2004 Retailer Of The Year
Mark's Outdoor Sports Birmingharn, Ala.
For The RESOURCE, The SPORT, The Business
Mark Whitlock, Fishing Tackle Retailer magazine's 2004 Independent Retailer of the Year, produces an annual tournament that combines stewardship of the resource, promotion of the sport, and sound business sense.
BY ED SPENCER
In 2004, NUMBERS TELL THE STORY of Mark Whitlock, owner of Mark's Outdoor Sports in Birmingham, Ala.
He's celebrating the 25th anniversary of his business, which has annual sales topping $10 million. The centerpiece of his promotional initiatives, the annual Lay Lake Open bass fishing tournament, attracts almost 1,000 entrants each year and paid out about $85,000 in cash and prizes in the 2004 event. Over its 10-year history, the day-long tournament has been the setting for the release of more than I million Florida-strain fingerling bass in Lay Lake's waters.
Another number perhaps not so pretty to an independent retailer: an annual loss of $15,000 on each year's tournament. That may sound like a lot of red ink, but Whitlock doesn't even flinch when he's asked about it.
"You can't afford to buy the kind of press that comes from our tournament," he says. "And besides, we're rebuilding a local fishery, and that's good for the future of fishing and our business."
That message is the reason Mark's Outdoor Sports has been named Fishing Tackle Retailer magazine's 2004 Independent Retailer of the Year. The annual award recognizes an independent's support of the sport of fishing, enhancement of the resource, or education and recruitment of anglers. Nominated by several manufacturers, Whitlock qualified as the winner on all three counts. He will be given the award in July in Las Vegas, Nev., during the annual ICAST show.
At the core of the success of Mark's Outdoor Sports is, of course, Mark himself. His endless energy is infectious: It's immediately obvious to-a visitor that his 22 full-time employees share Mark's passion for retailing and dedication to customers. Phrases such as "over-the-top customer service " and "suicidal service" (die trying to help a customer) fly through the air during Whitlock's regular sales meetings his staff. He makes sure employees who consistently deliver outstanding customer care are rewarded with cash bonuses and other incentives.
"We don't sell anything you can't get somewhere else, and a customer can always find another retailer who is willing to virtually give a product away," Whitlock says. "So the only thing you have is your people, what they do for customers. Everybody has the 'eggs'; what matters is how you cook the eggs."
Whitlock's finely tuned approach to customer service began in 1979 when he bought a faltering 4-year-old sporting goods store in leased space in the Birmingham suburb of Vestavia Hills. In 1984, after the property owner came to appreciate Whitlock's business skills and determination to be successful, the landlord asked Whitlock to manage the strip center in return for 25 percent of the rental income from other tenants. At the end of five years, in accordance with the agreement, Whitlock purchased the entire property at a price well below market value.
In subsequent years, the store was expanded several times. It now occupies about 7,500 square feet of the strip center. The remainder of the 24,000-foot structure is home to eight tenants
Tournament With A Purpose
The Lay Lake Open has its roots in a growing concern about the quality and purpose of local bass fishing tournaments. "Ibere were good tour naments 10 years ago, sure, but customers were coming to me with concerns about nonreputable promoters"'Whitlock says.
"I don't remember whether it was a bet or a challenge from customers that got us started, but we decided to start our own tournament and do something good with the proceeds."
The definition of "good" evolved over several years before Whitlock hit on the idea of putting fingerling bass into Lay Lake.
"The first year, we gave the money to the state and it went into a 'we-don't-know-where'
fund. It never had an impact for us," Whitlock says. In the second and third years, Mark's donated tournament proceeds to a university fisheries program for acquisition of aerators. "That had a better impact;' Whitlock says, but not directly on the users of Lay Lake. "So in the fourth year, we finally settled on the idea of having fingerling fish trucked in for release in the lake."
Footing the bill for a truckload of fish would have been enough to show his concern for a local fishery, but Whitlock saw the value in involving anglers in the project. By asking each tournament contender to help release the fry, he gives everyone a chance to do their part. The logistics are simple: On the morning of the tournament, competitors stop by one of several pontoon boats to pick up their bags of fish. The anglers release the fry at their first stop.
Counting the most recent Lay Lake Open in April, the number of fingerlings poured into the fishery's waters topped I million. Area anglers tell Whitlock they feel their release of fingerlings has made a difference.
"I have people come up to me all the time and say, 'Hey, Mark, I caught one of your fish.'And I say, 'It's not my fish. You put it into the water."' After six years of putting bass into Lay Lake, Whitlock estimates as many as 40 percent of fish brought to the tournament scales are "our" fish.
Arms shoot up to grab packaged fishing tackle flung into the crowd. Photos: Ed SpencerTaking the conservation theme a step further, tournament com-, petitors are given weigh-in bags to carry their fish. As anglers advance through the weigh-in line, fish are kept in chemically treated and aerated water tanks. Of an estimated 2,000 pounds of fish caught in the 2004 toumament, dead fish totaled about 25 pounds.
"The bags cost us $7,500 and are a part of us doing everything we can to equip the competitors to save the fish, "Whitlock says.
Naturally, the bags carry the logo of Mark's Outdoor Sports.
While the tournament can claim name recognition among bass anglers throughout the South, the Lay Lake Open also has earned such a good reputation that fishing tackle companies are lining up to take part.
Big names in the business send home-office staff to work the event as well as donations of products to be given away to tournament participants. In the most recent tournament, 15 companies had representatives on site at tournament headquarters, Paradise Point Marina on Lay Lake. Whitlock asks rhetorically:
"Why do these guys show up? Because they like the concept [of stocking fish into the lake]. And to be honest, they know if we don't make the fisheries better, none of them will have a job".
Marc Mills, who heads up marketing and promotions for Shimano American, made a point to be at the April tournament.
"We try to do whatever we can at Shimano to further grow the future of fishing for men, women and children," Mills says.
"And that's what this tournament does. "
John Beckwith, president of Oklahoma-based Falcon Graphite Rods, sings the same tune. Sitting close to his company's new product display trailer at the tournament site, Beckwith praised the tourney's conservation theme. "The restocking is one of the reasons I wanted to come and support Mark's tournament," says Beckwith.
At this year's event, Shimano sponsored a contest designed to promote its Calcutta TE DC reel. Ten names of tournament competitors were drawn at random to participate in a distance-casting contest. The winner took home a certificate for a $5,000 shopping spree at Mark's.
In addition to those firms that send employees to the tournament site, there are many others who ship product to be given to anglers.
This spring, the dollar value Of the tackle giveaway approached $40,000. Most of the product is distributed to competitors in bright yellow Mark's Outdoor Sports shopping bags. The balance - about 20 percent - is thrown into the crowd from the weigh-in stage at the conclusion of the tournament. The scene is reminiscent of the grand finale of a fireworks show. With sound-system volume turned up to the max playing "Sweet Home Alabama," Whitlock and his staff shower the crowd with tackle. Savvy veterans of the routine bring their long-handle landing nets to extend their reach for the airborne gifts.
On stage during the weigh-ins, Whitlock takes advantage of every opportunity to plug sponsors' products. And in a strategy to broaden the tournament's appeal to families, Whitlock is especially generous with giveaways to children. "For just about any kid who will come up to the scales, we'll find an extra rod or reel to put into his hands," Whitlock says.
And it's not just tackle that's given away at the tournament. Skeeter Boats and one of its Birmingham area dealers, Airport Marine, are major sponsors of a bass rig prize. To qualify for the drawing, an angler must take a test drive in a Skeeter boat prior to the tournament. It's a concept Whitlock developed after Skeeter and Airport Marine agreed to participate in the tournament.
"When I approached them five years ago, they said they'd just give us a boat," Whitlock says. "But, hey, if they're giving a boat, they need to get something in return. So I concocted the test drive requirement."
For three days before each tournament, the flotilla of Skeeter boats is at the tournament site and staffers provide the test rides. This year, 900 test rides were given to tournament anglers, who were then qualified for the drawing.
Does it help Skeeter sales?
"Five years ago, there were 11 Skeeter boats in the tournament," Whitlock says. "This year, there were more Skeeters in the tournament than the next five boat brands combined ".
"The demo ride concept has really helped our Skeeter sales," adds Ken Hollis, owner of Airport Marine. "The test rides put people into the boats and then the product sells itself."
Heart And Soul
Whitlock pours his heart into his business, but he pours his soul into his Lay Lake Open fishing tournament. Preparaton for the event takes thousands of hours of staff time throughout the year. In the days immediately leading up to the tournament, it becomes an all-consurning passion for Whitlock. "I wake up at night thinking of all the things we have to do to get ready".
Whitlock is convinced all the sleepless nights are worth it. The latest tournament attracted anglers from I I states. The tournament's 500 boat field fills quickly. When the curtain was coming down on the 2004 tournament, half of the first flight for the '05 tournament was already filled.
"We have a bunch of people already signed for the '06 tournament," Whitlock says, "and, as crazy as it sounds, we have a few signed for '07."
Even as each Lay Lake Open is in progress, Whitlock is getting ready for the next toumament. "I carry a pad and make a lot of notes on how we can do things better the next year," he says.
Immediately after the tournament, the planning wheels begin to spin even faster. As the year progresses, Whitlock and staff go through a series of promotional and preparatory moves.
First, there are sessions with staff and volunteers to discuss glitches and appropriate fixes. "We don't talk much about what went right; we want to identify problems and fix them," Whitlock says.
Another first step is production of a video of the preceding Year's tournament. Whitlock hires a television station photographer, Bill Castle of the local Birmingham ABC affiliate, to shoot and compile the video. Castle gets on-die-water footage of as many Competitors as possible, some of it from the passenger seat of a chartered helicopter.
Finished about a month after the tournament, the videotape is an overview of an enormously entertaining event; the message is that while angers are competitive for prizes and cash, they're out there,for fun, too.
Whitlock has about 4,000 copies of the tape made to give to sponsors. Competitors signing up for their first tournament get one. Copies are given away at the store's booth at the annual Birmingham Sport & Boat Show.
A week before Thanksgiving, anglers who participated in the preceding year's tournament are sent copies of the tape. "We tell them it's cold weather out and we know they're not fishing," Whitlock says, "and we invite them to pop the video in and enjoy the good times of the last tournament."
While the tape does not contain a commercial spot urging viewers to shop at the store, the tape does drive store traffic. "The phones light up and customers we haven't seen in a long time start coming through the door," Whitlock says.
Activity related to the tournament Picks up steadily as the event nears. In the final week, the pace is fast, and Whitlock is the one who sets it.
"I keep the cell phone handy, and we have a final checklist with probably 200 items on it: Have certain people been contacted? Are the fingerlings ready to be trucked in? Have certain items been received and have they been loaded into the trailers? And, if so, which trailer?
"I go about three days without much sleep."
In the final 24 hours, the tournament Crew goes into high gear. They work together as if they produce an event every week, and setup is accomplished in one day. The night before the tournament, all of the employees get a bite to eat and gather at Whitlock's nearby farmhouse for a very brief night's rest. Because of what he calls a "recurring nightmare," Whitlock requires all employees to bring alarm Clocks. "In the dream," he explains, "I wake up at 7 o'clock and have missed the start of the tournament."
But no one is likely to oversleep. "When all those clocks start going off at I a.m., you can hear them all through the house. "
At the end of the day, another Lay Lake Open is history. Thousands of people have had a good time, and Whitlock is already thinking about what he'll do differently next year.
For the future of fisheries - and the future of the tackle industry - Whitlock would like to see his tournament concept expand to other parts of the country. And he's willing to help.
"Yes, I'd welcome calls from other dealers around the country," he says. He might even hit the road to help others - if he ever gets a break in his schedule. "Years down the road, I'd love people to call and say, 'Come out here and spend two weeks with us and show us how it's done."'
Although Whitlock acknowledges that staging the tournament is a big project for one independent tackle retailer, he says the payback is bigger.
"A dealer helps a local fishery and sells more fishing tackle," he says.
"How cool is that?"