"VCLF looked forward. They saw what we could become."
In 1993, Outdoor Gear Exchange was a small start-up business with a big idea - owner March Sherman would sell high-quality new, used and discounted technical outdoor equipment, accessories and clothing, reaching out to the sizeable and growing number of outdoor sports enthusiasts in the Burlington area and beyond. Customers could even trade or consign their used gear.
The big idea grew. Customers responded, sales jumped, and OGE decided to focus on the demand for new rather than used merchandise. Increased sales led to increased inventory; within its first five years, OGE had expanded its retail square footage by 500%. With the level of growth now clearly indicating a need for additional working capital, Sherman set out to find financing.
“I met Will (Belongia, VCLF executive director) at a Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility training session on small business funding,” Sherman recalls. While traditional banks were wary of the relatively new business, Sherman remembers Belongia’s strong interest in OGE.
“VCLF sees value in socially and environmentally responsible businesses,” Sherman says. “Will focused on our strengths more than our challenges.”
Indeed, as a socially responsible employer, OGE offers an employee-funded retirement plan, medical and dental benefits, career training, profit-sharing and more. OGE jobs offer a livable wage and other pluses that linked directly to the Loan Fund’s quality job creation and transforming Vermonters’ lives.
“Marc’s commitment to his employees, to creating quality jobs has been a huge success,” Belongia says.
The first loan from VCLF helped with inventory at a critical juncture. By 2005, both sales and staff had jumped again.
Over the next six years, additional loans would follow, each helping expand OGE, step by step, ultimately bringing the retailer to larger and larger retail spaces and opportunities.
“At the beginning, we had two and a half employees; now we have 90. And since 2003, sales have increased between 500% and 600%” Sherman notes. Those numbers, he says, correlate exactly with the infusions of support from the Loan Fund. “The number of jobs we have created absolutely links to the support from VCLF,” he adds.
Today, the new Church Street location attracts hundreds of shoppers per week. Employee retention, perhaps the best indicator of a valued employer, is remarkable. The average length of employment for staffers is 6 years – nearly unheard of in the retail world.
“Traditional banks looked backward,” Sherman says, recalling his first attempts to find financing. “They looked at the challenges we had faced. But VCLF looked forward. They saw what we could become.”