Small business success: Probst family keeps Western business aliveWritten by Christy Martinez
Greybull – Probst Western Store at the heart of Greybull was founded in 1945, and business remains strong today under the management of the third-generation Probst family member to run the store, Tyson Probst.
“The store was founded in 1944 by my grandfather after he returned from World War II,” says Tyson. “He was from Gillette, and his father was also in the Western business, so he came over to Greybull and bought a shoe repair shop and that’s when the business started.”
Tyson’s father Jeff Probst says the store’s original sales tax license is dated November 1944. The store has expanded twice – in 1957 and again in 1974. Jeff started with the store in 1969 and continued through the mid-‘90s, when Tyson took over.
Tyson says his grandfather started out in shoe and saddle repair, and building a few saddles, before transitioning to dry goods.
Jeff says he’s always joked that he came to the store a year after college, thinking he’d try it for a year to see if he liked it.
“Thirty-five years later, I was still trying to decide,” he says.
“Being a family business, I grew up working in the store,” says Tyson.
Through the years, both Jeff and Tyson say the challenges have changed, from mail-order catalogues to big box retailers and the internet.
“Our competition has changed immensely over time. In the ‘70s we had to worry about competing with catalogue stores like Sheplers and Western Ranch Outfitters from Cheyenne, and then stores like Cabela’s started coming in the ‘80s,” says Jeff.
“In dealing with the discounters, we try to carry a little higher-quality merchandise so we don’t compete directly with them on most things,” says Tyson.
However, Jeff adds that they still compete for disposable income, and the internet even more so.
“Our location hinders us because we don’t have that many people to draw from, but I also don’t have direct competition here in town,” adds Tyson. “But with the internet and modern vehicles, people travel more and I’m in competition with the surrounding communities.”
“Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when my father was running the store, the roads weren’t so good, and it was a big deal for someone to go to Billings, but now they go on a whim,” says Jeff. “Before, we planned for a week to drive to Cody. Things have really changed over time as far as who our competition is.”
Where the store used to sell 90 percent cowboy boots, Tyson says it now deals more in work boots, with only 30 percent of boot sales being cowboy boots, and that three or four of the best months of the year for business come in the summer with the tourists.
“The main group of tourists we see are from the Midwest – if they want to see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone they come over the Big Horns. We’ve also seen more European and foreign people in the last 20 years – they really like the Western things,” says Tyson.
He says the Europeans tend to go for flashier things than his local customers.
“The local might come in and buy a pair of cowboy boots that are oil-tanned workboot leather, while the Europeans like the pointed toes and ornate scrollwork on the top. I’ve got to buy separate for what I think they’ll go for,” he explains.
Tyson adds that another help for their business over the last 10 years has been the Hideout Guest Ranch, which is just up the road near Shell.
“They run a lot of people through there from all over the world, and inevitably they forget or need something,” he notes. “But what keeps us going from year to year is the local economy. We definitely have a solid ranching business base, and that’s what keeps my bills paid.”
Of what he enjoyed about operating the business, Jeff says, “You’ve got to like people to survive, and like the community and where you’re at, and try to be a part of the community and contribute in ways other than your store.”
Jeff says he also enjoyed choosing his merchandise, and trying to guess what his customers would want.
“I always looked at it as a competition – to see if I was good enough to figure out what or whose merchandise to buy,” he says. “If I brought it in, and it sold, I was the winner. We don’t make our money selling merchandise, but buying it, and choosing the right things.”
The store currently employs four people, while Tyson’s mother helps out with keeping the books, a job she also held while Jeff managed the store.
“We have many customers who were customers before I started, and they’re still customers today,” adds Jeff. “We’re the longest-standing business in the community, and we have been for years. There are many other businesses that have come and gone through the years.”
Of surviving so long as a family business in a small town, Jeff says, “It’s a matter of doing the things we need to do to make the business successful, and for us that’s having plenty of merchandise and treating our customers well. That’s always been our philosophy, and we’re proud of our legacy.”