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In memoriam: Sport Chalet founder Norbert Olberz dies at 86

Norbert Olberz, the Sport Chalet founder who transformed a single ski shop into a 55-store, publicly traded sporting goods equipment empire, has died at the age of 86.

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Norbert Olberz, founder of the Southern California-based Sport Chalet chain of outdoor, wintersports and fitness retailers died July 15, 2011, at his home in La Cañada Flintridge, Calif., at the age of 86, the company announced.

Olberz founded Sport Chalet in 1959, served as its CEO until 1999 and as its Chairman of the Board until 2001. He transformed the company from a small local business into a publicly traded company that operates 55 stores in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah. 

Trained as a pastry chef, Olberz immigrated from his native Germany to Canada prior to settling, permanently, in the United States. He learned to ski on Oregon’s Mt. Hood and, captivated by the sport, sank his entire life savings — $10,000 — into the 1959 opening of a ski shop in Southern California’s La Cañada Flintridge. Together with his new bride, Irene, he slept on cots in the back of the store and cooked over a single burner propane stove, eventually growing the business from a niche store for winter sport enthusiasts into a leading retailer of sport specialty gear that, over the next decade, came to include scuba, mountain climbing and footwear.

Olberz moved into carrying team sports equipment in 1974, at which point he opened a 30,000-square-foot store across the street from his original location. It was there that he added an indoor “mountain” and ski ramp where customers could hone their skills prior to investing in new equipment. In 1981, Olberz doubled the size of the company by opening a retail location in Huntington Beach, Cailf., and expanding into ocean sports and, by 1992, the company went public, trading on NASDAQ under the symbol “SPCHA,” adding stores and expanding into fitness equipment sales.

Olberz opened and expanded a variety of businesses over the decades including a popular ski area motel, a travel company specializing in adventure activities and manufacturing companies that produced outdoor gear under the brand name Camp 7 and athletic apparel under the brand Pacific Mountain Sports. In 2009, Olberz was inducted into the National Sporting Goods Hall of Fame and, in 2011, was the recipient of the Far West Ski Association’s “Snow Sports Builder Award.”

He is survived by his wife of 52 years, Irene; his sister, Elizabeth Lepper; his son, Eric; and by his grandchildren, Karl and Markus. In his obituary, the company listed Olberz’s five key principles for retail success:

* To See Things Through The Eyes of the Customer

* To Create Ease of Shopping

* To Do A Thousand Things A Little Bit Better

* To Not Be the Biggest, But the Best

* To Be the Image of a Sportsman

In lieu of gifts or flowers, the family requests donations be made in Norbert Olberz’ memory to The Sierra Club Foundation, 85 Second Street, Ste. 750, San Francisco, CA, 94105 or to the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, 4490 Cornishon Avenue, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011. 

Peter Kray