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2015 Economic Impact Awards Lifetime Achievement in Business: Johnny Morris

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In “the cabin,” a conference room on an upper level of Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store, founder Johnny Morris talks with Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson about his outdoor retail empire that started with a bait counter and a $10,000 loan. Now, the brand operates over 70 stores, and Morris has an estimated net worth of $4 billion.

He’s quick to give credit to team members and family: “Like every endeavor, it takes a heckuva team.”

Hear what Morris has to say.

It started with an idea. It started with one person, like a lot of great ideas do. It was small to begin with, right behind your dad’s counter in the liquor store. When did you know you were on to something big?
It’s ironic because where our store is here today, it used to be called Gibson’s Discount; it was like an early-day Wal-Mart. I was a good customer and kept bringing a list in to the sporting goods manager of all these lures. He couldn’t get permission from the home office, so I asked my dad if he’d support me and put some bait in his liquor store, which was about 4 miles down the street here. For the first 13 years we were in business, that was really the only store we had.

When we started in the early 1970s, the timing was really good. Fishing was really great and there was pent-up demand for specialized bass gear. We called it Bass Pro Shop because we just wanted to be specialized in bass fishing gear, and every nickel we could get for inventory we put into bass gear for many years. We opened in 1972 and in ’74 published our first catalog.

The catalog was that avenue that gave you a bigger vision?
Yes. We just focused on bass gear; it was a specialized catalog and the timing was good for it. It was funny because we didn’t have any three-year plan, five-year plan. We just mailed these catalogs and the orders came in.

I do not believe there is any place any better in America for anybody to start a business than right here in Springfield, Mo. There is a lot of pioneering spirit. Because we didn’t have consultants come and coach us, I think we ended up in a far better place. We figured if we could turn our orders around by [each] Friday, it would open up the world to us compared to Wal-Mart and the others stores. I credit our folks there for breaking out of the norm and developing a lot of systems.

I read that you borrowed some money from your dad to build the inventory. It’s always interesting to learn how a company started, the investment or inventory. What was that amount you borrowed?
My dad was my mentor. He advised me against fishing gear, because he said he tried it once – he loved to fish, too. Anyway, my dad went to Commerce Bank with me and co-signed the loan. As I recall, it was $10,000. He wanted me to know the responsibility to be obligated to the bank. He was guaranteeing it – his name was on the line – but so was mine.

What was your age at that time?
21 or 22. I went to (Missouri State University) for a couple of years, then I went to Drury [University] and back to Missouri State graduate school for business for a semester about the time I started Bass Pro. I quit school at that time.

You didn’t get that graduate degree?
No. I kind of did, but not with a diploma.

The catalog got you widespread coverage and interest, but were you thinking national at that point with the stores?
We wanted to give the perception that we were national, so our very first catalog published we put on there real proud: Bass Pro Shops, and right below that in our oval, it said National Headquarters, Springfield, Mo. I don’t know what the national headquarters was, but it was our national headquarters.

On the store development, was there a moment you thought that’s the next step for us to take?
My parents had some friends in Maine and they kept telling us – I have two sisters who have been involved with the business for many years – Carol and Susie; my younger sister, Susie, was kind of a right-hand person to me – and we took a field trip to L.L. Bean in Maine. Man, that was inspirational. That was about the time we moved into this old Handy Dan building; it was like 80,000 [square] feet and we had our warehouse, telemarketing center and initially 20,000 feet of store. But going to L.L. Bean, it was like they were rolling out the red carpet to their catalog customers. I thought we could do the same. They were drawing a lot of people to the middle of nowhere, in Freeport, Maine. I thought we could draw people to Springfield, Mo. So we spent two years visiting every sporting goods store we could hear of around the country and I even traveled to Europe, Germany and Sweden. We visited big grocery stores, like Stew Leonard’s, trying to get ideas. And we came up with a lot of our own unique ideas, too. We had built up a nest egg from our catalog business. We wanted to have features like aquariums, waterfalls and wildlife displays.

We opened this store and shortly after we remodeled it in 1987, we had this big event called the World Fishing Fair, in 1988, and that really put this store on the map.

Now it’s up to 72 stores. At that time, did you think of those numbers?
No. No way. We were thinking to have a grand store. We were in business for over 20 years before we opened our second store. It was in Atlanta. It had taken us all that time to build a heckuva team here that was really knowledgeable on the products and about the outdoors with a lot of passion. That was the most challenging, finding the people.

What’s next? How many new stores this year and next?
We’ll open eight this year and three or four next year. We just traditionally open six or eight. One or two years, we opened nine stores.

With all that development and success in sales, was there one idea that got away from you? One plan you wish you could take back, that didn’t pan out?
There are probably several.

In 2009, and earlier than that in the late 1990s, a couple of real downturns in the economy and our boat business and the marine industry were especially hit real hard. One thing that happened was credit scores for people to borrow money to buy boats, that credit rating got ratcheted up to take away about a third of the U.S. boat market. A third of potential customers couldn’t any longer qualify for loans. That really hit home to our industry after years of growth. But that’s part of what makes companies get stronger – re-examining – and it’s not a pleasant thing. But it makes you reassess and get back to basics. Our basic proposition with Tracker for years was delivering great value to the customer, and we just got caught up in too many models, too many brands, and our overhead got so high we weren’t really giving the value. We came back and cut a lot of brands, a lot of models. It’s now fewer than half. It helps us keep the assembly line running better, more efficient, and maintain quality.

We’ve had a lot of things. We tried these hats once, called bass umbrellas, and we thought we were going to sell them to fishermen to keep cool. Man, we ordered like 1,000, and we thought, no, this is going to be a home run, so we ordered 5,000. We sold maybe 500 and gave the rest away – if somebody bought $100 worth of something. There are things like that.

Any property or development that is most special to you?
I like the creative side of business and the daydream side more than the operations side. We have a good mixture of people here. Honestly, right here in Springfield, everyone probably has the most pride, how we keep reinventing this store and keep adding on. Certainly the biggest project for us, and something we feel passionate about, is the museum and aquarium underway here. We’ve been very blessed in this industry. It’s a way to give back to future generations. Hopefully, it will drive the economy in Springfield and inspire people about conservation messages and issues.

You asked about regrets and missteps and things. It hasn’t all been roses with that museum and aquarium. We’ve struggled with it in the past, but we’re dedicated to it and we’re optimistic to turn a corner and make that thing something we can be proud of.

We have a little store in Florida Keys, and that’s really special on the bay there. It was an old boat storage shed we converted. It has great views, and a lot of angling history. The two fishermen we bought that business from were legends in saltwater fishing. They stayed on with us 17 years, especially George Hommell. That’s personally my favorite project.

You mentioned the creative, daydreaming side of business. You’re known for being meticulous and changing your mind until you get it just right. Do you think that has been mostly a help or a hindrance in development?
A combination of both. But hey, look, quality and uniqueness has always served us well. It’s part of our M.O., and I don’t see things changing. We have learned over the years to build things out of cardboard models and 2-by-4s, instead of having to tear down concrete blocks and stuff. We do a tremendous amount of modeling and that helps an old mind visualize things better.

You’ve opened up more in recent years, especially, I’m thinking, of attending store openings. You seem to have a real presence at those ribbon-cuttings and grand opening affairs and recently, too, talking with Forbes and its annual ranking of the wealthiest businessmen. Has that been a conscious effort on your part?
Well, it is going to stores and being involved with team members. I didn’t call Forbes and ask them; it was the other way around.

A fun fact related to the Forbes ranking is that you’re tied in net worth with Donald Trump. … It’s a fun fact to me, is it to you?
(Pause)
Yea? Whoop-de-do.

There are some big names and influential businesspeople on that list, and you’re right up there with them. How does that hit you?
One, it’s speculation. But it also hits me, I know where we’ve come from and I’m reminded when I travel outside the country there’s no place like America and our free enterprise system. It comes under attack. But to me, it’s pretty awesome and we should never take it for granted. Other systems out there sound tempting, but they just don’t measure up to giving all these chances to pursue whatever endeavor – writing, photography, being a game warden, a retailer – I’m getting kind of mushy about this.

Those ratings, a lot of that is guesstimate on their part. But that can go up and that can go down. To me, that doesn’t mean as much as the opportunities we’ve had to pursue things we’re really passionate about.

On the development side, private corporations have been receiving tax incentives from municipalities and working in concert with developers to bring those companies to their communities, and Bass Pro has been a part of that mix. There are pros and cons. What’s your take on that model? Is it true capitalism and does it have a long future?
That’s a good question. Some reports are grossly exaggerated about subsidies we have received as a company. One of those main articles we think was generated by one of our competitors. When you think about people running different cities, it’s a competitive world we live in and people are investing money today – I don’t care if it’s public money or private money – everybody’s watching after their budgets. There’s competition among cities every day. And traditionally in retail, developers have received support for large projects coming in because they bring with them, historically, a lot of additional revenue to cities. Cities have chosen to offer incentives to developers and developers, in turn, look to Bass Pro or Macy’s or Nordstrom to come be part of the project.

We own very few of our stores. We lease. We aren’t really getting money into our coffers; it’s more the landlord or developer getting some incentive to build the store for us or other retailers. We pay them rent, a good fair rent. Obviously, it’s beneficial to them or they wouldn’t knock on our door.

What was the last fish you caught?
I got to go on a fishing trip with some folks with Nature Conservancy in Livingston, Mont. My very last fish was a 2-pound cutthroat trout on DePuy Spring Creek.

How often do you get out on the water?
I fish just about every weekend. Thanks for asking me that. I hope that doesn’t change. That’s my main job they let me do anymore, field-testing work. (laughs)

What about vacation? Does Johnny Morris take vacation?
My work and fishing all blend together. I usually will take a lot of weekends and one or two big destination fishing trips each year. I’ll go to Canada; for 25 years I went off the coast of Florida, this little island, to fish for these giant tunas. They don’t come there much anymore because the weather patterns have changed.

Is that the biggest fish you’ve caught?
Yeah, a 1,200-pounder is my biggest. We actually put a satellite tag in it and released it. It was cool. That was three summers ago. He must be swimming around still, because I haven’t heard any report back on him.

You’re 67 years old. When you think about your legacy, what thoughts come to mind? What do you hope to leave?
Oh, that’s way off in the future before I have to decide that. I guess somebody who really liked to fish and felt blessed that he was able to spend so much of his life around fishing. And hopefully that we have genuinely given back to sports that have been so good to us and done our part to help ensure that future generations would have the opportunity to fish and hunt and spend time in the outdoors. Also, to stand up for free enterprise and that people could have a chance to pursue any kind of a business.

Will you retire? What is your exit plan?
When I get pulled over by a 1,500-pound tuna, then it’s the end of the story. I enjoy, right now, work and the way things are going.

That’s today, but looking into the future, what sort of exits are possible? Is it a sale or going public, like an O’Reilly Automotive?
That’s a good question. I want what’s best for the company, and today I think there’s a lot of advantage for companies that are private. So we’re not under short-term pressure. That’s today. For tomorrow, I want what’s best for the company and the people in the company. I feel very grateful to a lot of people in this company.

I want for our brand to win out over the long run. Does that mean some day it’s better for our company to go public? What’s more important is what’s best for the company. To tell you today that no, it would always be best for us to be private, I don’t believe that. I think we need to continually review the circumstances and evaluate.

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