I was out in Sidney, NE to help them honor Dick, Mary and Jim Cabela who moved their business to Sidney from nearby Chappell, NE in 1968 when the business only had 15 employees. Today, Cabela’s Inc., The World’s Foremost Outfitter, has over 15,000 employees with about 2,500 of them located in their hometown. I had the thrill of a lifetime in getting to spend about an hour one-on-one with them interviewing them on their journey from a kitchen table startup into an incredible company. Even Governor Dave Heineman was in town for the festivities, awarding the three Cabelas the distinguished Admiral of the Navy for the state of Nebraska. Who knew that they even had a navy?
Gary Person, City Manager of Sidney and my tour guide of the town along with Megan McGown, head of the local chamber, told me of how Cabela’s came to Sidney, “John Deere had a regional distribution center here in town. It was a four story, obsolete building that was built right on the rails. When John Deere couldn’t get rid of the building, they donated it to the local hospital.”
At the luncheon celebration for the Cabelas, Gerald Matzke, who was on the hospital board at the time carried on that story, “When the hospital took that building from the John Deere Plow Company, we were roundly criticized on Main Street. People thought that we’d been given a building that we’d never ever be able to get rid of. After we’d sat on it for about a year, somebody heard about two boys over in Chappell who were looking to grow into a bigger building. Two of our local realtors went over to see them and they came over three times to look at it. After a lot of negotiations, we finally sold it to them for $1 per square foot or a total of $50,000 for the 50,000 sf building. We even financed it for them. They only had 15 or 16 employees at the time. We eventually bought a new X-Ray machine with the money we got from selling that building to them.”
Mary Cabela told me, “We didn’t know what we were going to do with all of that space. We thought that we would never, ever fill up that building but within two years it was full.”
Dick Cabela added, “It was like a gift for us getting that building from the hospital. Both Jim and I had gone to high school here and had a lot of contacts in Sidney. Moving here was a great decision.”
Jim Cabela talked about the origin of the company, “My grandfather was in the hardware business in Brainerd, NE and my father started a similar store in Chappell during the Great Depression. He expanded into furniture and my brother Jerry still runs the store there. Dick was running the furniture store and he and Mary were doing the mail order business on the side. When I got out of the military Dick asked me to start running it. We were sending out mimeographed catalogs at the time.”
His brother Dick added, “It was only a hobby at the time. We were taking baby steps. We had four young children at the time (they have nine today) and those kids had to eat, so I continued at the furniture store and we put everything we earned in the catalog business back into it. My Dad was our role model in building the business. He was always strong on customer service, honesty and treating the employees just like you would your customers. He always bent over backwards to be fair. We started out in fishing but quickly added hunting so that we had something to sell in the fall. Now the fall is our really big sales period.”
After the move to Sidney and an expansion to Kearney, NE for customer service operations, Cabela’s added their first retail store. Dick told me, “We had this warehouse in Kearney and we converted about 30,000 sf into a retail operation. Today we are about ½ retail and ½ catalog with the internet really having a positive impact.”
It wasn’t all straight uphill as Mary explained, “We tried to do a gift catalog selling all sorts of funny things like exploding golf balls. It bombed on us. We also tried catalogs aimed at golfing and cross country skiing, but they didn’t work for us.”
Today, Cabela’s operates out of 27 retail stores that are often the number one tourist attraction in many states in addition to their catalog operations. They produce 76 different catalogs each year, shipping over 120 million catalogs to every state in the country and over 120 different countries. In 2004 the company went public under the ‘CAB’ symbol on the New York Stock Exchange.
Going public was obviously a difficult decision, driven mainly by concerns for how to be able to continue the business due to estate tax concerns. Mary said, “It was the toughest decision that we ever made. It was like losing a baby.”
Dick added, “Before we were public, we had one lawyer on staff. Now we’ve got five. It makes the business a lot more complicated.”
Dick reminisced, “Those first years in business were our best times. Going out on the town was actually sitting at home and popping some popcorn.”
Dick and Mary are adding onto their original home in downtown Sidney, although it is quite an “addition”. The project started in 2000 and they hope to have it completed sometime this summer. Mary said, “We started out just wanting to add a trophy room onto the house, then we decided to gut our original house. We added a library, a gun room and all sorts of things into the addition.”
The “addition” will feature different animals that they’ve hunted on every continent in the world with their nine children and 22 grandchildren. My guess is that their 7 great-grandchildren will also learn to love the outdoors like Dick and Mary.
It was a wonderful day for me. I love talking with incredible entrepreneurs like Dick, Mary and Jim Cabela.