Bass Pro CEO Morris brings passion for fishing to job

His employees may love him, too, but they may not always love working for him.

It can be a "nightmare for some of those people," says Jan Riddle, distribution manager and, at 35 years, the longest-serving employee at the company. Clay Self, the country music singer who's been playing the Buzzard Bar at Big Cedar for 21 years, describes driving anywhere with Morris as a lesson in patience. If he sees a particularly interesting tree — especially a twisted cedar — Morris will insist the driver pull over and take what Self says seems like thousands of photos.

Still, Self says, "It's twice the experience it would be if you'd gone out by yourself."

It's not just a quirky habit. Morris is involved in the details of his store interiors, right down to the looks of the life-size trees, some of which are — you guessed it — twisted cedars. He sends his employees to museums around the country so the wildlife dioramas closely replicate the natural habitat where animals live in the areas around the stores. Emmitt recalls workers moving a wall at least six times during construction of the store here and realizing it probably wound up just 6 inches from where it started.

"He sees things the average person doesn't," Emmitt says.

Morris is learning his share of flexibility these days. When the store here was built in 1982, "No sane banker would have ever approved it because we didn't have a payback model," he says. So Morris used revenue from selling all those lures and sowbelly eels and tapped a line of credit so he wouldn't have to "apply for a special line justification for aquariums and waterfalls."

"We were having fun for our customers, rather than looking at what the financial return would be," says the man who calls himself "chief fishing officer" or "chief daydreamer."

In 1978, Morris came up with the idea for the best-selling boat in the company's lineup, the aluminum Bass Tracker, and even sold them in a catalog, which people said would never work.

They were the "biggest gamble the company ever took," says Morris, as they were sold with motors and trailers as a package, which had never been done before. Bass' boating business, Tracker Marine, has been merged with the store side of the company. The company also is working to promote boating as a lifestyle. The heck with the financial naysayers.

"Buy a boat, get a return in the happiness it brings," Morris says. "You've got to sell the fun of things, too."

Even if his costly and expansive vision of retail needs more adjusting in this economy, you won't catch Morris racking his brain for more ways to do it.

President Jim Hagale, who joined the company in 2002, took on a more active role earlier this year in helping manage all of the Bass Pro properties, including Big Cedar and Tracker Marine.

In an interview, Hagale said his job is to inject "some discipline around the vision" while being careful not to "dilute the concept, or we're going to be like everyone else who sells shotgun shells and rubber worms."

Hagale laughs that Morris recently summed up their roles and relationship pretty well: "He said, 'I think we're a pretty good team. You stay here and work, and I'll go test the product.' "

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