Cabela’s: An American Dream

In 1961 Dick Cabela, with his wife, Mary, and his brother, Jim, turned his kitchen table into the foundation of what would become one of the world’s foremost companies for outfitting sportsmen.

Dick and Jim Cabela in the late 1960s, preparing for a shipment of sporting goods at their Sidney, Nebraska, store. For years neither brother drew a salary from their budding business.

 

Editor’s Note: Readers have been very interested in the rumors surrounding Bass Pro Shops’ potential purchase of Cabela’s. Many love the Cabela’s brand, but few know the story of how it came into being. Here are details of the icon’s birth, told by David Cabela himself in this 2004 article from Sporting Classics.

 

 

Deep within the center of the Lower 48, the sparsely populated plains of the Nebraska panhandle became the unlikely starting place for one of the outdoor industry’s greatest success stories. Dick, Mary, and Jim Cabela had no idea that a humble vision would take their hard work and determined perseverance and reward them with the American Dream.

Dick’s simple idea stemmed from a deep love for the outdoors he has always shared with his brother, Jim. His fortitude was forced upon him at an early age. At the height of the polio epidemic, the small farming community of Chappell, Nebraska, was not spared from its crippling grasp.

When the doctors informed Dick’s parents, Marian and A.C., that their son would never walk again, they were unaware of their son’s extraordinary willpower and exceptionally high threshold for pain. Despite his seemingly insurmountable struggles with polio and asthma, the young boy could not be kept away from the meandering streams and open fields of the Nebraska prairie.

Dick eventually went on to defeat the polio, but it wasn’t easy. The several months he spent in the hospital, much of the time trapped in an iron lung, only intensified his desire to get outdoors. Though his little legs were weakened by disease, he would push himself off the ground again and again until he stumbled to his favorite panfish pond with his stick pole and coffee can of worms.

 

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Dick and Jim outside their parents’ home in Chappell, Nebraska.

 

Dick’s legs ultimately became strong and he outgrew his asthma, and the small rolling hills of western Nebraska became giant mountains of outdoor fun for him and Jim. Their countless hours of trekking across these wide open places, shooting the occasional cottontail and reeling in hundreds of of bluegills, laid the foundation for a lifetime devoted to the outdoors, both professionally and personally. Memories of mule deer bounding over the plains would always remind them of the importance of conservation and why they, as consumptive users, must fight to ensure that future generations can enjoy the same opportunities that were passed on to them.

Eventually Dick, Mary, and Jim would turn their infatuation with the outdoors into a company that would become globally known as the World’s Foremost Outfitter. Their journey toward the American Dream did not come to fruition without hardships, and like any great success story, Cabela’s started humbly.

 

As young men, Dick and Jim learned the life of a merchant from their father, A.C., who owned and operated a furniture store in Chappell. A.C. was a hard man, chiseled by the harsh struggles of the Great Depression. He and his wife, Marian, were frugal people who provided their children with fine examples on how to raise a family, while trying to create a successful business. They spent the greater part of their lives believing that if they offered a good-quality product at a fair price and provided excellent customer service, they could expect their patrons to return again and again.

Dick worked for his parents as far back as he can remember. He swept floors, loaded trucks, and eventually worked his way into a management position. One of his duties as a manager was to accompany his father to the Chicago Merchandise Mart and the Navy Pier House Wares Show to purchase products for reselling at Cabela’s Furniture.

It was on one of these fateful business trips in 1961 that Dick would discover a familiar product that would alter the course of his life forever. Hidden in a back corner among hundreds of merchants at the Navy Pier show, Dick happened upon a small booth selling nothing but Japanese fishing supplies. One set of items particularly caught his eye: a gross of hand-tied flies for $2.25. Dick believed he’d struck the fishing merchant’s equivalent of gold.

“I thought I could sell those flies at my father’s furniture store in Chappell,” he remembers. “It turned out there weren’t too many locals in our small town who were interested in purchasing flies from the local furniture store. I’d have to try and sell them on my own.”

After his unsuccessful attempt at retailing the flies he decided to place a classified ad in the Casper Tribune. It read “12 hand-tied flies for $1 — Paid Postage.” Dick received only one order, but he didn’t have it in him to give up — he didn’t know how to quit. Although it was a little more costly to place a classified in one of the outdoor magazines — and he was running out of money — he decided to try a new ad in Field & Stream, Sports Afield, and Outdoor Life. The new ad announced: “Free introductory offer. Five hand-tied flies … 25 cents postage and handling.”

A few orders started coming in, but Dick’s meager profit of 11 cents per purchase certainly didn’t provide much working capital. Still, the response was enough to convince him there was an interest in buying fishing equipment through the mail. Dick and Mary did all the work themselves and kept records of each new customer which they shoved next to their meager inventory in the pantry between the sugar sack and cornflake box.

 

The first Cabela's catalog.
The Cabelas’ first catalog.

 

Eventually they purchased more fishing products, including bamboo poles, a few lures, leaders, and hooks, and began sending flyers to their customers. After only a couple of years the volume of orders became too great for them to handle alone. In exchange for a stake in the company, Jim took over day-to-day operations in 1963. Dick couldn’t afford to quit his job at the furniture store and Mary had her hands full with their first four children. Interestingly, none of them drew a salary from the company until Dick left the store, and they moved the entire operation to Sidney, Nebraska, in 1968.

 

Today you’d be hard-pressed to find an outdoor enthusiast who has never purchased anything from the company. Astonishing, when you consider how it all began. From a community of 2,500 people, where local interest in their product was initially non-existent, Dick, Mary, and Jim Cabela have seen their modest venture grow into an international enterprise.

Four decades after Dick started his implausible journey, Cabela’s sends out over 100 million catalogs to all 50 states and to more than 100 countries worldwide each year. These full-color catalogs have come a long way from Cabela’s first mailing — three mimeographed sheets Dick and Mary sent to those few people who ordered flies. Their master catalogs often boast over 500 pages of rods, reels, clothing, boots, tents, and binoculars — all the gear any outdoor enthusiast could wish for. In 1961 Cabela’s offered one set of flies; it now carries over 800 different flies and a total SKU (stock keeping units) count of more than 235,000 items.

Dick, Mary, and Jim discovered the perfect complement to the catalogs when they opened their first retail store in Sidney, Nebraska. Cabela’s now boasts nine catalog showrooms in seven different states, with three more currently in the works. These showrooms have become more than retail stores — they are destinations, like outdoor mausoleums for outdoorsmen and women everywhere. The products themselves draw customers like flocks of snow geese, but the museum-quality taxidermy displays offer extra incentive. Each store features a Conservation Mountain, a diorama-type exhibit replete with North American big game trophies as well as many smaller animals, all displayed just as you would find them in the wild. The magnificent exhibits conjure up past experiences for customers and the possibilities of future expeditions.

These wildlife dioramas break one of the golden rules of retailing by taking up prime space which could be filled with salable merchandise. Battling bull elk, pronghorn antelope in mid-stride, and brown bear tipping over rocks in search of grubs are part of that extra something that makes a visit to Cabela’s one of the most unique shopping experiences you will ever encounter.

 

The flagship Cabela's store in Sidney, Nebraska.
The flagship Cabela’s store in Sidney, Nebraska.

 

So where does Cabela’s go from here? In the only direction Dick and Jim know how to take it — forward. The company is still a growing entity and one of the fastest expanding areas is the Internet. The proliferation of e-commerce has opened up a whole new window, so to speak, of opportunity. Cabelas.com gives customers the ability to browse through thousands of web pages filled with outdoor clothing and gear, read online articles offering information and tips about your favorite outside activities, or even book a dream vacation to Africa, Alaska, or any other place you wish to go with Outdoor Adventures, Cabela’s travel service.

It’s tough for a business to outgrow the founder’s humble kitchen table dreams, but Dick, Mary, and Jim’s company has done just that — many times. Not that they didn’t have lofty goals. They did and still do. It’s just that they have met and surpassed them each time. At 68, over 40 years after starting his lifelong journey, Dick still understands that in order to reach high goals, you must concentrate on the small ones first.

“I’ve always believed that the key to a long-lived success is to be conservative — to take baby steps,” explains Dick from his home in Sidney, Nebraska. “Eventually your baby steps will grow larger, but if you try to jump hurdles before you can walk, you’re going to fall on your face. Many companies don’t survive because they try to take out more than they put back in.

“Jim, Mary, and I never knew how far we could take our company,” he adds. “We’ve always loved hunting and fishing. We took that passion, combined it with a lot of hard work, and turned it into a company known all over the world. I would be lying if I said we always did everything right, but we managed to make a few good decisions, like hiring great people and making a commitment to customer service. It’s been a fun ride, and I like to think there are a few more baby steps worth taking.”

To say Cabela’s has come a long way is an understatement. To say Cabela’s has reached its peak is a huge miscalculation. From a simple classified ad in the back of a Wyoming newspaper to an annual mailing of more than 100 million catalogs and ten retail superstores, Dick, Mary, and Jim have turned a humble idea into a legend. They are living proof that the American Dream is a reality.

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Cabela’s: An American Dream

  1. I am a long term Cabela’s customer and am happy to say we have an Outpost in my home town…earlier today, I drove thru Sidney and enjoyed the view of its corporate HQ from I80. Hope there is no truth to the merger with Bass Pro unless the goal is to convert the Bass Pro outlets to Cabela’s…

  2. I too have been a long time customer of Cabela’s. It is my experience and opinion, that this is one of the very finest companies anywhere. I am saddened that with the new internet age, they have become less profitable with others like Amazon taking customers because of lower pricing by volume. Cabela’s has the very best customer service, they are totally customer oriented with the highest quality items. There is simply no other company I know of that compares. I will often spend a bit more at Cabela’s vs others because of what I know is an honest and honorable business. If there is one company I would alway recommend to anyone, my mother, my brother, my best friend it would be Cabela’s. Bass Pro shops are good but Cabela’s is the best there is.

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