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One of the most widely known and beloved indy gear shops in the outdoor industry, Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, Colo., has been acquired by another legacy shop, Ute Mountaineer in Aspen, the two businesses announced jointly this afternoon. The acquisition is set to finalize on Sept. 30.
The acquisition of Neptune — which owners Shelley and Andrew Dunbar sold for an undisclosed amount to the owners of Ute, Maile Spung and her father Bob Wade — happened without the Dunbars ever officially listing the business for sale.
“There was no time pressure for us,” Shelley Dunbar told Outside Business Journal today, after news of the acquisition broke. “We just wanted to find the right next owner. Because the shop is such a legend, we really wanted to make sure it got into the right hands. We didn’t put it on the market, we just started letting people know last year that it was for sale—just to see what happened.”
At that time, the Dunbars circulated an internal memo to shop employees, letting them know that the business was for sale.
“We really believe the ideal next owner should be a local with Colorado roots who understands how Neptune serves the customer and the community,” they wrote in that letter. “We will be extremely careful about who we sell the business to; what we have created here needs to be valued and preserved. We’ll want to see not only financial strength but a passionate commitment to the Neptune employees, the local outdoor community, our loyal customers for whom Neptune has become their beloved ‘home,’ and our vendor partner relationships. As we don’t need to sell, we can take our time and be selective, so we feel confident that what we’ve created these last four years will endure into the future.”
Dunbar said that she and her husband had several offers over the last 12 months or so—all of them but one from potential buyers based in Colorado—but after careful consideration and weeks of conversations, they finally landed on Ute Mountaineer as the store’s next owners.
“Ute Mountaineer was perfect in terms of who the owners are and what they bring in terms of experience, their values in their community, and so on,” Dunbar said. “We’re just so closely aligned.”
Maile Spung, who co-owns Ute Mountaineer with her father, Bob Wade (who himself co-founded the store in 1977), said she never intended to run more than one gear shop, but that the opportunity was too good to pass up. “We just couldn’t help jumping at this when it came along,” she said.
Saving Neptune Mountaineering from bankruptcy
Neptune’s path over the years has been rocky, to say the least, which makes this latest acquisition all the more dramatic for those who have loved and frequented the shop since its founding in 1973. A mainstay of the Boulder outdoor community for decades, the shop was purchased in 2013 by Texas-based retailer Backwoods, which “effectively destroyed” it, according to Dunbar.
“When we acquired it in 2017, we bought it out of bankruptcy,” Dunbar said. “The previous owners managed to drive it into the ground. When this was going down, all of us outdoorspeople in Boulder couldn’t believe that the beloved heart and center of our community was going away. Our decision to buy it was almost like a community good deed to rescue the store from being shuttered. We never intended to make it our long-term business.”
After that 2017 acquisition, the Dunbars gutted the store, redid the interior, and rethought the product mix, all with the goal of “bringing a community treasure back to life,” according to Dunbar. It took a few years, she said, to rebuild the shop’s customer base and bring back community events that had long been cancelled.
In just four years, the couple turned the business around completely. With that goal accomplished, they wasted no time starting to look for new owners. “About a year ago, when we felt that Neptune was thriving, profitable, and had a great team in place — when the community seemed to be happy — we thought it was time to find the next owners who could take Neptune into the future,” said Dunbar.
Choosing Ute Mountaineer to carry the shop forward
Dunbar said that, throughout the search for Neptune’s next owner, it was “never about the money.” Turning a profit from rescuing the store was the least of the Dunbars’ concerns when they set out on their four-year journey to find new ownership for the business. They simply wanted to preserve a community treasure that had served outdoor lovers in Boulder for decades.
For that reason, Dunbar said that she and her husband looked only for “fair market value” when discussing the acquisition with potential buyers. “Certainly we thought we deserved the amount of money we put into it,” she said. “It was a big investment on the front side. We ended up getting more back than the actual dollar amount we put in, but that was never the point for us.”
The point, instead, was to find a new owner who understood the shop’s values and customer base, and who could protect the store’s legacy for decades more. Spung, who acts as the ski and climbing buyer for Ute in addition to managing the shop as owner, was just the person for the job, Dunbar said.
“There’s so much history with Neptune,” Spung said. “After seeing what happened when the shop was sold to Backwoods and the community almost lost it, we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. We thought we could be those people to continue it.”
Preserving the Neptune legacy and serving the community
Spung said that, because Ute and Neptune operate in such different markets, the immediate goal is to keep everything in Neptune running exactly as it is now. “Our goal is to move in, observe, and take in all the information we need to operate down there,” she said. That means the product mix, layout, and general business practices will remain the same for now. If and when tweaks happen, Spung said, they will be carefully considered based on what the community in Boulder needs and wants.
One tweak that might happen in the future, Spung said, is to find ways to move Neptune’s product offerings slightly more in the direction of families just getting into outdoor sports, without losing any of the highly technical offerings that currently attract the shop’s more “hardcore” customer base.
“I have a young family, and I know that South Boulder is an area that has a lot of families, so we want to make sure we’re speaking to that population, especially those who might feel intimidated by a hardcore store,” Spung said. “At the same time, we still want to sell all the technical items that current Neptune customers expect.”
Dunbar said that, in her conversations with Spung, the topic of store changes came up frequently, but that they’re both in agreement that Neptune is “running beautifully” just the way it is.
“They respect that we understand the Boulder market,” Dunbar said. “They see that we’re answering that customer base with the product mix and strategy we have. We feel there’s really not reason to change anything.”
In fact, change may happen the other way—to Ute, rather than to Neptune. Right now, Neptune has a robust e-commerce business, while Ute doesn’t sell any of its products online. Spung confirmed that, after the acquisition, the two shops will work to merge their point-of-sale systems and start listing Ute products online.
“There are opportunities for both stores to flourish with this structure,” Spung said. “We have a great small climbing community here in Aspen, but it’s nothing like the one Boulder. We’ll be able to start offering our customers here much more specialized equipment that we couldn’t before, because we didn’t have enough demand at our single location to justify buying it in wholesale quantities. We’ll be able to do that in both the climbing and ski hardgoods categories.”
What’s next for Neptune’s current owners?
As the Dunbars transition out of ownership, they plan to travel in Europe and “hopefully take lots of climbing trips,” according to the couple. They’ll sell their Boulder house early next year and split their time between Australia—where Andrew is from—and Maui, where they own a home.
“The cool thing about having a store like Neptune is it’s a lot of fun to be out on the sales floor, talking to customers,” Dunbar said. “Both Andrew and I really enjoy selling people cool stuff to go off and play outside. It’s a really fun thing to do, to talk about gear, to hear from customers about what they’re going of to do. That one-on-one engagement with people like us—that community—I think we’re both going to really miss that.
As for the couple’s concern about the shop’s future success? Dunbar said she’s 100 percent sure selling to Ute Mountaineer was the right move.
“Maile is young and has a lot of time to grow Neptune well into the future,” Dunbar said. “It just feels like she’s the person to keep the legacy alive.”