Bass Pro CEO Morris brings passion for fishing to job

Bass Pro Shops is "what most retailers only fantasize about," said Ethan Allen CEO Farooq Kathwari when he introduced Bass Pro CEO Johnny Morris at an awards ceremony last year.

But try to get the details of the dream out of Morris, and you'll find he's conveniently "gone fishing."

That may say as much about his love of the sport as it does about his disdain for anything approaching braggadocio. But it still took an army of company assistants and no small amount of arm-twisting to get him to agree to, and follow through on, giving his first national media interview in more than 12 years.

Given the barrage of bad news that's hit retailers over the last year, it's hardly surprising that a CEO would want to lie low, especially when he's selling what many people — other than him — would consider discretionary items. But lying low has been Morris' position of choice since he started selling fishing lures out of his dad's liquor store here in 1972.

Morris' retailing has come a long way: People drive for hours and will even stay overnight to visit one of the chain's 56 huge stores, which in addition to outdoors merchandise are filled with typically free activities ranging from archery to rock climbing. Several movies and TV shows have been filmed at its stores and, in the past nine months alone, nine couples have gotten married at a Bass Pro Shop. Even so, the firm is feeling the recession's pain.

It has laid off workers at stores, its boat-building plants and its headquarters. New store openings slowed this year to two, down from eight in 2008; five openings are on hold. Back in the rosier retail landscape days, malls and cities competed and offered financial incentives to get one of Bass' big-box tourist magnets, but these days neither has the money to spend. Though the privately held chain doesn't disclose sales figures, Forbeslast year ranked Bass Pro at 138 on its list of the 441 largest private companies and estimated its annual revenue at $2.65 billion.

Retail analyst David Magee says Wal-Mart's successful expansion into fishing supplies has likely hit Bass harder than competitor Cabela's, which is more of a destination for hunters. Magee says both Bass and Cabela's, which is publicly traded, are benefiting as all gun sellers are, from brisk firearms sales but hampered because hunting and fishing don't tend to be growth categories. And both face growing competition from sporting goods stores, such as Dick's, which are capturing more of the market.

For its part, Cabela's is planning smaller stores to raise profitability, says Magee, managing director at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey. That's not Morris' plan: "If anything, we're making stores better."

The Bass Pro concept stands out among retailers in at least one capacity: It draws tourists. The store here is about tied with the St. Louis Gateway Arch for tourists at about 4 million a year. Visitors to all stores are expected to top 100 million this year thanks to store openings in Altoona, Iowa, and Calgary. That compares with an estimated 60 million annual visitors for Walt Disney World in Orlando.

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