Fairweather Skiworks handmade skis.

Fairweather Ski Works handmade skis. (Courtesy Ian Seward)

By Margaret Friedenauer and Emily Files

Two small businesses in Haines were selected out of 27 from around Southeast Alaska as the winners of this year’s Path to Prosperity competition.

 

The two-year-old program is sponsored by Haa Aani, the community development arm of Sealaska Corporation as well as the Nature Conservancy. The goal of the competition is to increase rural employment, spur economic development and promote entrepreneurial know-how.

This year’s winners — Port Chilkoot Distillery and Fairweather Ski Works — will receive up to $40,000 in seed funding for consulting and technical services.

Fairweather Ski Works was started by Ian Seward and Graham Kraft. They make custom-built back country skis using locally-sourced spruce and birch with designs from local artists.

The duo work out of Seward’s wood shop at his home, tucked in the woods but in view of the mountains and ocean. They’ve filled about 100 orders for custom skis in the two years they’ve been operating, charging about $800 for each pair of skis.

Seward says he’s not surprised the business took off.

“Because the name of Haines in the ski community is pretty recognizable and we live in such a great ski mecca that it seemed like, ‘Gosh, how could someone not be doing this here?’”

Ian Seward in the Fairweather Ski workshop.

Ian Seward in the Fairweather Ski workshop. (Courtesy Ian Seward)

But the financial aspects of starting and running a small business – those are things Seward and Kraft are not so experienced at. That’s why they applied to the Path to Prosperity competition. After being chosen as one of the 12 finalists, they attended a weekend boot camp in Juneau where the participants were given assistance in writing a business plan and identifying how they would use $40,000.

“That was one of the biggest motivators from the get-go, to learn a little bit about business administration in general,” Seward said. “And we got a pretty broad view of it, from the financial things to the marketing aspects of it and so it was really a good boost for us that way to learn some of the basics.”

Seward says learning more skills about how to operate a business will mean more opportunity for growth and success.

“We’ll get somebody on board for preparing taxes for us and for helping us run our books, then, in the process teach us how to do it too. Then we’ll join some industry associations that’ll help broaden our marketing outreach. And just ramp up the level of the whole thing a little more professionally I guess.”

Last year, four of the 12 finalists in the Path to Prosperity competition were from Haines. The two winning businesses were a guitar maker from Wrangell and a small Hoonah Saw Mill. The competition was started to support innovative, sustainable businesses and economic growth in Southeast’s rural communities.

That’s exactly how Seward sees the competition – spurring the growth of two small businesses and the economy of Haines.

“It shows what people here are made of and that we can do it. Even in a little place like this, we can do it.”

Port Chilkoot Distillery co-owner Heather Shade.

Port Chilkoot Distillery co-owner Heather Shade.

Heather Shade is co-owner of Port Chilkoot Distillery. On a recent morning, she’s there overseeing whiskey production.

“We’re filling these 25-gallon oak barrels with whiskey,” Shade said. “We’ve been pretty much doing this all winter.”

For Shade and her co-owner and husband Sean Copeland, the Path to Prosperity opportunity came at the right time. They started the distillery about a year ago, distilling gin, vodka and moonshine. They’ve accomplished everything in their three-year business plan in just one year.

“Which was start a small-scale whiskey distillery in Haines, restore a historical building, open a tasting room, hire our first employee and put up a barrel of whiskey a month,” Shade said.

Writing a revised business plan for Path to Prosperity forced Shade to focus on the next steps.  They want to grow, but in a way that fits with the character of Haines.

“It’s not like we’re looking to be Jack Daniels here,” Shade said. “We just want to slowly grow to a size where we’re able to supply to some markets outside of Alaska and have more of a team of people.”

Shade says the business boot camp Path to Properity held in September for the 12 finalists helped get her out of the sometimes lonely bubble of running your own business.

“A lot of people who haven’t tried to start something from scratch don’t realize how much of yourself you have to put into it. And it comes at a cost.”

That cost includes 12-hour work days and taking naps on sacks of grain next to the still.

Shade says they plan to use the Path to Prosperity prize money for social media and web marketing work and to explore potential buyers in markets outside of Alaska.

Shade is excited that two Haines businesses won the $40,000 seed money. She thinks the town could benefit from seeing local businesses succeed.

“I hope that having Haines businesses representing the award this year will inspire other people to start things here or in the other small communities as well.”

Shade says small businesses in rural Alaska have the potential to make a huge impact on a small place.