Ione and Dale Sette
Where Owatonna goes to enjoy winter sports...
They got the idea from an ad in a newspaper from the Twin Cities.
“We saw an ad in the newspaper looking for people to sell ‘snow machines’ made by Arctic Cat,” and that’s how their business was born, laughed Ione Sette, who co-owns Sette Sports Center with her son Eric Sette.
It was 1967. Ione was working at Federated Insurance, her husband Dale at Tubeco in Owatonna. Dale’s father Orlo Sette was owner/operator of Sette Communications, and sold Citizen-Band and Business-Band radios from a shed on the family property on Austin Road.
“Communication and radio technology was changing fast at that time, and Orlo was thinking about getting out of the business, maybe retiring. Dale was feeling antsy in his job, and I was expecting our first child,” Sette recalled. “It was an unsettled time for all of us, and I think that’s what led us to take the chance with Arctic Cat.”
So in November of 1967, the three took steps to become one of the first Arctic Cat franchises in Southern Minnesota, opened up shop in Orlo’s now-empty shed and took to the task of selling ‘snow machines.’ Dale and Ione’s son Eric was born that same month.
“Oh, what a crazy, scary time that was,” Ione laughed. “Me with a new baby., Dale and I both working full-time at other jobs, and both of us jumping in to help Orlo with the snowmobiles whenever we could.”
They sold two sleds that first season.
Sette said snowmobile sales slowly improved over the next few years, and in 1972 they added Suzuki motorcycles to their product line. “Suzuki was very particular about how and where their products were to be sold. So that same year we also put up the east end of our current store, just down the road from Orlo’s shed. Suzuki stipulated that their dealers needed to be on well-traveled, busy roads, and this location on Highway 14 and Austin Road was perfect for us,” Sette said. Sales of new and used snowmobiles rose to 158 that year.
“It didn’t hurt at all that our location was so close to the county fairgrounds, either,” Sette said. “We were visible. Our products were visible in our lot. We were selling hundreds of units a year by then, so Dale and I both left our full-time jobs in 1972 and Sette Sports Center really became a reality then.”
Sales continued to grow for the small company, but the industry itself was under huge growth at the time. “You have to remember. At that time, there were hundreds of manufacturers, hundreds of brands of snowmobiles. And snowmobiles were our bread and butter. The demand was high, the supply was good. There was more than enough business to go around. But then during the recession years, most of those companies closed down, stopped building sleds. Today, there are only really four major brands out there,” Sette said. She said over the years, many name-brand toys and tools have been available at Sette’s, including Skidoo, Yamaha, Ariens and Stihl. Some have been successful, others not as much. In 1982, the Settes brought in Yamaha cycles, ATVs and snowmobiles. “Our customers have always been more interested in the toys than they were in the tools,” she laughed.
Sette said the business has always been a family business. “Eric started coming here after school every day until closing time, and of course he came in with us on the weekends too. He learned the business by asking questions, pestering the mechanics and generally getting his nose into every piece of business we had. He was a natural,” Sette said of her son. But after he graduated from college and married his wife Nancy, the young couple made the difficult choice to relocate to Nancy’s hometown of Chicago.
Thankfully, Sette said, when her second grandchild was born, Eric and Nancy decided to come back to Owatonna and both came to the store full-time. “Dale had been having some issues with his health, and he decided to retire a few years ago. So now it’s me, Eric and Nancy, and my grandson Alex running the show. It’s a great mix. We have fun and we all work well together.”
As is true for most businesses with inventory on hand, it’s a “very scary feeling when a season ends and you’re left with a lot full of last year’s models. It used to be that we’d be forced to sell at such reduced prices that we’d lose money on our investment for the year. So it was either sell it cheap or let it sit for however long until it loses all its value,” Sette said. The manufacturers have made much progress in recent years with customer sales incentives and programs for rebates, she continued, saying most of those companies now even offer kickbacks to the dealers during years where sales couldn’t be controlled. “People don’t buy snowmobiles when there’s no snow,” she finished.
“And now Arctic Cat has done something new,” she said. “The 2020 models have to be ordered by April 1, and Arctic Cat is only building the units they currently have on order. That’s going to relieve a lot of dealer anxiety.”
And what’s in the future for Sette’s? “In the immediate future we need to bring in a couple of talented technicians and mechanics. In the long-term, more of what we’ve been doing, which mainly consists of running our business by the Golden Rule. We treat our customers and employees the same way we want to be treated. Happy customers become repeat customers no matter what the weather brings,” Sette said, adding that surviving in a business where success depends mostly upon the weather is not always an easy task.
“I understand what farmers must go through every spring when they pray for a good growing season. Here, we pray every year for a good snow season,” she laughed.
- Authored By Lisa Richmond