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.

The stores, themed to represent each location's geography, draw customers for the hunting, fishing and other outdoor gear, but also laser arcades, aquariums, fly-fishing lessons and wildlife exhibits. There are conservation lectures at every store in auditoriums named after Morris' beloved UncleBuck, who introduced him to fishing and is memorialized with a bronze statue at the entrance to the store here.

Morris says Sam Walton used to visit the store in the 1980s with no shopping cart, just a pad to take notes. Not that Morris is opposed to a little copycatting: A late '70s trip to L.L. Bean's Maine flagship that Morris and his sister Susie Henry took provided much of the inspiration for the store here, which was opened in 1982.

"I thought, 'If they can attract all these people to Maine, I can do something similar in Missouri,' " Morris says.

There wasn't too much to brag about in Bass Pro's early days, but Morris learned a lesson in the importance of knowing your customers. Already a regular contestant and finalist for the Bassmaster Classic tournament in 1970, he watched closely to see what "secret lures" the winners used and bought them, as he says many of the winners were "upstart manufacturers" who sold the lures as well.

"It was far better than being a buyer sitting in an office at Wal-Mart," Morris says.

Uncle Buck also made hand-tied lures and "eels" from sowbellies that were bottled in baby-food jars. Soon, Morris' bait and lures were squeezing the beer to the side of his dad's Brown Derby liquor store, where he got his retail start. Within two years, Morris was selling catalogs for $2, and his grandmother, aunts and sisters were holding "mailing parties."

Family has always played a big role at Bass. Morris' father-in-law's company installed the first big aquarium; wife Jeanie, an interior decorator, helped design the gift shop at Bass Pro's Big Cedar lodge; sister Susie set up the company's computer system in 1976; and sister Carol Robinson continues to help with marketing and public relations projects.

Morris, 61, can be a hard guy to pin down — even to work for — but his apparently authentic "aw shucks" attitude makes him a hard one not to like. He's casual and unassuming to the core, a slightly built man who favors khakis, open-collared shirts and listening more than talking.

At breakfast recently at the Big Cedar lodge in nearby Branson, Morris' family got uncomfortably close to flattery. Jeanie said she's "never seen anyone as loyal as he is with friends and family." Daughter Meg, 19, says, "The greatest lesson he's taught me is humility."

Says Morris with an embarrassed grin: "Stop it, that's enough."

Jack Emmitt, who started 29 years ago as the first fishing department manager and now works as a consultant, says Morris "wasn't the best talker" back in the early days. Having accepted dozens of awards for both conservation and retailing since, Morris has developed if not the gift of gab, at least a bit more comfort at the podium.

Accepting the National Retail Federation's Retail Innovator of the Year award last year from Kathwari, Morris was choked up as he gave most of the credit to his employees and his late father, who was his "biggest hero" and "the most savvy merchant ever to come down the pike." By the end of his remarks, in which he apologized for the video introduction — "sorry that big advertisement ran on so long" — Morris was hardly the only one sniffling among the thousands in the crowd.

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.' "