A Small Business Success Story At The Edge Of The Wilderness

The owners of Rockwood Lodge, a family-owned outfitter and resort, made the strategic decision when they bought the resort to keep it a small business. That decision has proved a good one as Rockwood wraps up its 8th season under the current ownership.

The resort industry along US Highway 61 on Lake Superior’s shore is seeing more ownership concentration. Investors and corporations have bought many family-owned resorts. 

Operating a small resort is challenging and filled with risk. When a resort owner/operator is ready to change their lifestyle, the corporate investor offers the best exit from a financial point of view, but the culture change can be problematic.

The Gunflint Trail resorts are almost all family-owned businesses. Some have been in the same family for multiple generations.

Located on Poplar Lake about halfway up the Gunflint Trail at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Rockwood Lodge began operations in the mid-1920s. Paul and Jenny Stoltz and Wally and Helen Anderson started and operated it. The two men built the lodge and cabins with local timber. The current owners lovingly restored the log lodge with a meeting space, a guest reception area, and a small store.

Keeping with the historical tradition of Rockwood, the current owners are two couples. Carl Madsen and Stephanie Lightner, and Mike and Carol Seim. Stephanie and Carol are sisters.

Keeping the business small means that all four owners are working in the business. You’ll always see an owner doing the work from cleaning cabins to lifting canoes. All four owners love the wilderness, and they love seeing customers face-to-face.

“Resort owners on the Gunflint don’t see each other as competitors,” Carl said. “There is a spirit of cooperation that could be lost if a big player starts buying up local resorts.”

The hospitality industry is risk-laden, especially in remote areas like the BWCA. The current owners of Rockwood have been tested in recent years by wildfires, the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, and action by the USFS to close the BWCA during fire or pandemic. 

They are a resilient bunch, though. 

August of 2023 was their best month under their ownership. Plans are to expand the property with an additional cabin by 2024.

The four owners all enjoy living and working along the Gunflint Trail. They consciously decided to build a small business here, leaving the cities behind. 

The advantages of staying small include:

  • Flexibility–If something isn’t working, either a business decision or a plumbing fixture, it can be fixed quickly. 
  • Personal service–Every customer interaction is with an owner.
  • Location–The commute at Rockwood is blessedly short, a few steps at most. And think of working on the shores of Poplar Lake. 
  • Freedom–The owners of Rockwood Lodge are doing what they love and enjoy the freedom from oversight by others in their work.
  • Close-knit teams–What could be more close-knit than working with a family that you love and trust?
  • No excess overhead–No office rent to pay or management staff to feed. 
  • No excess staff–When needed, Rockwood adds team members to make sure that customer service is exceptional.

Carl says that coping with the high costs and tight margins in the resort/outfitting businesses wouldn’t be for everybody. But for this team, loving the business and the BWCAW at their doorstep makes it all worthwhile.

“They’ll have to carry me out of here feet first,” Carl says.