainstream; someone might wear lifestyle sportswear or outwear to the gym, a football game or just on their daily walk.

More recently, Appalachian Outdoors, along with all businesses that rely primarily on in-person shopping, faced the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our business contracted to about 25% of its previous level,” he described of early 2020. “We were very heartened by the amount of people who came in to support the business, who bought gift cards. We did door-to-door delivery and curbside pickup. Gradually, we got through all of it. The Paycheck Protection Plan really helped us continue to do business. If it weren’t for that, I think it would’ve been a much tougher story.”

In decades past, other challenges that popped up included sky-high interest rates in the 1980s, and oil and gas shortages that meant people were traveling less.

So, what’s made the difference and what kept Appalachian Outdoors in business through it all? Time and again, Brugler mentions one key word: integrity.

“Customers have grown to trust us,” he said. “We work really hard at making sure, to the best of our ability, customers walk out the front door really happy… We’ve built trust there. We have a lot of loyal customers. We tend to hire people from the community and support community events and nonprofits.”

The right people make things happen

In the 1970s, Brugler didn’t have all the resources that Happy Valley entrepreneurs enjoy now. When he was getting started, he relied on a lot of relationships and insights from others he met along the way, as well as his own curiosity and a willingness to “figure it out as you go.” He also credits a fair amount of good fortune and a coaching approach to management.

Your customers come in and you’re selling dreams. We’re not selling something to go home and fix your toilet. We’re selling you something you’ve aspired to, or dreamt about.

“Hiring is the most important part of our job,” he said. “Once you put the right people together, things happen. It takes a lot of coaching… I’m at the bottom of the pyramid. I’m there to support everyone, helping them to do their job the best they can. It’s not a top-down hierarchy.”

Despite the ongoing labor shortages that plague many Happy Valley businesses, Brugler says he’s managed to currently assemble one of the best teams he’s ever had.

Through all of the ups and downs, it’s clear that Brugler has enjoyed the last five decades.

“It gave me an opportunity to meet a lot of amazing people and be able to take a lot of incredible trips,” he said. “Your customers come in and you’re selling dreams. We’re not selling something to go home and fix your toilet. We’re selling you something you’ve aspired to, or dreamt about.”


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