115 years and counting: F.M. Light & Sons is a family tradition
One hundred and fifteen years is a long time for anything. In the world of brick-and-mortar retail, it’s almost unheard of.
Yet, that’s what you’ll find right downtown in Steamboat Springs at F.M. Light & Sons, a western wear retailer that, in November, is entering its 115th year of clothing visitors and locals alike.
According to Boston’s Family Firm Institute, only one in five family businesses remains open after five years, and only 3% make it to the fourth generation. It also reports that only 0.01% of U.S. businesses have made it to the 100-year mark. Coming up on 115 years of operation, F.M. Light & Sons has proudly eclipsed that statistic, while making it to five generations.
“It’s been a staple store in our community for 115 years,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Kara Stoller. “For five generations, they’ve helped to preserve our western character and ranching heritage. In an ever-changing retail environment, that’s an impressive feat. We’re proud to have them as part of our community.”
And there’s a new generation controlling the reins of the venerable retailer. Store co-owner Lindsay Lockhart Dillenbeck is the great-great-granddaughter of store founder F.M. Light, who opened the store in Steamboat in 1905. She now runs the family business with her husband, Chris, with no plans to tinker with one of the West’s most enduring retail brands.
“It’s truly incredible to think what else was going on when the store was founded,” Chris said. “Ford motor company started two years earlier and the city of Las Vegas was founded that same year. I think the store has been able to survive so long by staying innovative and having family ownership that cares deeply about its customers and community.”
While the Dillenbecks — both of whom have MBAs — bring sophisticated business backgrounds to Steamboat’s longest-running retailer, they also delight in running a family business. In school, they each analyzed case studies of successful family businesses. What they learned is that open communication is key to the store’s longevity. And they have no plans to change that — they’re well-prepared to carry on the communication and customer service tradition at their landmark, family-owned and operated store.
It’s a formula that works, especially in ski towns. A case in point: Lahout’s Ski Shop, in Franconia, New Hampshire, the oldest ski shop in the country is celebrating its fourth generation of family ownership and 100th anniversary this year. “It’s a huge milestone and quite the accomplishment,” said the store’s Chad Larrivee, crediting such longevity in the retail world to a focus on the local community and selling wares that locals need. “Hats off to anyone making it that long in today’s retail world.”
Just don’t get too fixated on the “Sons” portion of the F.M. Light name. When Lindsay was in high school, she teased her father, Ty Lockhart, that the store might someday be renamed in recognition of her gender.
“It was a running joke,” she said. “I used to tell him that, someday, I was going to add ‘and daughter’ to the signs in hot pink.”
While pink never made it onto the store’s logo, the Dillenbecks have helped the store stay out of the red and in the black. Its success owes itself to sticking to a formula that works: customer service, a friendly staff, savvy business acumen and a product line and ambiance that oozes Steamboat.
F.M. Light & Sons dates to Steamboat’s pioneer days, and that flavor still persists on its showroom. Visit today and its old wooden floors and original heirloom display cases evoke the days when customers arrived in horse-drawn wagons.
Lindsay said today’s merchandise lines bridge traditional cowboy/cowgirl fashion with new styles.
“F.M. Light was a visionary and a pioneer,” she said. “The store used to sell men’s suits and top hats. The product lines have always changed with times.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is that the store is still all in the family. All seven Lockhart cousins of Lindsay’s generation have worked in the store at one time or another, with her brother Brandon as the store’s most seasoned sales associate.
Lindsay also had a steadying influence in her grandfather, Lloyd Lockhart, who ran the store from 1963 to 1973.
“He gave me a lot of advice over the years,” Lindsay says. “I’m used to having leisurely talks with Pop, but one day, Lloyd asked me some direct questions to make sure I was on top of things. And he always ended our talks by saying not to worry too much because things will work out.”
Hunters help come fall
This time of year, the store also rolls out the welcome mat — as well as its fake horse, Lightning, like it has every day since 1949 — for hunters, which also make up a big part of its business. Ever since the store’s inception, hunters have been a key part of its retail base, Chris said, and they remain so today.
“We’ve always relied on hunters, especially come autumn,” Lindsay said. “They help keep the store busy as summer visitors start to dwindle. The F.M. Light family has been avid hunters in this valley for over 100 years, and we love to share in the excitement of it.”
The store carries a large selection of knives, as well as hats and clothing for hunters — including blaze orange hat covers for their signature cowboy hats.
“We sell a lot of orange clothing — and camo — every fall,” Chris added. “We increase our inventory pretty substantially for it every hunting season.”
Chris said that hunters also come in after their hunt to buy gifts for their loved ones back home — a move that increases their chances of being able to come visit Steamboat again. “It’s a pretty popular spot for them to bring something back for their spouses and kids,” he said.
Other items that have become a staple to the store are its roadside signs. Drive toward Steamboat from any direction, and you’ll see telltale, yellow and black signs promoting F.M. Light & Sons, marking one of the country’s longest-running advertising campaigns.
The signs advertise everything from cowboy hats to Navajo rugs and the store itself.
Coming West via the Rio Grande Railroad looking for relief from asthma, Frank M. Light stood on the train platform in Wolcott, on a cold Colorado day in April 1905, along with his wife and seven children, aged 11 months to 17 years old. The rugged West seemed far from the farmlands they left in Ohio. The family loaded all its belongings on the stagecoach and rode the last leg of its journey to Steamboat Springs, stopping overnight, halfway into the 80-mile trek, at the Antler’s Hotel in Yampa. It only took F.M. Light a few days to notice Steamboat Springs lacked a men’s clothier. Encouraged by local business leaders and bankers, Light purchased a lot downtown and opened his store for business (with his two sons, Olin and Clarence) on Nov. 9, 1905, with $2,000 worth of merchandise, just seven months after arriving in town. In the beginning, his merchandise consisted mostly of shoes, but it soon expanded to men’s fine wool suits and Stetson hats. Many of the store’s fixtures and sales cases, which are still in use today, came in on the stagecoach from Wolcott. Hard work, determination and a knack for marketing kept F.M. Light & Sons solvent when many stores and banks were closing during the Great Depression. In one unique marketing approach, rather than waiting for farmers, ranchers and hunters to come to town, the Lights went to them. They obtained a loan, increased their inventory and took their store on the road. When the railroad came to Steamboat, Light packed up his wagon with goods and went to the workers and, eventually, area ranches and farms. Soon, sons Olin and Clarence were alternating weeks on the road, traveling as far north as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, west to the Utah border and south to Aspen. “We always stayed with the ranchers to better understand our customers,” Clarence later explained, adding that such a tour often lasted several weeks. “We’d spend a night at the ranch to get acquainted with the family and hired men and their clothing needs, which often resulted in orders of $100 or more. But we always insisted on paying for our own lodging when visiting customers.” Clarence was still traveling at age 87. The F.M. Light salesmen would pull up in paneled trucks equipped with shelves, hangers and merchandise. Olin and Clarence would haul out suitcases heavy with samples into the ranch houses and bunkrooms, mailing off orders daily so they could be filled and shipped immediately. Within five years, the traveling store represented 50% of the store’s sales. Frank eventually sold his interest in the store to Clarence and Olin, and partner E. Day. Clarence, who in 1949 also came up with the idea to purchase and roll a fake horse mascot “Lightning” (now an historic landmark) out onto the sidewalk every morning, was sole owner when he passed the store onto the third generation, his son-in-law, Lloyd Lockhart, in 1963. Lloyd’s son Ty Lockhart, the fourth generation, took over the store in 1973, with his brother Del joining him in 1979. In 2012, the store was passed on to Ty’s daughter Lindsay and her husband Chris, marking five generations of family ownership.
In 1928, Clarence Light came up with the bright idea to erect 260 signs within a 150-mile radius of town. That number grew to 300 before Lady Bird Johnson’s Highway Beautification Act in 1965 brought the number back to 150. Today, Chris said that number hovers at 100. Those remaining are all considered historic and numbered and registered with the state of Colorado.
“The road signs are a huge part of our history,” Chris said. “Put up almost 100 years ago, they’re a great example of the innovative thinking that helped keep the store in business. It’s good they thought of doing them back then, since you can’t put up road signs like that in Colorado anymore.”
Maintaining them all, however, isn’t as cut and dry as their paint, he added. “Their upkeep isn’t easy,” Chris said, adding that, every year, it involves loading up a truck with hammers, sledgehammers, jacks, saws, levels, tape measures, nails, ladders, crow bars, shovels, concrete, water, stakes and the quintessential yellow and black paint. “Livestock like rubbing up against their rough beams, and storms can take their toll on them.”
The refurbishing crew also has to re-apply the signs’ yellow background, which then requires re-tracing the black lettering. “The hardest part is repainting the historic F.M. Light bucking bronco, which requires re-drawing the horse,” he said.
And, in the olden days at least, some people used them for target practice. “Many of them are dotted with bullet and shotgun pellet holes,” he said. “But most of the holes are over 70 years old, and actually add to their historical significance.”