Fontana Sports: Navigating the Challenges of Small Business Ownership

Photo by Eric Tadsen

Small businesses are recognized annually the first week of May during National Small Business Week for a reason. Life is hard for small businesses. A week of recognition for the significant contributions of entrepreneurs and small business owners seems hardly enough to acknowledge their value to our economy. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, which creates nearly two out of every three new jobs in the United States each year. Over the past year, new start-ups and established businesses alike had to think on their feet, prioritizing the urgent while constantly pivoting to adapt to customer needs to stay in business.

Elizabeth Ganser, co-owner of the outdoor lifestyle retailer Fontana Sports at 216 N. Henry Street in Madison, has been making plans much of her life to be the eventual owner of the three-generation, family-owned and -operated local business. Of course, she didn’t account for the unexpected life changes, pandemic, and looting of 2020.

“I’m still figuring out how to piece my future together to incorporate the recent unexpected twists and turns. I have this incredible family legacy of store ownership that I want to live up to. It all began when Grandpa (Clarence) and Grandma (Beatrice) Hutchinson started the first Fontana Army Navy in 1949 in Fontana, Wisconsin. It was post World War II, and surplus military supplies were popular.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“My dad (John) grew up helping in his parent’s store. He went to University of Wisconsin–Madison (consistency with below) and graduated with a degree in marketing. He decided not to take the marketing job he had accepted in Chicago and instead opened his first Fontana location in 1972 in the 100 block of State Street during the height of the Vietnam War. Business was good, so he moved to a larger space at 251 State Street and, before long, he filled the 10,000 square foot space. To put his own stamp on the store’s historic identity, his merchandising began to incorporate the Eagle Scout background of his youth and his love of outdoor sports, such as climbing and fly fishing. He started offering apparel, footwear, and gear to enjoy these outdoor activities. In 1976, he met my mom (Judith) in the scuba diving class he was instructing. After marrying in 1979, she accepted his offer to retire from teaching and join him to run the family business. My mom has shown me just how much work it takes to be a woman business owner as well as a great mom.”

To meet customer needs, the Hutchinson’s added stores at various east and west side Madison locations. E-commerce was added in 2006. showcases Fontana’s high-quality apparel, footwear, and gear tailored for outdoor lifestyles and activities, such as camping, hiking, climbing, travel, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. They carry high-quality brands, such as Patagonia, Smartwool, The North Face, Merrell, and many more.

“My brother Johnny and I grew up spending a lot of time with our parents at the store. We were allowed to play in the tents and loved playing big bad wolf with the employees. We traveled to buying shows, attended ski demos, got scuba certified, and learned about the outdoor industry. We had a wonderful childhood and loved spending time with our parents, especially in the great outdoors. I looked forward to the day when I could bring my own children to the store and make those kinds of memories together.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“In 2005, I graduated from UW–Madison with a degree in retail and became an assistant manager at our State Street location. In 2007, I took on buyer responsibilities for the footwear department and, in time, all apparel. In 2011, I bought in and became a partial owner.

“After marrying my husband, Tom, in 2015, we were excited to start a family and introduce a fourth generation to the joys of owning a family business. After years of enduring challenges with endometriosis and ovarian cysts, doctors told us we had a 2 percent chance of ever getting pregnant. We began to reconcile ourselves to the thought of never being able to have children.

“Much to our shock, but great delight, I discovered I was pregnant in July 2018. The lease on our second store location on Junction Road was coming up for renewal in April 2019, the exact time I was due with our baby. To keep things simple as I joined the ranks of being a mompreneur, I chose to keep just our North Henry downtown location and close the Junction Road store.

“Baby Grace was born before COVID-19, so she came to work with me, and it was just as I had imagined. I had one year of carrying Grace around in her carrier and merchandising, playing in tents, writing orders while she slept in her pack ‘n play, and sitting through line showings with her on my lap. Then it abruptly stopped. The pandemic started in March 2020, and we were required to close due to state mandate.

Photograph by Eric Tadsen

“Unbelievably, it was then that I found out I was pregnant with a second hoped-for, but absolutely unexpected child that would mean having two children under the age of two during a pandemic. The challenges, both good and bad, were stacking up. Two weeks after we had finally reopened after two months of being closed, social unrest occurred in Madison, and State Street was hit especially hard. Fontana Sports was vandalized and looted three nights in a row. I had to close the store again for another two months while we repaired the hundreds of thousands of dollars of damages. I called my dad out of retirement to help operate the store while I worked from home in order to protect my pregnancy from the pandemic and to take maternity leave once Tessa, our second daughter, arrived in late October 2020.

“I’m proud to be a local small business owner. Despite all the challenges since 2020, I want to continue the legacy for my daughters. I love working with my parents and hope my daughters will love working with me to learn about the outdoors, the outdoor industry, running a business, and being part of the downtown business community. Staying positive through all the challenges and changes can be difficult, but it’s important. The fact that our business’ goal is to get people outdoors makes it worthwhile. I want future generations to play outside so they can see value in protecting the places we love.”

Lauri Lee is a marketing communications specialist and small business mentor in Madison.

Fontana Sports

216 N. Henry Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 257-5043