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March 14, 2019

From the Counter: Bear Mountain Sports

By Peter B. Mathiesen

“From the Counter” is the NSSF timely industry perspectives from firearms retailers across the country. Our goal is to identify and highlight innovative market strategies helping retailers compete more successfully. Lessons learned will be drawn from an array of regions with diverse market economies in an era of political change. This month, we visit with an independent retailer in central California. In this story, we’ll learn how the death of a spouse can send shockwaves through a business, and how a transitional plan can help it survive.

Bear Mountain Sports, Bakersfield, California

Located just south of the 58 Freeway interchange on Weedpatch Highway 184, this open, warehouse-style building encompasses nearly 8,000 square feet. The space is split evenly between retail, administration and warehousing. The company keeps four employees busy with a variety of specialty soft goods and camping and fishing supplies, while stocking about 300 firearms.

The San Fernando Valley retailer services a range of customers from the local, rural populace, Los Angeles County and guests that stay and hunt at the nearby Tejon Ranch. The store is open seven days a week and most holidays except Christmas and New Year’s.

Morphing from Crop Dust Mechanic to Selling Firearms

Thirty years ago, Gene Thome was working as an engine mechanic for a San Fernando Valley crop-dusting company. With a newly acquired FFL license, he asked his boss if he could sell firearms at work. Gene was in the gun business.

After the crop-dusting company was sold in 2004, Thome found himself looking for retail real estate, and an opportunity to move into a large building presented itself. Landing on the southeast side of Bakersfield, he soon established a reputable sporting goods and firearms business.

As the store grew, Thome’s responsibilities increased. He operated lean, with just four other employees. Gene’s wife, Cynthia, held a full-time position in a local government office but worked at the store in the evenings and on Saturdays.

A Paradigm Shift

As Gene moved into his late 50s, he was diagnosed with cancer. This life-changing event forced the couple to evaluate their circumstances and the role the store would play, as Gene’s illness moved at a rapid pace. Although the couple thought they were looking at years before big changes would be needed, it became days. Admitted into the hospital with a breathing issue, Gene passed away a few hours after he was told he would be released.

“I almost left the hospital to run a few errands. I’m so thankful I didn’t,” said Cynthia Thome. Gene passed on a Sunday, but despite the sudden loss, she knew there would be issues at the store on the following Monday.

“In California, we have strict laws. Customers must be notified about firearms deliveries along with a host of buyer paperwork. The next morning, I was in the store making calls and filing paperwork,” she said.

Cynthia was fortunate that a small amount of that store’s immediate administrative paperwork had been filed — and most importantly, she had been added to the FFL license when it had been renewed the previous year. The State of California certification to sell ammunition had been secured as well.

“It’s a sea of permits and paperwork here in California. I wasn’t even sure how or who to contact at the state level to inform them that Gene had passed away,” she said.

Bear Mountain Sports

Easing the Operational Transition

Cynthia’s knowledge of the store’s operations saved her from being completely overwhelmed. And, in the end, the state was helpful, in no small part due to the strong relationships she and her husband had already established with those state agents.

It was a lesson in how important a personal relationship with bureaucratic regulators can be, especially in state as difficult to work with as California. Still, while a few aspects of the business had a transition plan in place, there were many gaps.

“Access Denied”

One of those gaps was a password impasse.

“I had passwords for most of our online activities, but it just so happened that Gene had changed several passwords the week before he died,” said Cynthia. “This was problematic. One of the changed passwords was for the PGE electric bill. That entire system was online, and PGE would not let me pay the bill. It took three weeks as well as hours on the phone just to get them to accept a payment,” she said.

Fresh Eyes Lead to Change

As the store gained some normality as the weeks and months after Gene’s death passed and Thome began to assume more responsibilities, including buying for the store, she slowly came to the conclusion the inventory needed updating.

“It’s not that Gene didn’t do a great job of buying. He did. But, he wasn’t up on some trends. Frankly, he bought what he loved, and that process worked great for him. But, without the same knowledge and passion, I felt the store needed to move in a different direction,” she said.

Today, the store’s focus leans more toward women and family shooting. Bear Mountain Sports works to support family events, and it now has its doors open on Sundays, a day on which it previously stayed closed, to capture weekend ammo sales and family shoots.

Lesson Learned

While there’s no prescribed handbook that dictates what to do when a proprietor passes away, any small business owner in our industry should have some sort of contingency plan in place in the event the unexpected and tragic event arises:

  • Draft a Formal Transition Plan to Ensure Survival — Establishing a transition plan is key to a store’s survival. Cynthia had been instrumental in putting many of the store’s processes in place before Gene’s sudden passing. After working in the office, at the counter and on the sales floor, she was familiar with many aspects of effective store management. But though this gave her a well-deserved head start, a formalized transition plan would have greatly eased the road she faced. Today, Bear Mountain Sports is thriving, and Cynthia continues to work in local government. She mentioned that if she hadn’t been reasonably familiar with the business, the store would not have survived.
  • Share Responsibilities Through Employee Cross-Training — Make cross-training a priority. Spread responsibility across managers and counter salespeople to provide a clear understanding on administrative tasks, and so that everybody has an understanding of how various store processes are carried out.The one exception to this is with your store’s payables and banking duties. While not everyone should have access to the payables, there should always be at least two people who can sign checks and pay bills.
  • Access to Federal and State Permits — FFLs, most federal forms and state permits typically have a space to add an additional person, and if you’re a sole proprietor who is planning to hand over the reins of your enterprise to someone else at your passing, you’ll want to have that person on all those forms beforehand. Make sure, too, that there’s a plan in place to access this information, including all stored ATF records, tax information and, yes, passwords.
  • Adopt a Software Package to Automate Passwords — Passwords and account name changes are a priority when a business undergoes a transition in leadership such as Bear Mountain did. Too, passwords for some sites require frequent changes to support embedded security. Many companies now use software to automatically track password changes. Consider adopting an automation package that requires one master password and have a plan in place to have that master password accessible to your business successor.
  • Leading in a Time of Change — In a dynamic retail environment, change happens. If or when the store’s founder departs, someone must step up to carry the mantle. At Bear Mountain Sports, Cynthia saw the store she’d shared with her husband with fresh eyes after his passing, and that led to inventory changes and a shift in the store’s focus to women and family shooting, changes that set a strong, strategic direction to ensure the store will survive and thrive.

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