When the Pieces Align

The next generation adds new spin to the Base Camp

For years, the two sisters have chosen different paths. But last spring, Cody and Lauren Brown merged trajectories as the new owners of the Base Camp, the business their father Scott Brown started nearly 50 years ago.

It’s not unusual for a family business to pass from one generation to the next. But, in this case, the transition came as a surprise to the entire family. 

“There was never an assumption that we would take over,” Lauren says. “Neither of us even worked in the stores growing up.”

“Our parents were always encouraging us to follow our passions,” Cody adds. “So, we created our own pathways.”

And those pathways took the sisters — both in their early 40s now — in two very different directions. Lauren remained rooted in Montana, moving to Bozeman, where she ran her own photography business for the past 20 years. Cody zigzagged across the globe, teaching English in China, running a café in Ecuador and dabbling in clothing design and later fair-trade textiles. More recently, she was living in Honolulu, working for a building and design firm.

And so, it came as a surprise — even to themselves — when they decided to leave those careers and take ownership of the Base Camp stores in Billings and Helena.

“In both of our work lives and our family lives, it totally made sense,” Lauren says. “With the two of us, we thought, we can really take this on.”

The decision that Cody describes as “surreal” and “serendipitous” caught their parents off-guard as well. The Browns were gathered for a family vacation in Whitefish when the girls proposed their idea. Scott and Deb (Scott’s wife and the girls’ mother) were excited at the prospect. They knew that their daughters trusted and supported each other, yet they also knew there was much to consider.

Scott and Deb knew their daughters have all the qualities to handle an outdoor retail business. They also knew they are unafraid and like challenges. Now, a year after assuming ownership of the Base Camp, the sisters view the move as a “homecoming” of sorts.

“It was a natural way of giving back to our parents what they gave to us,” Cody says.

And that “homecoming” has been nearly 50 years in the making. Scott Brown opened the first Base Camp store in 1975 in a two-story building on Last Chance Gulch in Helena. That was years before the girls were born and even before Scott had met Deb.

Lauren remembers, as a child, playing under the steps at that store. She also remembers hanging out there after school. Perhaps more memorable were the devoted staff who became almost like family.

True to Scott and Deb’s passion, the couple raised their daughters on outdoor adventures — from paddling rivers to bagging peaks to snowboarding steep mountain faces. The Browns moved back to Billings in 1990 to open the second the Base Camp store in what had been a bridal shop. 

“We’re Billings folks,” Lauren says, explaining that their grandfather and great-grandfather had worked as attorneys in the Magic City.

“I have memories of tearing out the mauve carpet in that building,” Lauren says. “It was a family affair.”

Growing up with such memories, the girls had mixed emotions when Scott announced last year that he was ready to sell the business and retire. They were glad that their parents were able to slow down and enjoy life, but it was hard for them to imagine someone else running the stores.

“It was a little bittersweet,” Lauren says.

Perhaps it was that wistful feeling that prompted them to rethink the opportunity in front of them. Scott had several interested buyers in the works when they stunned him with their 11th-hour proposal. Once the deal was made, however, it was the girls’ turn for a surprise: they were overwhelmed by the supportive emails, phone calls and comments they received from friends and strangers alike.

“It was so touching,” Cody says. “I didn’t really know how important it was to people. The community loved that it will still be owned by family.”

The sisters’ distinct personalities may well prove to their advantage. Lauren is drawn to graphic design and marketing. She considers herself to be a “very visual” person. Cody describes her sister as broad-thinking and forward-thinking.

Complementing those traits, Cody enjoys digging into the nuts and bolts of retail and fine-tuning operations. Lauren marvels at Cody’s penchant for spread sheets. Yet the sisters share at least two important qualities: they share a deep bond forged by sisterhood as well as a bold entrepreneurial spirit. 

“We want the same things,” Cody says. “We want to serve our communities. We love things that are beautiful — we got that from our mom.”

A stop by the Base Camp confirms that shared bent. The store’s varied displays — a raspberry-colored Kuhl jumpsuit, Cotopaxi packs that jump with color and fun National Park printed scarves — speak of the sisters’ and their staff’s knack for selecting inventory.

“Everything’s been thoughtfully curated,” Lauren says. “We’re way more than just shorts and fleece.”

Shoppers will also find an entire wall devoted to packs, a kids’ section with vibrant hats and outdoor-themed picture books, paraphernalia for the pooch and plenty of gear to buy or rent.

“It’s not just outdoor gear,” Cody says. “It’s everything for the outdoor lifestyle.”

The Brown sisters have no plans to fix what isn’t broken. Yet, with growth on their minds, they’re striving to project a freshness that will not only draw a younger demographic but will continue to cater to their loyal clientele.

“We’re trying to find the right pivot,” Cody says.

And as they do, they look for new ways to reach out. 

“My dad is very much the voice and the face of the store,” Lauren says. “We want to fill his shoes but in the most respectful way.”

“People just recognize his voice,” Cody adds. “So that’s been super challenging because we’re not his voice. And we’re not planning on being the face of the Base Camp like he was.”

With their focus on the future, the sisters are streamlining operations with new software and have plans to introduce new options: limited online shopping, starting with gift cards and the Base Camp swag, and possibly a customer rewards program.

The move to modernize is major, “kind of like building out a third business,” Lauren says.

While technology and Google calls have allowed them to oversee both stores from centrally located Bozeman, Lauren and Cody are keenly aware that onsite visits are part of the personal touch they so value. Likewise, they know the importance of maintaining strong ties with their communities and are working on growing outreach through local events like the Women’s Run and Yellowstone Valley Gives.

With the stores’ 50th anniversary only a year away, the sisters reflect on their first year at the helm.

“It’s been a really great and challenging journey,” Lauren says. “We have a lot of new discoveries every day,” Cody adds. “It’s been really great.”


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