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Moving Mountains at Cabela's
Business Journal

Moving Mountains at Cabela's

How connecting employees with the mission of this $1.56 billion hunting, fishing, and camping company got them through the challenges of a massive grand opening

by Rodd Wagner

Where would they get the walleye?

The guy who was supposed to supply that species for the aquarium of the soon-to-open Cabela's store hadn't come through. So the store manager dispatched a couple of employees in a special truck to retrieve some fish.

That would have worked fine, "but somehow they turned up the oxygen too high in the tank and over-bubbled the fish," says Store Manager Mike Boldrick. "By the time they got here, we only had one little lethargic walleye."

If that weren't enough, the bass had to be popped. They had been fished from too great a depth, and their air bladders had expanded, so the extra air had to be vented to save them.

Still, all that was simple enough, if fish were the only problem. But how could they get the airplane up the stairs? Where could they put all the merchandise from the grand opening tent that couldn't be set up because of the cement that wasn't poured because of the record rainfall?

And how could the managers stay awake in their 5:00 p.m. meetings when they were exhausted from 100-hour work weeks? Where were the three dozen radios to give to the spotters the fire marshal said were now required because the water tower was drained due to a broken water main?

And would it be okay if the President of the United States stopped in -- say, in 20 minutes?

PHOTO: It's a jungle in there

On August 12, 2004, Cabela's opened a 175,000-square-foot showcase store in Wheeling, West Virginia. Dignitaries, customers, and employees -- so many that the state patrol had to shut down the new highway exit -- gathered to see the unveiling of a large statue in front of the store depicting a mother bear with cubs fighting off two eagles. Little did they know the challenges that Boldrick and his team of hundreds fought off behind the scenes to get to that day.

By marshaling a force of men and women who were committed to the mission of their new employer, Boldrick and his team of managers surmounted a staggering number of challenges to set a company record for the speedy launch of a new store. In doing so, they also created incredibly high levels of employee engagement under circumstances when morale might have collapsed.

Engaging employees under incredible stress

Wheeling is the 10 th "destination store" for Cabela's, a nationally known catalog merchant of outdoor equipment, which is now rapidly expanding its physical retail presence. Four more stores are scheduled to open their doors in Texas, Utah, and Minnesota in the next year.

In 1961, Dick and Mary Cabela launched Cabela's as a kitchen-table business selling a package of fishing flies advertised in Sports Afield magazine. Cabela's is now a $1.5 billion firm that recently went public in hopes of out-distancing competitors such as Bass Pro Shops, Gander Mountain, and Dick's Sporting Goods.

A lot of hopes ride on each new store. Prior to its opening, the Wheeling store and its projected performance frequently came up in company discussions with Wall Street analysts. Boldrick and his management team were under no small amount of pressure as they prepared for opening day.

A 15-year retail veteran, Boldrick had only been with Cabela's about two years when he was offered the chance to establish the Wheeling store. He impressed the managers he recruited as energetic, but calm under pressure. "This guy is genuine; he's down to earth. He believes in this, and that's what helps him sell it to everybody," says Loss Prevention Manager Michael Rock.

Boldrick warned prospective managers about the trials ahead and turned away a few who seemed intimidated. "You're going to be working 12- and 15-hour days -- you're going to work harder than you've ever worked," he told them. "But you're going to have more fun and see more accomplishment in a shorter period of time than you ever have."

"We kind of vetted people through that interview process," says Boldrick. "If people looked at me funny, then I knew that this person might not be up for the challenge."

While the building was going up, Boldrick and his managers worked from trailers on the construction site and a nearby hotel, interviewing people for 400 front-line positions. For those who would be on the sales floor itself, outdoor experience was more important than retail experience.

"You give me somebody who's dedicated and has a love and a passion for the outdoors, and I can teach him what he needs to know about retail," says Troy Gatti, receiving manager, during the grand opening period. For many of the applicants, their hobbies had never been so useful to their careers. "What do you like to do on your weekends?" they were asked. "Where do you like to fish?" "What kind of shotgun do you like?" Applicants were sorted by their area of outdoor interest, and the best were hired in each until the departments were full.

QUOTE: Would it be okay if the President of the United States stopped in -- say, in 20 minutes?

Then came the hard part.

Quick assembly

On July 8, it was time for the Cabela's team to begin turning the new building into a store. But the building wasn't finished. "All that was done was fishing, and then camping and gifts," says Boldrick. "The rest of the store was still uncarpeted. We had giant lifts in here. They were putting tile in. They didn't have the register pods in up front. There were still about 500 or 600 pallets of construction material in the building."

That was Monday. The merchandise was going to start arriving on Wednesday. "The builders weren't done, so we had to work around them," says Clothing Manager Susan Sacks.

As the merchandise was loaded on trucks bound for Wheeling, the fixtures to hold those products lay unassembled. The first test of the new team was whether they could assemble them in 48 hours. "The vendor that provides the fixtures came in and said, 'Can you give me eight people?' We brought everybody in," recounts Boldrick. "Instead of taking two days, we got everything built, not just the fixtures for the sections that were being turned over to us. We generated a ton of excitement because it was our first time in the building, and our employees looked like a NASCAR pit crew."

Only those who have been in a Cabela's store can fully appreciate what happened next. As trucks arrived with fishing lures, fly rods, and bait buckets, so did the first of a veritable Noah's ark of taxidermy animals -- deer, mountain goats, bears, lions, zebra, water buffalo, and dozens of other species.

"We would have thousands of fishing rods coming in one door and full mounts of lions and rhinos in the other door, so it was quite a sight," says Gatti. "Everything in the building came through the back doors in receiving. Even the elephant came in three parts through the back end."

Space was at a premium. Thirty truck trailers were parked on the site as they struggled to move into the not-quite-finished building.

"The meetings kept us whole"

Early in the process, Boldrick established a schedule of all-employee meetings every day at 7:00 a.m., noon, and 5:00 p.m. Part news broadcast, part pep rally -- and a chance to introduce associates to one another -- the meetings brought order to the chaos. "There was a lot of confusion," says Vern Kidwell, a product specialist in the hunting department. "The meetings kept us whole and kept us going."

As work to set up the store spread from one department to another, the meetings also grew. In the early meetings, Boldrick simply shouted to the group. Then he progressed to using a bullhorn. Finally, managers moved up the stairs so they could address several hundred people at once. "Sometimes there'd be 500 or 600 people in the building, and it was working! The meetings were absolutely fantastic," says Gatti. Once the electrical work was finished, Boldrick used the store's intercom system.

Boldrick and his managers used "show and tell" to familiarize the staff with each other and the merchandise. Employees were encouraged to stand on a ladder during the meetings, introduce themselves, display a product, and talk about what other items would be sold with it.

In one of those meetings, Boldrick sparked a little competition among the departments by asking which department would be ready first for the grand opening. "Who's going to be first?" he yelled from the mezzanine.

"We will!" proclaimed Travis Glover, the assistant sales manager in the firearms department.

"Did you hear that?" said Boldrick. "Travis says he will wear a dress and do shopping carts the first day if you beat him." Although Travis' department lost, he wasn't held to the statement, though, "because he didn't say that; I said it," says Boldrick.

Trying to keep up

Although the store was progressing quickly, not everything was going according to plan. "We must have had 90% of the electricians in Ohio County working on the building," says Boldrick, but the wiring and lights were not finished. Large lifts for installing track lighting had to be moved through the departments, so the merchandise had to be moved. "We were handling some of the merchandise two or three times," he says, doubling and tripling what was planned.

Meanwhile, the merchandise kept arriving. Before the fishing department was fully in place, hunting products were being unloaded. Employees were doing all they could to keep up. "When you had your two days off and came back, you wouldn't believe how much the store had changed. Mountains were moved," says Kidwell.

As other departments fell into place, the clothing areas still had a long way to go. "We didn't have carpet," says Sacks. "Our kiosks weren't set up. We were the last ones to get our product -- thank God -- but we were also the last ones to get done. We had no electricity in our department. It was frustrating for us because we wanted to get our employees used to the computer system, and we couldn't get anything up and running."

Shane Etzwiler was senior merchandising manager over apparel. He recalls they were about halfway through the four-and-a-half weeks of store preparation when the clothing began arriving. Had there been more time, the camouflage clothing, pants, ski jackets, and other articles would have arrived at a measured pace, with time to take inventory of what had arrived and what additional items were needed.

"Instead, they just bombarded us with it all at once," says Etzwiler. "How do you get through two hundred black collapsible containers of [unsorted] merchandise, and then the next day get through another hundred, and the next day another hundred, and the next day another hundred?" It was too much. "Eventually we had 250 black collapsibles of clothing merchandise in the back room. It was like, holy smokes!"

Etzwiler needed to travel to Owatonna, Minnesota, to close the sale of his home there. He left instructions about how to plow through it all but returned to find little progress and now even less time. "I'm thinking, we are in deep doo-doo here," says Etzwiler. "So basically, I just pulled the team together and said, 'This is the game plan; this is what we're doing going forward.'" Only by concerted teamwork and a two-stage process of sorting the merchandise did they get back on schedule.

Customer in Chief

As they moved into the home stretch, the pace was wearing down the managers. Boldrick was getting six hours or less of sleep each night. Many of the managers were working 100 hours a week. Etzwiler and Boldrick decided to ease off a bit. "I told Mike, 'We're killing the managers. Let's change it; let's do some things," says Etzwiler. "In the 5:00 meeting, you'd see some of them starting to drift off," Boldrick recalls. "I went to my senior managers and said, 'Schedule everybody a half day off, and I want to try to give everybody a full day off before we open.'"

Boldrick himself decided to head home at 1:00 p.m. on a Saturday for some badly needed sleep. An hour later, he was dozing off when he got a call from the store's marketing manager. "I'm sorry to wake you up, but I just got a call from the head of the advance team for the White House. He's stopping by, and he said maybe the President wants to visit sometime later."

QUOTE: Give me somebody who has a passion for the outdoors, and I can teach him about retail.

"I better come in," said Boldrick.

"We can handle it."

"No, I'll come in."

Boldrick got onto the interstate to find it filled with traffic. Police were closing the exits, forcing cars to drive past the exit to Cabela's. On arriving at the store, Boldrick was greeted by four Secret Service agents and the "advance" man. "Mr. Boldrick, the President of the United States wants to come visit your store," said the White House official. "Would that be all right with you?"

"Well, absolutely," said Boldrick. "When?"

"In about 20 minutes."

Because of all the work to prepare the store for its opening, there were about 100 pallets of construction material near the front door, right where the President would enter. "You never saw people move a hundred pallets faster in your life," says Boldrick.

Passing through between campaign stops, President Bush arrived even sooner than expected. "Sure enough, his buses pull up, and he came walking out and met me at the door," Boldrick says. "We shook hands, and he went through the crowd, shook hands, and signed autographs. He was here about twenty minutes."

"We're at war, and they're asking him questions about things," says Rock. "Just to witness and take in the whole entire thing -- it was an awesome spectacle to behold," says Rock.

A strong sense of mission

Presidential visit or not, the store still had to meet its opening date. "The press releases were out. Everything was out. That was the date we had to live by," says Boldrick. But events beyond their control were conspiring to make it tough. Record rains meant they didn't have a parking lot or cement walks in front of the store until very near the end. The electricians were behind. Inventory scanners weren't working. The town drained the water out of the water tower, so the building did not have the water it needed if there should be a fire. The 680 pieces of taxidermy had to be secured in place.

Through sheer hard work -- and teamwork -- the Wheeling employees pulled if off. One of the key drivers turned out to be the engagement of the employees. "It wouldn't have mattered if the building had fallen down on us. We would have propped up a corner and started selling because of how well they treated us," says Kidwell.

Indeed, when Gallup used its 12-item employee engagement metric (the Q 12) to measure the engagement level of the Wheeling team during the grand opening period, the new Cabela's employees reported a strong connection to the mission of the organization. More than 60% strongly agreed that the "mission or purpose of Cabela's makes me feel my job is important." Fewer than 10% of workgroups in Gallup's database have such a strong connection to the mission of their company. Those who work at the Wheeling store say that their mission and drive come from hiring people who love the outdoors, then managing them to bring out their best.

The Wheeling team members say that they pushed so hard to make the opening date because they were eager to work in a store that matches their enthusiasm for outdoor recreation. "It's not just a job to them," says Rock. "It's something that they like to do outside of work, so work is like a playground to them."

Photos of outdoor adventures adorn nearly every office and cubicle in the staff offices at the store. Ask almost anyone why they like working there, and they wax poetic about family memories of outdoor activities. "It's a bond," says Sacks. "My grandfather was always the most important person to me. That's what we did -- we fished together. Every Sunday, we'd go up to the lake together. If you enjoy what your family enjoys doing, you're going to spend a lot more time together. That's what I get out of the outdoors."

You don't have to prod Tabatha Klug much to get her to talk to about her hunting experiences. "I shot my first doe when I was seven," she says proudly. One day, she showed off a beautiful mounted turkey to a coworker, the 681 st piece of taxidermy in the store. She not only shot it, but she did the preserving and mounting.

Klug seems to take particular pleasure in surprising male customers who don't anticipate that she has, for example, shot a moose in Alaska or landed the longest gar in West Virginia. Men sometimes challenge her. "What do you know about camo? You're a girl," they say. "What actually are you looking for?" she replies. "I'm sure I can help you."

After she gives them some expert advice, their impression begins to change. "They ask me how I know so much about the camo," says Klug. "Well, I hunt, I fish, and I'm a licensed taxidermist." In a few cases, they ask her out. "They actually want to take me home. They ask me if I'm married." She is, she hastens to mention.

A shared passion about their outdoors lifestyle and their new employer kept the Wheeling team moving through hundreds of difficulties. "When you've got engaged employees, they're trying to drive [the business] for you, and there's a lot less coaching and time out on the floor training," says Etzwiler. "They've got the buy-in that Cabela's is a great place to work."

The Wheeling team met its deadlines. The store opened as planned. "We had a certain sales number we wanted to hit that very first day of our grand opening, and we just crushed it," says Etzwiler, who has since been promoted to store manager. "It was like, 'Yeah, we're flying here now!'"

Dead fish. Sleep deprivation. A lack of running scanners, computers, and water. An unassembled elephant. All these bring fond memories to Boldrick, who, since the store's opening, was promoted to the company's second regional manager.

"It was fun," he says. "I never doubted we'd do it. It was the most fun I've had in a job. I'd do it all over again."

This Store Manager's Top Talents

"I am not a big fan of working toward changing things I am not good at doing," says Mike Boldrick, the manager of the Cabela's store in Wheeling, West Virginia. "If I have not demonstrated an aptitude for something by this point in my life, it is not going to happen."

Every manager is unique. Each successful manager takes a slightly different path to help his or her team accomplish its goals. Through decades of studying high performance, Gallup has identified 34 talent themes that are most likely to drive a person to succeed. Below are Boldrick's Signature Themes -- his top five -- as measured by the Clifton StrengthsFinder talent assessment tool.

Maximizer: Those who are particularly talented in this theme are driven to take something good and make it great; they prefer this to taking something badly broken and making it simply serviceable. Maximizers often measure the distance between where they are and their ultimate vision for the project. "My desire to be the best is what drives me to work harder and harder," says Boldrick. He finds he often shares his vision for the final result with his colleagues in hopes of similarly inspiring them.

Strategic: Managers who are especially talented in this theme are able to evaluate several possible courses of action, foresee the consequences of each, and choose the best alternative. "While I am not the most organized person in the world all of the time, I tend to think of consequences when doing something," says Boldrick. "My desire to please and succeed forces me to look at the 'What if?' when confronted with a situation. I often find myself thinking, 'How will this affect the situation? Will it solve the problem?'"

Input: Input talents often lead people to gather information from disparate sources, synthesize it, and apply it to the challenge before them. Boldrick gathers information from among the hundreds of employees in the store to better understand how well things are going. He says, "My management philosophy is that although I am a driver and have strong opinions about things, I also value input from the people who have earned my trust." Boldrick reads a lot, which is a sign of Input talents. "I like facts rather than fiction, and I read voraciously," he says.

Context: Managers talented in Context use the past as a guide to the future. They refer to the original plans or past experiences to help them measure current challenges. "I use Context to think about how a situation compares to something that I have experienced in my past," says Boldrick. "I have been in the retail business for quite a while and have worked in some difficult situations, so I draw on these experiences to help me in challenging situations." While Boldrick's Input talents lead him to read for more information, Context directs that reading toward history. "The only books that I will read are nonfiction, usually history. It fascinates me to see that people have not really changed over time -- and that many things that worked years ago still work today," he says.

Ideation: Ideation talents impel people to find new approaches and new ways of doing things. Novelty and ingenuity are psychological payoffs for these people. Each Cabela's store has a unique floor plan, and -- because Cabela's management is open to trying new approaches -- opening a new store was a good fit with Boldrick's Ideation talents. "I got tired of big-box retailers that don't give employees any freedom of expression," he says. "[Cabela's] is still a small enough company that I have an impact on merchandising decisions. I like to be able to try different things."

Rodd Wagner is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller 12: The Elements of Great Managing. He is coauthor of Power of 2: How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and in Life.

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