Gyms Have Changed; Culture Has Stayed the Same – CBJ Podcast with Bryan Pletta

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Bryan Pletta podcast - Gyms Have Changed; Culture Has Stayed the Same
Bryan Pletta podcast - Gyms Have Changed; Culture Has Stayed the Same
Graphic by Climbing Business Journal; all photos courtesy of Bryan Pletta.

Bryan Pletta founded Stone Age Climbing Gym in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the 1990s. On this episode of the CBJ Podcast, Pletta details what it was like to create the gym, and he expounds on the gym’s progression over the years—ultimately resulting in two current locations, Stone Age North and Stone Age Midtown. Pletta also discusses “gym culture” of the 1990s: How that culture has changed since then, and also how the culture has not actually changed that much. Pletta also talks about the logistics of hosting competitions and the benefits of competitions for any gym.

Thank you OnSite for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
03:16 – Twists and turns of Stone Age creation
04:58 – From idea to inception
10:25 – Staffing a gym
13:26 – Reflecting on the 90s
17:03 – More climbers inside, more climbers outside
19:31 – Pletta’s take on mentorship
22:25 – Shifting climber behavior
28:35 – Interviewing future staff members
30:11 – Employee retention
37:16 – Competitions
40:53 – Competition prep
44:35 – Local sponsors
46:00 – Learning from events
52:31 – Words of wisdom for a past self
55:02 – Closing

OnSite Climbing Walls

Abridged Transcript

BURGMAN: …Can you just tell me how it all came together for you, from idea to facility, to opening the doors [of Stone Age Climbing Gym]?

PLETTA: Sure, yeah. I was working at Sandia National Labs as an engineer. I’m an electrical engineer by training and worked in the robotics program over there and had that job for about 14 years…So, about 14 years into it, I had a little midlife crisis and thought, “If I stick around here, I’m going to be here till I’m 60. Is this what I want to do?” And I decided that it wasn’t, and I wanted to kind of go off and do something different, do something on my own for myself. And I wasn’t a businessman, didn’t really know business, but I felt like I knew climbing. And at the time, Albuquerque had a couple of climbing gyms, but they were small, and I didn’t feel like they were really meeting the market need and kind of evolving with the rapidly changing industry of the time. And [I] felt like I could do a better job, and so [I] took a whirl at it. And here we are 27 years later…

Early days of Stone Age Climbing Gym
The original Stone Age Climbing Gym opened in Albuquerque in 1997, with crumb-rubber flooring and not much HVAC or insulation. “It was a nice warehouse,” Pletta reflects, but a different facility than the two modern Stone Age gyms of today. “[I] kind of feel like we’ve been through those evolutions of the industry,” he says.

How did you find people that wanted to work at the gym? Even routesetters; how did you find routesetters?

…Well, on the staffing front, I think we were lucky in some ways, and we learned some lessons in other ways. But a really good friend of mine at the time, Lance Hadfield, had been a competitive climber, had done some routesetting, was working in construction in Colorado. And I knew I needed someone to help me run the gym. And so, I asked him to come back to Albuquerque, asked him if he wanted to be a part of it. And so, he came on as our first employee. He was our head routesetter, only routesetter. And then we did occasionally have some community volunteers that would come in and help out. But back in that day, we were kind of doing some of the volunteer trade for staffing, because we were on a total shoestring [budget]….

Trango Holds Pardners

The 1990s are complicated. It’s like, do we reflect on it fondly, or do we reflect on it from an industry standpoint as, like, “Gosh, I’m glad we’re not there anymore.” So how do you?

I would say both. I don’t really think our culture has really changed over the years. I think our culture has changed the same—I mean, stayed the same—but I think the gyms have changed a lot. But I don’t think the culture and the people that we hire, the type of people that we hire, [have changed]. And certainly, we’ve made some mistakes over the years, and maybe more mistakes early on than we have later. But I think you create your culture by the people that you hire, and we’ve tried to hire the same type of people. Our values as a company are service, passion and integrity. And so, we try and hire for those values.

And I think we’ve always tried to hire for those values, although maybe early on it wasn’t as intentional, and I probably didn’t really know how to do that as well as I do now. And so, I think we’ve always had good, solid employees, and they’ve just gotten better. I think they’ve just gotten better over the years, just because my skills as a manager and then the managers that I’ve hired, their skills have just gotten better. And we’ve been able to kind of keep that culture rolling…

Climbing inside Stone Age
“We’re very welcoming and inclusive, and we want new people to become rock climbers,” Pletta says of Stone Age’s gym culture. “Everything that we do, we really kind of focus on turning everybody that walks into the door into a rock climber. And so that’s kind of how our culture has been built, I think, over the years.”

What are the keys to keeping somebody employed and engaged for 28 years? How do you do it as an owner?

You pay them fairly, pay them well. Make sure that they have a stake in what goes on, and that they have importance to their job, they can contribute to the company and the direction of the company. I’ve been here, involved at the top, since the beginning. And certainly, over years, I’ve learned to be less of a micromanager and let my employees take on more responsibilities and things. But I guess Lance has just been such an important part of our company from the beginning, and I’ve always pretty much just let him run the routesetting crew and run that part of the business. And so, yeah, he’s been engaged and has had a good run at it…

OnSite

Stone Age really plays an important part historically in the heritage of American climbing gyms and the American comp scene, because you have really run some really highly publicized and important competitions since the gym was founded. And so, I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the value that competitions give you as a business, the value of hosting a competition?

I think a lot of it is just our connection with climbing and climbing culture and the sport of climbing, and trying to support that from the ground level. Also, I will say that Lance has been a big part of that, because it’s something that he’s really been interested in over the years, and puts his heart and soul into creating the best competition for all of the athletes and everybody that’s involved. I’ve supported him more on the management side and administrative side, to making sure that we have the resources to run a quality comp. And I think everybody involved looks at it as something that, “This is our opportunity to really do our best and show somebody a great time at our climbing comp…”

A Yank-n-Yard competition final crowd
About the gym’s Yank-n-Yard competition, Pletta says, “It’s something that our community just looks forward to, and our staff looks forward to it, and it’s just part of the gym these days…I keep thinking if we should keep doing this, does it make any sense to keep doing it. But I just don’t think there’s any way we could stop.”

Do you do any sort of debrief after Yank-n-Yard is over, or any competition is over? Do you have any sort of shakedown with either Lance or the rest of the staff and discuss how it went, what was good, what maybe next year you want? Or does that all just kind of get lost in the shuffle because it’s so busy getting back to business?

Yeah, we always do a debrief after the comp and after our climbing festival, the membership sale. We always do a debrief after that and try and learn from it and improve on the next year. I think that’s something that’s been core to our company growth over the years is this idea of continual improvement and trying to always do better than the last year.

So, yeah, one of the big things that we do with the Yank-n-Yard that most competitions don’t do is we host a bouldering comp on our lead wall. And we’ve done that ever since we had the professional category to create better spectator space. Because our bouldering area doesn’t really have great spectator space, whereas we’ve created more spectator space for our lead wall. But it also requires a huge routesetting lift because you have to strip the entire lead wall, you have to put up boulder problems and oftentimes big features, and then tear it all down so that you can reset lead routes the very next week. And so that’s always been a huge thing…

Air bags used for a Yank-n-Yard competition
Stone Age has been making use of temporary air bags during Yank-n-Yard—a unique competition that involves some bouldering on a lead wall, with the goal of giving spectators a better view of the action—so the additional flooring can be more easily assembled before the event and disassembled afterward.

If you could talk to your 1997 self, would you give any words of wisdom, any advice on creating the gym? Any caution, “Don’t do this, definitely don’t do this,” or, “Do this”? Or would you just kind of let it happen like it happened and let it evolve to where we are today?

Well, I certainly have learned some things along the way. And probably the biggest thing is just hiring: our hiring process and hiring good people and making sure that we get the right employees. And that’s been, I think, my biggest learning curve over the years. And it happened naturally, though. So, I don’t think that there’s anything that was necessarily wrong or that we did badly at the time. It was just the times that we were in. So, yeah, it’s been a good ride…

Thrill Seeker Holds