How the Big Dogs Eat

Humble beginnings, pivotal moves, innovative ideas, Ozarks values and even near-disastrous mistakes pepper the backstories of six local companies that just won’t quit. Take an inside look at how they’ve become unstoppable.

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In 1972, Johnny Morris (far left) opened Bass Pro Shops after selling tackle at his father’s store, Brown Derby.

With stores in 31 states and Canada plus a merger with Cabela’s in the works, Bass Pro Shops is making a bigger splash than ever. Bob Ziehmer, the new senior director of conservation for Bass Pro, and Jack Wlezien, director of communications, share a peek inside the outdoor retailer’s playbook.

Connecting Locally

From small business owner to international retailer, founder Johnny Morris hasn’t lost sight of where he lives, and the community benefits. Bass Pro is not only the fifth largest area employer, but it also works with local artists and businesses for projects at the national headquarters and other related properties. For instance, area residents Daniel Schwartz and family helped reconstruct Arnie’s Barn and worked on timber framing at Top of the Rock Ozarks Heritage Preserve. Visitors to Bass Pro and related destinations bring tourism dollars to the Ozarks, Ziehmer says, “and that will continue to benefit southwest Missouri in a number of ways.”

Tackle and boats are still core to the Bass Pro Shops brand.

Branding

Walk into any store and you immediately recognize the consistent Johnny Morris touch. “Really, the brand is a lifestyle that we try to offer to customers at a great value,” Ziehmer says. More than that, it represents a stewardship for outdoors conservation. “We know the future of the outdoor recreation industry is more dependent today than ever before on how the natural resources are managed,” he says. 

It does come back to the mission, but it’s also about listening to your customers and looking for ways you can advance your mission while providing excellent service.”—Bob Ziehmer, Bass Pro Shops senior director of conservation

Giving back

Bass Pro, which donates millions of dollars annually, helps connect people to the outdoors through events like the annual Outdoor Days and support of local organizations including Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks, Boy Scouts of America Ozarks Trails Council, Camp Barnabas, Ozark Greenways and Springfield Public Schools. Local conservation groups include the James River Basin Partnership, Ozarks Water Watch and Watershed Committee of the Ozarks. “We want individuals of all ages, all skills and all backgrounds to more fully connect with the outdoors,” Ziehmer says. 

Johnny Morris fishes in a tournament during the business’s early days.

Diversifying

The company mission is to enjoy, love and conserve the outdoors and Morris and his team provide opportunities for that through destination amenities such as Top of the Rock and Big Cedar Lodge; through conservation efforts and education including Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium, opening this year; and through partnerships and manufacturing. In 1978, Morris launched White River Marine Group, which produces Tracker fishing boats. And Bass Pro has sponsored NASCAR since 1998. NASCAR fans love the outdoors, and it’s a good way to showcase the brand to millions, Wlezien says. “It does come back to the mission, but it’s also about listening to your customers and looking for ways you can advance your mission while providing excellent service,” Ziehmer says.

Expanding

When scouting store locations, the company looks for communities that are passionate about the outdoors, like recently added Vancouver. They also look for activity through catalog sales to “identify locations where there is strong demand or familiarity with the brand,” Ziehmer says. Regarding the pending merger with Cabela’s, Ziehmer is excited to unite with a brand that has a similar mission. “Both companies were started by individuals with humble beginnings and a commitment to the outdoors and to recognizing that we need to invest back.”

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