Cabela's co-founder Richard Cabela, dead at 77, revolutionized outdoor product retailing

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Posted: Monday, February 17, 2014 12:00 am

Photo slideshow: A history of Cabela's.

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When Dick Cabela dropped a line into the business of the outdoors, he caught a big one.

Cabela, whose first cast at selling fishing flies didn't make a big splash but who revolutionized outdoor product retailing, died Monday at his home in Sidney, Neb. He was 77.

More than a half-century since its 1961 founding at a kitchen table in Chappell, Neb., the Cabela's brand is so widely known and the revenue stream so swollen that the company matter-of-factly trademarks itself as the world's foremost outfitter of hunting, fishing and outdoor gear.

Cabela's Inc. has grown from a Panhandle post office box to a Sidney-based, publicly traded, $3.6billion retailing giant with more than 16,000 employees in the United States. It has 50 stores across North America and 23 more planned to be built over the next two years. The company's Nebraska stores are in Sidney, Kearney and La Vista.

Flags outside the company's Sidney headquarters and store flew at half-staff.

Richard Cabela was board chairman until last spring, when he moved into the role of chairman emeritus. His brother, Jim, became chairman.

The Cabela brothers made it possible for sportsmen and sportswomen to buy quality outdoor products no matter where they lived, said Tommy Millner, Cabela's chief executive officer.

“They weren't the first to offer outdoor goods through the mail, but nobody did it better or with more care about providing customers a good value for their money,'' he said.

Millner said the outdoor industry has lost an innovative thinker and a tireless supporter of wildlife and habitat conservation.

“The business world has lost a true original, who built a business model that will be studied and emulated for years,'' Millner said.

In interviews to commemorate the company's 50th anniversary in 2011, Dick and Mary Cabela looked back at the company's humble beginnings. Dick worked at his dad's furniture store. Mary had four preschool-age children at home. The couple routinely filled orders until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Said Dick: “It's certainly not like we were getting rich. ... With a cent and a half in each fly, plus postage and all, I suppose by the time we got all done ... we maybe made a dime on each order.

“If you figured labor, we lost. But we were getting enough response to pay expenses ... and we thought it was great.''

The couple had no business model, no grand dreams.

Cabela's moved to Sidney in 1969 and opened its first stand-alone catalog showroom there in 1991. The stone and timber superstore along Interstate 80 — with hundreds of trophy and full-body mounts — became a model for the company's retail stores across North America.

Cabela's joined the New York Stock exchange in 2004. The company raised $156.3million the first day.

No man in Sidney's 147-year history affected Sidney more than Cabela, and his legacy will live there forever, said City Manager Gary Person.

“We're truly blessed he called Sidney home. He always believed in our community and our future,'' Person said.

“He built and lived the American dream and did it through hard work, believing in his employees and believing in his products.''

Cabela's employs 1,800 people at its Sidney headquarters, flagship retail store and warehouses.

Michael McCarthy of Omaha, Cabela's lead independent director, said Cabela could not have imagined 50 years ago that the company he started would have millions of customers, not to mention a couple of million Facebook friends.

“Like most great enterprises, Cabela's began with the passion of a single person,'' McCarthy said. “Dick always listened to customers and focused on the products people wanted.''

McCarthy said the board and management are committed to sustaining the company that Cabela began.

John Gottschalk of Omaha, a Cabela's board member, said Cabela was a gregarious salesman and an avid hunter and angler, taking international trips and bringing home game trophies.

“But he never lost his down-home common sense and demeanor with people of the plains,'' Gottschalk said.

Cabela grew up in Chappell, helping his parents, A.C. and Marian Cabela, in their furniture store and spending his free time hunting and fishing along nearby Lodgepole Creek.

Gottschalk said the company's character developed along the lines of the Cabela brothers — tough competitors, high-quality goods, intensely helpful to customers, knowledgeable about its products and dedicated to the outdoors.

Cabela received numerous honors for his business accomplishments and his commitment to conservation. He was named to the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame in 2006 and the Nebraska Business Hall of Fame in 1994.

Safari Club International recognized him in 2001 for his efforts to preserve the tradition and heritage of hunting.

Cabela battled illness during the past decade but stayed tuned into the company and never lost his passion for the outdoors.

“He continued to encourage Mary and their kids and grandkids to get outdoors and go hunting,'' McCarthy said.

In addition to his wife, Cabela is survived by nine children, two sisters and three brothers.

Funeral services are scheduled for Friday at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Sidney.

The Cabela's story: Fishing for success

Cabela's, Sidney thrive together

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