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Adventure business hikes away with excellence award (5/03)

By IAN ROSS Walk into Diane Petryna's outdoor sporting goods store in Thunder Bay and you will not be bombarded by thumping testosterone-laden rock music or acres of rack space that cater almost exclusively to men.

Walk into Diane Petryna's outdoor sporting goods store in Thunder Bay and you will not be bombarded by thumping testosterone-laden rock music or acres of rack space that cater almost exclusively to men.

There are soothing sounds of nature being played, murals of blue skies and mountains adorning the ceiling and walls, and a staff of six employees that have developed a sterling reputation for taking customer service to another level.

Take A Hike!...the Outdoor Adventure Company recently took home the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce Business Excellence Award for micro businesses (one to six employees).

In launching her venture in 1996, Petryna wanted to create a relaxing and family-friendly store atmosphere with an unparalleled level of service that would treat the female customer the way she would want to be treated.

"A lot of women would share the same experiences I have had," says Petryna, 45, "that we feel rather intimidated going into traditional sporting goods store, and that footwear options for women are limited.

"We don't feel welcomed; we feel ignored."

Petryna vowed to change all that after reading a magazine article entitled "Take A Hike." It was about the growing popularity of outdoor sports such as hiking, backpacking, canoeing and kayaking, and how women were participating as equally as men were.

The trouble was the sporting goods industry was not adjusting to those changes and catering to the needs of women, the article noted.

So Petryna put her masters degree in recreational administration and background as a small business adviser and market research consultant to use, developed a business plan and opened a store front.

Situated on the corner of Brodie and Victoria Avenue, Take A Hike offers a wide variety of top-quality clothing, footwear and outdoor gear as well as gifts for the home, garden and cottage.

"It's a store that acknowledges that men and women are equal, women aren't marginalized," says Petryna.

The largest growth market in water-based activities at present is sea kayaking, she says, especially among the 40 and over age category, which is her main customer base.

"I can very much understand my prime customer because I'm one of them.

"If we're going to be astute retailers we have to acknowledge that women spend more money than men so we're targeting those people."

Her unhurried staff members take the time to explain how products work and encourage customers to try out snowshoes and backpacks by renting them out for the weekend.

"We're getting people middle-aged and up in the store and we're building their confidence."

Very much a community activist, Petryna organizes an informal sea kayak group of friends and customers who gather on summer evenings twice a week to paddle area rivers.

She also planned a spring sea kayak conference for late April at the Nor'Wester Resort Hotel, billed as Canada's first sea kayak conference featuring workshops and seminars for both novice and experienced paddlers.

Her goal is to build her company into the "L.L. Bean for the north" and place central Canada and Superior's north shore on the map for kayaking and other outdoor pursuits.

The store's Web site acts as a promotional vehicle for outdoor community events and provides links to area parks and conservation areas.

But Petryna spurns the idea of becoming a mail-order catalogue store or watering down the product by opening a chain of franchise stores. Instead she says she is committed to growth in Thunder Bay and finding ways to improve on what she already has.

"I've decided to put my energies in Thunder Bay," says Petryna, who volunteers with many Thunder Bay organizations "We have great people who can compete with anyone in the world.

"I want to see how much we can do from this location and impact in a positive way the lives of our employees, our customers and the people in our community."

She finds many aspects of her business rewarding.

"From the moment we've opened the door we've had terrific word of mouth. Our customers have become our biggest fans and promoters.

"We build relationships and become friends with 80 per cent of the people who walk in the door and we've gotten involved in the community in championing some causes.

"So many people want to see us succeed. They see us doing things differently, setting new standards and see us committed to the community and they like us."