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After sale to Uncle Dan's, Rock/Creek Outfitters enters a new era

In light of the Uncle Dan's acquisition, the company's leaders have started planning to grow the Tennessee retailer in the southeast.

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This location of Rock/Creek Outfitters is one of seven storefronts that was recently purchased by Uncle Dan's.
Rock/Creek Outfitters has seven brick-and-mortar locations and a robust online business. It was recently purchased by Uncle Dan’s, a subsidiary of Camping World.Rock Creek Outfitters

If you were a regular customer at Rock/Creek Outfitters long enough, the owners, managers, and sales floor staff greeted you by name when you walked through the doors and also came to know your outdoor activities. Shopping there was not merely a transaction; it was a gathering of friends in pursuit of a shared passion.

“You could walk into Rock/Creek, and the manager would ask you about your recent trip to Glacier. It was like the show Cheers,” said longtime customer David Barto.

Some say that culture—cultivated by founders Dawson Wheeler and Marvin Webb—still exists today. Others disagree because in less than two years, the growing business has switched hands twice.

Last year, Wheeler and Webb sold to two of their employees, Chad Wykle and Jonathan Scott, but remained instrumental in the company’s strategic leadership team.

And just two weeks ago, Wykle and Scott sold the business to Uncle Dan’s Outfitters, one of the newest subsidiaries under Camping World Holdings.

“I’ve always believed that outdoor specialty needs to be dynamic and willing to make quick moves,” Wykle said. “I think this move that we’re making with this platform is a good thing for all of specialty and it will hopefully increase our financial stability as a company.”

Wykle promises that having to report to the corporation’s stockholders won’t change a thing. He said Rock/Creek will retain the same down-to-earth culture and quality customer service.

Even under new ownership, Wykle and Scott are sticking around. Instead of owners, Scott will spearhead the Rock/Creek brand while Wykle will be vendor relations for the entire platform.

“I don’t know any other way to behave,” Wykle said. “I’ve spent my entire adult life working in this role in this brand. This is who we are, this is how we behave. We’re not going to have to change ourselves to perform.”

Chad Wykle, right, and Jonathan Scott, in light blue, bought Rock/Creek in 2017. Pictured above, they’re accepting the 2016 Most Innovative Retailer Award from Grassroots Outdoor Alliance.Courtesy

‘Champion of independent specialty retail’

Rock/Creek is arguable the lifeblood of Chattanooga’s outdoor scene and has set the bar high for other specialty retailers. It was awarded Grassroots Outdoor Alliance’s Retailer of the Year Award in 2011, 2013, and 2014, and in 2016, received Most Innovative Retailer Award. Grassroots is a consortium of nearly 70 independent specialty outdoor retailers.

“They earned all of those,” said Rich Hill, Grassroots president. “They kind of out-punched their weight class for a long time. They’re masters at it and you know why it works? It’s real and it’s authentic. They are phenomenal ambassadors for their community. They set the standard for what it means to be a local retailer.”

Uncle Dan’s wants to be part of that DNA too, Wykle said.

While Rock/Creek is certainly special, it’s not the only retailer Camping World Holdings has had its eye on. The corporation has been scooping up outdoor companies big and small, from Gander Outdoors to Good Sam, from Uncle Dan’s to Erehwon Mountain Outfitter.

SNEWS reached out to Marcus Lemonis, chairman and CEO of Camping World, but did not hear back.

“Uncle Dan’s, Erehwon, and Rock/Creek are wholly aligned both in terms of culture and strategic objectives,” said Colin Moynihan, the general manager of Uncle Dan’s and Erehwon.

“By bringing our like-minded businesses together, we’ll find efficiencies in merchandising and back-end infrastructure, so we can focus more fully on serving our existing customers and reaching new markets. Ultimately, this transaction will help us successfully compete with corporate America’s major industry players, while maintaining our small-business values and family feel.”

Hill, in a letter to vendors and obtained by SNEWS, said, “We are truly happy for our friends and business associates at Rock/Creek, as they were a strong voice during the early days of the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, and have been a longstanding champion of independent specialty retail in the outdoor industry. We’re all thankful for their dedication and hard work over the last two decades.”

However, in light of the new ownership (NASDAQ: CWH $25.72), Grassroots in the same letter dismissed Rock/Creek as a member.

“Since the news broke last week, the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance board has reviewed our bylaws, mission, and vision statements, specifically regarding the impacts of a change of ownership from private to public on membership status,” wrote Hill. “As Rock/Creek is now part of a publicly-traded company, our bylaws are clear and no longer consider them in alignment with the mission of Grassroots. As such, they will no longer operate as a retail member of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance.”

Hill told SNEWS that as painful as it was to dismiss Rock/Creek, having a large, multi-branded, and publicly-traded company join the group would be disruptive and deviate from the group’s focus on independent retailers. He also said the door is always open for conversation.    

In response, Wykle was understanding.

“We’re incredibly thankful for the partners and long-standing friendships that we’ve developed over the last 30 years inside the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance,” he told SNEWS. “It’s a fantastic organization and we’re proud of all that time that we spent there. We were a founding member of GOA. It’s part of us, and our ‘fabric’ is woven into it.”

Customers: ‘The only group that matters.’ Will it work?

As with any major changes, the public and industry response was mixed.

Barto, a Chattanooga resident, said he did not welcome the news of the new ownership. He said as Rock/Creek has grown, expanding into ecommerce and adding new stores (currently there are seven storefronts), he’s felt the culture shift from family-oriented to corporate.

“The old employees, the guys who knew me and really wanted to hear about my trips…that went away a few years ago,” Barto said. “When you go to a smaller outfitter, you typically get more personal service…the experience is typically better, and if the experience isn’t there, if all you are doing is buying something, then why not just buy it online? Typically, the larger the store, the larger the corporate hierarchy, the worse the shopping experience.”

Fans of the change include Eric Backous, who has worked in the outdoor industry for 15 years, shops online from Rock/Creek, and during a trip to Tennessee, visited the store for local recommendations. It didn’t have a corporate vibe then and he doesn’t believe it will now under Uncle Dan’s or Camping World.

“I’m a fan of Marcus Lemonis and Camping World and how he’s built his brand,” Backous said. “He seems to just really appreciate the strong independent businesses. To me it’s really cool to see someone get behind that. I really like that somebody is acquiring brick and mortar to build more of an online presence and provide those retailers infrastructure and resources to let them stick around.”

As an owner of a specialty retail store, Mike Massey, founder of Locally and owner of Massey’s Outfitters, a Grassroot’s member, said he sees both sides and believes that Wheeler, Webb, Scott, and Wykle will still define specialty outdoor retail.

“I think specialty shops should be looking for allies like Camping World, REI, Dick’s, or any other entity that wants to inject capital and expertise into brick-and-mortar outdoor retail,” Massey said.

He said if shoppers continue to see Rock/Creek as a great experience, all specialty will be buoyed in importance to those shoppers, mutual specialty brands, and rep teams. But if it doesn’t maintain its compelling story, it will diminish the trust of the stakeholders.

“I’m on the side of Rock Creek and specialty, craft retail,” Massey said. “They are the same thing to the only group that matters—the shopper.”

And in fact, Wykle said he has the shoppers at the forefront of his mind along with his employees, in order to keep Rock/Creek the town center of Chattanooga.

Last week, he visited Uncle Dan’s headquarters in Chicago to meet the new team and focus on the store’s future. He said the corporation’s financial resources will allow the team to pay their staff more, grow the store’s brick-and-mortar presence is the southeast, and host more events for customers.

Wykle said he returned to Chattanooga feeling at ease and excited to begin the new era of Rock/Creek.

“While our industry has been challenged in the past five years, 2017 was another growth year for Rock/Creek,” Wykle said. “Partnering with Uncle Dan’s will give us the horsepower to build upon our continuing success and to expand our regional and online presence, while delivering the same level of quality — from the same passionate team — to every customer we serve.”