Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Owning a retail shop requires more than enough energy for the 40-hour workweek.
Imagine running ten.
For 13 years, Jennifer Mull has been the CEO of Backwoods, an ecosystem of outdoor retail fronts that include close to a dozen brick-and-mortar businesses throughout the West and Midwest. Mull bought Backwoods’ eight locations in 2005, after being CEO for two years, and has since opened and closed five storefronts. The roundup now includes three stores in Oklahoma, two in Texas, standalones in Kansas, Nebraska and Arkansas—all titled Backwoods—as well as Neptune Mountaineering in Colorado and Dynamic Earth in Missouri.
Her initial introduction with the business goes back to family roots. Mull’s father started the company in 1973, but it wasn’t until 2002—when he got re-involved with the company after two decades—that he hired Mull as a consultant to direct the business strategy. She had worked with Mutual of Omaha Insurance Company followed by Community Health Vision, where she managed health care operations.
There absolutely have been obstacles that have arrived along the way, Mull said, pointing to a rollercoaster economy, fluctuating consumer buying habits and the “dot-com” era of online shopping. In 2007, Mull ushered in e-commerce sales, which have been a huge learning experience.
“Thinking that you can open the online store and that [consumers] will just buy product, is not accurate,” said Mull. “You’re not advertising on a radio or magazine. It’s a lot different than marketing your brick and mortar store. You have to optimize for search engines, manage the technologies and it’s technology-related rather than person-to-person.”
Not to mention, operating shops in disparate geographic locations is a continuous challenge. Each state hosts its own weather patterns, so the merchandise—which generally includes technical gear, outdoor apparel and footwear—is diverse as are the sales. To keep her finger on the pulse, Mull looks beyond the spreadsheets. She visits each location twice per year. Regional managers frequent the local stores, too, and a manager meeting is held once annually.
“At the end of the day, seeing what’s happening out in the field gives a better perception of what’s going on out there. Seeing what the floor merchandising looks like, talking to consumers that walk in the door, and engaging with the staff in their world (rather than in our world, at our corporate office) is all really important,” she said.
Beyond her business role, Mull’s passion for trekking has taken her to the top of Kilimanjaro’s 19,341-foot summit and Everest Base Camp. She’s a part-time travel guide and has traipsed Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia. But Mull’s biggest driving force is her innate desire to give back to her communities.
“I feel like it’s important to give of yourself when you’ve been given opportunities and when others haven’t been given opportunities,” Mull said. “Some people say that [certain] problems are so overwhelming, and the one thing they can do is so little—but you don’t know what the ripple affect will be, or the impact that the person affected will have on other people. To the degree that we can give back, it is very impactful to pay it forward. Who knows what positive impact you have downstream?”
Mull started getting involved with various non-profit and for-profit organizations as a college student and has since volunteered with The American Heart Association and Leukemia and Lymphoma Association. She’s on the board for the Outdoor Industry Association. And this year, she’s the chairman of the board for Explore Austin, which provides a mentorship-and-adventure program for underserved youth in four KIPP Austin public schools, as well as Austin Achieve Public School and Wayside Public School.
Mull has some serious energy.
According to Explore Austin’s most recent annual IRS report, the organization provided more than 55,350 hours of mentoring to 225 underserved youth last year, which totals 243,000 hours of mentoring 285 youth in the past 10 years.
Five mentors are paired with each selected 6th grade class, and they help those students develop skills, tools and habits for effective leadership until they graduate high school six years later. The kids’ adventure outings are monthly and include an annual weeklong summer trip in Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado or Wyoming to camp, hike, rock climb, canoe, mountain bike or mountaineer. Then, the six-year program culminates in a weeklong adventure to climb a Wyoming fourteener.
“There are a lot of leadership skills that are really focused on with these kids, and working together with a team, so it’s character building as well as outdoors skill building,” Mull said. “You can really see these kids’ lives transforming.”