Owning an outdoor specialty retail store can be a labor of love aligned with personal passions, and often, the shop plays an important role in the fabric of a community.
But what happens when the owners decide it’s time to retire and move on? Who do they sell the business to, and how do they ensure it stays true to their vision for the store and remains a vital piece of the local culture?
That’s exactly what John and Becky Williams of outdoor retailer Pack & Paddle in Lafayette, Louisiana, went through this year when they decided to hand over the reins.
After nearly 50 years of being owned by the same family, the store now has new leaders at the helm.
John and Becky Williams spoke with The Daily about how they made the decision to sell, why they sold to their employees, and about the overall business climate for specialty outdoor retailers.
Running a Monster
Pack & Paddle was founded in 1974 by Joan and Doc Williams. They began the business selling Grumman aluminum canoes in their backyard before opening a store in a 400-square-foot house on the banks of the Vermillion River.
Today, the store is 6,000 square feet and stocks all types of outdoor equipment, from rock climbing and backpacking to kayaking and fly fishing.
In November, Joan and Doc’s son, John Williams, and his wife, Becky, who were the next generation of owners for more than 20 years, sold the store to longtime employees Sophe Probst and Joe Miceli.
When John and Becky took over the store in 1999, they thought they would have a hobby business, something “fun for us to run,” John said.
They focused on community events, trip guiding, and getting new people involved in the outdoors.
In 10 years, they had quadrupled the size of the business.
“All of a sudden it wasn’t a hobby business,” John said. “We were running a monster.”
John had previously said he wanted to make sure he was retired by 50. Then he pushed it to 55. Then 60.
This year, John turned 62.
Figuring Out a Way
The main problem was trying to figure out the right way to exit the business.
The three options they considered were finding an outside buyer, selling to someone from within the company, or liquidating the business.
“Liquidating the business is the simplest and most secure, and cleanest,” John said. “You hold everything in your hands. You’re not depending on other people to come through and do what they say they’re going to do.”
Becky said they didn’t like that idea, however, because it is a passion business for them – they love the outdoors.
Plus, the store is important to the culture of their town.
“Pack & Paddle has been woven into the fabric of the community,” John said. “If possible, we wanted to keep it that way.”
Right People, Right Time
They were waiting for the right time, with the right people in place at their business, to pass it along.
But there was some trepidation in even approaching employees about possibly buying the business because if they weren’t up for it, the approach could backfire.
“To do that, it’s almost like you’re jumping off a cliff,” Becky said.
The conversation could go two ways. The people the Williams approached could start thinking they needed to find another job because they were nervous about the future of the store.
“You can disrupt your entire staff if people feel like you’re not solidly in it for at least the medium-term,” John said. “Especially for key people.”
Or it could go the other way. The prospective owners could be excited and see the opportunity, which is what happened.
When John and Becky were ready to pull the trigger, they had a conversation with Miceli, an employee who had been running the trips and events side of the business for a couple of years.
Miceli had mentioned to them that if they ever decided to sell the business he would be interested.
He said he didn’t want to see Pack & Paddle go away, Becky said. “It was part of his fabric of growing up and his memories,” she added. “A lot of people in Lafayette feel that way.”
The Williams took that as an invitation. “He opened the door, and we walked through,” John said.
Planning the Succession
They took that information and thought about it for a couple of months, speaking with friends who had sold businesses, and made a plan. They decided to bring in more than one employee over time.
“We spread the work, and we spread the responsibility,” John said. “We knew running this by yourself would be difficult.”
The Williams saw several advantages to selling to employees. For one, they were able to pass it off to employees who knew the DNA and history of the business. It also boosted morale to lift someone up from the inside.
The customers appreciated the continuity as well, Becky said. Some of their best customers who buy every Christmas present at their store were apprehensive at first, but once they learned who was taking over, they said, “I’m so happy people we know are taking it over,” she added.
John said one disadvantage to doing it this way is you’re not bringing in, for example, a business broker with a qualified buyer who has a lot of money.
“That (broker way) has its own set of advantages,” he said. “Especially as part of your exit on the financial side.”
However, while selling to employees works well for the community, it also works for them, John said.
“With the situation we have now, we can have a grandparent role,” he added. “If we want to guide trips, if we want to do some seminars, if we want to walk in and be welcomed, or work on Saturday and sell boats, we can do it.”
With an outside buyer that may not have been possible.
Paddlesports a Challenging Market
We also asked John about current business trends as he and other retailers navigate the post-pandemic world.
John said this has “been a challenging year” for the business.
Paddlesports make up about half the store’s sales, and that segment is struggling more this year than the apparel, footwear, and camping segments.
John believes that the new entrants to the outdoor market that became involved during the pandemic will likely stick around, and agrees that they will need better, more technical equipment as they progress with their experience level.
“Now it’ll be, ‘Oh, I’m going to Kathmandu, and I need to get some new boots,’” he added.
But there is a concern that the paddlesports market is saturated. People don’t buy a new boat every year, John said.
“The life cycle of the product is even longer for paddle than it is for outdoor overall,” he added. “Innovation happens at a slower pace.”
The difference between the paddlesports market and other outdoor goods, according to John, is people bought high-end paddlesports products during the pandemic. They had more disposable income, so they bought $5,000 fishing kayaks like the Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14.
“Where does that leave us for an upgrade?” John said. “That’s part of the saturation problem.”
Going into 2024, John expects to see a rebound, however.
“I say that cautiously, because it’s really tough right now,” he said. “But I think there’s going to be more opportunity in paddle once this forest fire dies down.”
The new owners have fresh takes on inventory and community engagement, John said. “That’s all going to reinvigorate and keep Pack & Paddle moving, because change is necessary.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.