Bass Pro Shops, Inc.
Bass Pro Shops, Inc.
Sales: $950 million (2000 est.)
NAIC: 451111 Sporting Goods Stores; 454110 Mail-Order Houses
Bass Pro Shops, Inc. is a multifaceted sporting equipment retailer, with a special emphasis on fishing, hunting, and camping. Operating out of Springfield, Missouri, the company is best known for its Outdoor World stores, massive facilities that combine a large selection of goods with amusement features, such as target ranges, fish tanks, restaurants, and video arcades. The original Outdoor World is located in Springfield and has become the single most popular tourist destination in the state of Missouri, attracting approximately four million visitors each year. Nearby Branson, Missouri, a mini-Nashville with two dozen country music theaters, draws more tourists overall, many of whom make the pilgrimage to Springfield to visit what has become the Mecca of fishing and hunting. Bass Pro Shops also runs a major mail-order business, which originally provided the platform for the company’s entry into megastores. Its private label sporting goods are also distributed to other sporting goods stores through its American Rod & Gun wholesale operation. In addition, Bass Pro Shops owns Tracker Marine, one of the largest U.S. boat manufacturers. In recent years Tracker has extended its brand to a line of recreational land vehicles to serve the fishing and hunting market. Moreover, the company runs an upscale, 850-acre resort, Big Cedar Lodge, in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains. Through one of its corporate partners, Gaylord Entertainment, Bass Pro Shops is able to expand its brand awareness through radio and television programs, as well as a nationally available magazine.
Formation of Bass Pro Shops: 1971
The founder of Bass Pro Shops, John L. Morris, grew up in Springfield, and as a boy fished with his father and uncles in the Ozark area lakes, which featured some of the best bass fishing in the world. While earning a business degree from local Drury College he competed in one of the early tournaments of the fledgling pro bass fishing tour. He learned that the specialized lures used by the top pros, as well as high-tech tackle, were not available in the stores. He asked a local retailer, Gibsons Discount Store, which boasted the area’s largest fishing department, to stock some of these items, but the manager refused. In addition to a love for fishing, Morris also gained an entrepreneurial spirit from his father. The elder Morris had started out running a service station and restaurant in Springfield, and later operated a number of Brown Derby Liquor stores and some dry cleaning shops. Rebuffed by Gibsons, Morris turned to his father and asked if he could have space in one of the Brown Derby liquor stores in order to sell fishing merchandise. Despite the fact that his father had already tried selling bait out of the stores, and still had boxes of lures stored in the basement to remind him of the failed attempt, Morris finally received permission. His father also co-signed a $10,000 inventory loan. After graduating from college in 1971 Morris took to the road with a trailer, buying up regional fishing lures until he ran out of cash. With eight feet of shelf space in one of his father’s Brown Derby liquor stores, he then began to sell his lures to local fishermen. Because his focus was providing gear for bass fishermen, he named his business Bass Pro Shops. Morris knew his market because he was an avid Bass fisherman himself and had talked to his customers about what they wanted. He also traveled the tournament fishing circuit to keep tabs on the kinds of lures the winners were using.
Although selling beer and spirits remained the primary business of the liquor store, Morris continued to add to his supply of baits and fish. Business expanded by word of mouth, and soon customers were calling to buy over the telephone, asking if he could send his products to them by United Parcel Service. This development prompted Morris to enter the mail-order business. He bought mailing lists of potential customers and then compiled a catalog that featured some 1,500 items in 180 pages. In 1971 he mailed his catalog to 10,000 names in 20 states. Using the basement of his father’s warehouse as a distribution center, Morris’s mail-order business took off. The catalog grew in size and increased in distribution, soon gaining a reputation as the bass fisherman’s Bible. It would one day exceed 400 pages in length and be mailed to some four million people throughout the world. In later years a hunting catalog, RedHead hunting, would be added. More than 500 customer service representatives would eventually be hired to accept orders 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Morris was fortunate that bass fishing was surging in popularity, but he was also smart enough to let his business evolve naturally. Because he had a catalog business, he could arrange to have a large number of products manufactured as exclusives. To meet the demand for these products, in 1975 Morris set up the American Rod & Gun wholesale operation to distribute Bass Pro brand merchandise to independent sporting goods stores. Against all advice, Morris also began to sell boats through his catalog, which led to his entry into the boat building business. He found a niche in boats because, again, he knew what his customer wanted. From personal experience he understood how difficult it was to buy a complete fishing rig. After buying the boat the customer had to then pick out an appropriate motor and trailer. Anything beyond that, like a trolling motor or electronic fish finder, had to be purchased separately. Morris had a simple but elegant insight: sell an entire boat package that included the boat, motor, and trailer, as well as extras such as trolling motor, fish finders, built-in coolers, and padded seats. Overall the package offered the kind of value the customers were looking for. The marketing concept was simple but effective: “Just add water.”
Introduction of Fishing Boat Packages: 1978
Morris named his new business Tracker Marine. The first aluminum boats he offered in 1978 were made by a Louisiana company. Meanwhile, his Trailstar Trailers were constructed in Springfield until a trailer plant opened in Nixa, Missouri, in 1980. As business picked up he opened his own boat manufacturing plant in Lebanon, Missouri, in 1982. Tracker rapidly added to its product mix. The first pontoon boat package was introduced in 1983, the first fiberglass boat package in 1985. Tracker expanded beyond fresh water vessels in 1987 when it acquired the SeaCraft saltwater boat line. In 1988 it acquired the Nitro performance bass boat line, then two years later offered Nitro boat packages on a nationwide basis. In the 1990s Tracker would also become involved in the houseboat business, acquiring Myacht Houseboats. Although precise sales figures were not available from the privately held company, in the early 1990s analysts ranked Tracker among the top ten boat builders in the United States.
Morris involved two of his sisters in the Bass Pro Shops business. Carol did advertising work for the company through an agency she headed, while Susie became an executive vice-president. Suzie, in fact, was with Morris when he received a major dose of the inspiration that would lead to the creation of Outdoor World. Although the catalog business was thriving in the late 1970s, Morris still felt the need for a showroom where customers could actually handle the merchandise. He and several employees began to scout retail operations in preparation of building a Bass Pro Shops store. He and Suzie were especially impressed by their visit to the hugely popular L.L. Bean store in Freeport, Maine. “I said, heck, if they can draw all those people to the middle of nowhere,” Morris told the press, “we can do that in Springfield.”
Adjacent to the Bass Pro Shops catalog operations in Springfield, Outdoor World opened in 1981. Although the focus of the superstore in the beginning was its breadth of selection and ability to service a range of needs, Outdoor World began to offer more and more entertainment features (as it also continued to expand in size), eventually taking up nearly 300,000 square feet. Again, it was a matter of paying attention to what the customers wanted. Morris used an old storage tank to create a fishing pond that could also be used for fish-feeding shows, something he first witnessed at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. He added a pistol and rifle range, which he knew were features in German and Swedish sporting goods stores. Outdoor World became an extension of Morris’s desire for his customers to have fun, as well as to sell them the equipment they wanted. In addition to fishing gear, Outdoor World offered hunting equipment, camping supplies, boats, and golf and general sporting equipment. It also featured service departments, book and gift stores, a cutlery shop, and a wildlife art gallery. Outdoor World essentially grew into a sportsman’s version of Disneyland, featuring a four-story high waterfall, a two-story indoor cabin, a 100-yard-long indoor rifle range, 25-yard ranges for handguns and archery, a taxidermy shop, countless stuffed animals and mounted fish adorning the interior, a trout stream that meandered through the store, a barber shop, and a 250-seat auditorium and conference room. Promoted in the Bass Pro Shops catalog, Outdoor World began to attract visitors from around the world, eclipsing even St. Louis’s better known Gateway Arch as a tourist destination.
Mission Statement: To be the leading Merchant of Outdoor Recreational Products, Inspiring People to Love, Enjoy and Conserve the Great Outdoors .
Opening of Big Cedar Lodge Resort: 1988
The megastore concept was clearly a winner, but it would also be an expensive gamble to open other units, so Morris was cautious about expansion. First, he became involved in the resort business. In 1988 Bass Pro Shops opened Big Cedar Lodge Resort located by Table Rock Lake in the Ozark Mountains. The property had originally been the vacation retreat in the early 1920s of two wealthy Missouri businessmen who were both friends and sportsmen: Jude Simmons, who made his money in real estate and manufacturing, and Harry Worman, one-time president of Frisco Railroad. On 300 acres of land they both built log mansions that would now be put to other uses. Simmons’s home became the Devil’s Pool restaurant, while Worman’s home became the resort’s registration building and gift shop. Simmons’s garage was large enough to be converted into the Truman Smokehouse, a casual eatery. Big Cedar Lodge would encompass almost three times as much property as the original site and feature three lodges, as well as 81 private cabins. In addition to fishing, the resort offered water skiing, hiking, trail rides, cave explorations, and miniature golf. Big Cedar was expensive, with some cabins approaching $1,000 a night during the peak summer season, and attracted many celebrity guests, especially the country music stars that performed at nearby Branson.
To spread some of the risk in growing Bass Pro Shops, Morris began to form strategic partnerships, raising cash while keeping the company private. In 1992 Brunswick Corporation paid $25 million for a minority interest in Tracker Marine and thereby became the exclusive provider of engines, trolling motors, and other equipment for Tracker boats. In 1993 Morris sold a minority stake in Bass Pro Shops to Gaylord Entertainment Company for $60 million. A country music giant, Gaylord owned Country Music Television and The Nashville Network (TNN, which was later renamed The National Network to broaden its appeal). Through Gaylord, the company would be able to produce a syndicated radio show called “Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World,” which was not only heard in the United States, but throughout the world over more than 400 radio stations on the Armed Forces Radio Network. Through Gaylord, Bass Pro Shops was able to produce hunting and fishing television shows. Morris also aligned his company with the Mills Corporation, a Virginia mall developer, in anticipation of spreading the Outdoor World concept. In a similar vein, he also began to work with a Springfield-based hotel operator, John Q. Hammons, to combine Outdoor World outlets with Embassy Suite hotels.
The first retail venture outside of Springfield came in 1995 when Bass Pro Shops opened the 90,000-square-foot Sportsman’s Warehouse in Duluth, Georgia. Morris also purchased an adjacent property with plans to open an Outdoor World should the initial property prove to be successful. That same year Bass Pro Shops purchased the 27,000-square-foot World Wide Sportsman store in Islamorada in the Florida Keys. The second true Outdoor World megastore, a 125,000-square-foot mall anchor, opened in the fall of 1997 outside of Chicago in Gurnee, Illinois. It was followed by a 160,000-square-foot Outdoor World located near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In 1999 an Outdoor World opened in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area, located across from a Mills mall and connected to an Embassy Suites hotel. At 200,000 square feet, the Texas store was still significantly smaller than the Springfield Outdoor World, yet it stocked almost the same number of items. Also in 1999 a Detroit-area Outdoor World opened, again serving as a mall anchor. Late in 1999 Bass Pro Shops decided to sell the land across from its Duluth, Georgia, Sportsman’s Warehouse, electing to build a new and larger Outdoor World as part of a Mills mall under development in the area. From Mills’s point of view, a Bass Pro Shop was a desired part of every new mall project. Although rollout of the concept was gathering momentum, Morris remained careful about not extending Bass Pro Shop too far, too quickly. Essentially he was expanding to prime fishing areas. In 2001 Bass Pro Shops opened an Outdoor World in Nashville, Tennessee, in conjunction with both of its partners, Mills and Gaylord. It also expanded to Charlotte, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Ohio; and the Maryland/Washington, D.C. area. In addition, a second Missouri store was added, located in the Mark Twain Center in St. Charles, Missouri.
With 15 showrooms, Bass Pro Shops was still looking to pursue judicious expansion. Many of the locations had become local tourist attractions, although not to the extent of the Springfield original, which remained by far the company’s largest showroom. Morris seemed intent on maintaining the allure of the original site. He bolstered its appeal by opening a nearby Wildlife Museum in 1993. The museum was also a reflection of his personal commitment to the conservation of the outdoors. He created Dogwood Canyon, a 10,000-acre wilderness area located near Big Cedar Lodge. Bass Pro Shops also contributed millions of dollars to a number of nonprofit wildlife conservation organizations, earning Morris a number of honors. At the same time, Bass Pro Shops continued to grow its varied business interests. In 1998 Tracker Marine introduce a full line of RVs, travel trailers, slide-in pickup truck campers, and mini-motorhomes. In 2000 it signed an agreement with Bluegreen Corp., which planned to build a timeshare resort adjacent to Big Cedar Lodge, amounting to some 300 vacation homes. Bass Pro Shops also looked to become a major Internet retailer, leveraging its brand to sell merchandise online. The only area of true concern for the company was the decline in the number of hunters in recent years. Studies also showed, however, that people who did hunt now hunted more often. Although Bass Pro Shops catered to hunters, the focus of the company had always been on fishing, and its efforts to pursue the full range of outdoor activities and sports in general appeared to bode well for its future. The more open question was whether Morris would take his company public in order to raise capital for even greater growth, or remain private and continue to pursue his own path without the close scrutiny of shareholders.
American Rod & Gun; Big Cedar Lodge Resort; Dogwood Canyon; Tracker Marine.
- John L. Morris establishes Bass Pro Shops.
- First catalog is mailed.
- American Rod & Gun wholesale operation is launched.
- Company starts selling boats through Tracker Marine.
- Original Outdoor World opens.
- Tracker Marine opens its own manufacturing plant.
- Big Cedar Lodge Resort, located in the Ozarks near Branson, Missouri, opens.
- First retail store outside of Missouri is opened.
- Tracker Marine begins to sell RV vehicles.
- New Outdoor World opens in Nashville, Tennessee.
Cabela’s Inc.; The Orvis Company, Inc.; L.L. Bean, Inc.; Ma-rineMax; Oshman’s Sporting Goods; The Sports Authority; Travis Boats & Motors.
Backover, Andrew, “Bass Pro Shops Ready to Open Huge Outdoor World Store in Grapevine, Texas,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 23, 1999.
Bridges, Toby, “Bass Pro: A Transcendental Marketer,” Direct Marketing, October 1992, p. 20.
Childress, William, “Bass Pro Shops Reeling in the Customers,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 20, 1993, p. 3D.
Fass, Allison, “A Joint Venture Hope to Tie the Product to the Entertainment and Create a Shopping Experience,” New York Times, June 1, 2001, p. C7.
Kempner, Matt, “Sporting Goods Entrepreneur Turned Hobby into a Business,” Atlanta Constitution, September 25, 1994, p. G9.
McDowell, Edwin, “A Successful Outfitter Ranges Beyond Its Territory,” New York Times, March 20, 1999, p. 1.
Mitchell, Rick, “A Showroom As Big As the Great Outdoors,” Houston Chronicle, June 14, 1992, p. 1.