After redefining the outdoors business, Bass Pro doubles down
The story of Bass Pro started in 1972 when Johnny Morris set up a small fishing tackle shop in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield.
From there, Morris has grown his privately held outdoors brand to include nearly 100 stores across the United States and southern Canada. Today, Bass Pro Shops are as much destinations as they are retail sales locations, drawing more than 120 million visitors annually.
The company, which employs about 20,000 people, also includes 10 boat brands—including the top-selling Tracker fishing boats—and a wilderness resort near Branson.
And if that sounds like a lot, consider that the company is about to get supersized.
On July 5, federal regulators signed off on Bass Pro’s acquisition of Cabela’s. The $4.2 billion deal will roughly double the size of the company.
With this being an understandably exciting time for Bass Pro, Missouri Business sat down with Jack Wlezien, Bass Pro’s director of communications, to talk about where the company is today and where it’s headed.
Missouri Business: From a Missourian’s perspective, it’s tempting to view Bass Pro as a sort of cultural export. Do you see it that way at all — that you are bringing a slice of Missouri’s outdoors culture to these places?
Jack Wlezien: We bring the spirit of Missouri’s Ozark Mountains — our passion for the outdoors and genuine Ozarks hospitality — to every new community we join. We also heavily customize each location to reflect the natural beauty and traditions of each area so they are all localized. Every Bass Pro Shops location features a unique custom design that celebrates the outdoor history, heritage and traditions of that specific area. Displays feature local wildlife, and aquariums are filled with giant fish. Even the murals on the walls pay homage to each region’s outdoor legacy.
MB: Bass Pro Shops became a household name in the 1970s and 1980s through mail-order fishing catalogs. But now your company encompasses restaurants, a resort, video games and huge retail stores that can include entertainment options like themed bowling alleys. What is Bass Pro today? Is it still mostly about selling outdoors products, or is it more of an all-encompassing lifestyle brand?
Wlezien: Everything Johnny Morris does is driven by his personal passion to help connect more people to nature. From innovative products and immersive retail destinations to world-class resorts and nature-based attractions, it all relates back to inspiring families to celebrate the outdoors, get outside and spend time making memories together.
MB: Your printed catalogs are still very popular. How many copies of those do you send out?
Wlezien: Thirty-five unique titles are mailed to tens of millions of households.
MB: Do you see your catalog business beginning to transition online, or do you foresee the catalog remaining a critical part of your business?
Wlezien: The catalog is important because catalog, online and retail all feed off one another. Customers love seeing that big catalog show up on their doorstep. Today they are just as likely to flip through the pages before visiting one of our stores or placing an online order as they are ordering direct. It’s an important touch point for us and our customers.
MB: On the topic of online retail, we hear that consumers are moving more in that direction at the expense of brick-and-mortar stores. Is Bass Pro different? Is there something about your stores that helps defy this trend?
Wlezien: Several components make our retail locations unique. First, they are more than just stores. They are true destination experiences with immersive features like giant aquariums and dioramas. Second, we have true experts. Our associates are passionate about the outdoors and provide customers with practical advice to help their outdoor adventures. Third, we constantly offer free interactive family events and seminars like Gone Fishing, Family Summer Camp and the wildly popular Santa’s Wonderland. Each of these components work together to create an experience that customers will go out of their way to seek out.
MB: Compared to other stores, customers can have a very rich experience when they visit one of your locations, particularly one of the massive Outdoor World stores or even Big Cedar Lodge. What do you hope people feel when they visit these places? How important is that experience to your brand?
Wlezien: Offering unique experiences is directly tied to our founder, Johnny Morris, who is a big believer in incorporating quality craftsmanship and fun into every project we pursue. Customers love his creativity and attention to detail, which has
become a signature hallmark of our brand.
MB: Certainly it’s refreshing to see the Missouri-based company as the big fish in merger talks. It seems like it’s often been the other way around in recent years. When everything is finalized, what is this going to mean for Bass Pro’s future and the headquarters in Springfield?
Wlezien: Bass Pro Shops was born in Springfield, Missouri, and we remain very proud that our hometown remains home to our national headquarters today. We are deeply committed to contributing to Missouri’s Ozarks through continued economic growth, new nature-based experiences and attractions, investing in community initiatives, and playing a lead role in conserving the abundant natural resources found here.
MB: With technology and smart devices being so influential with young people today, do you worry about whether they are making the same connections with nature that previous generations did? Is it part of your company’s mission to help young people make that connection?
Wlezien: Kids today spend half as much time outside as they did just two decades ago, but when you can inspire them to get outside, everything changes. One of our key conservation goals is to introduce new audiences — including families and kids — to the outdoors. One hundred thousand kids caught a fish at a Bass Pro Shops-sponsored event last year. These are life-changing events that are helping us create the next generation of outdoor stewards.
MB: You are also doing a lot with conservation. What’s an example of a conservation project you are especially proud of, and why is that an important part of your business?
Wlezien: We’re very proud of our significant national partnerships with leading conservation organizations including Ducks Unlimited, National Wild Turkey Federation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and more. Together our efforts have restored millions of acres of habitat, healthy rivers, lakes and streams across North America and programs that have significantly increased wildlife populations.
Johnny has positioned conservation at the heart and soul of our company. He truly believes that ensuring healthy habitats, thriving populations of wildlife and inspiring generations to love the outdoors are the most important actions we can take to ensure a bright future for our company and the outdoor sports we love.