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January 2008
Escape The Cubicle
By Janet Kropinak

   For many Charlotte area outdoor enthusiasts, their trip begins when they walk into Jesse Brown’s Outdoors. Whether they are in need of a new backpack, hiking boots or fly fishing rod, they are likely to find what they are seeking and much more, including some savvy advice from the friendly and knowledgeable staff at Jesse Brown’s.

   Opened as backpacking store 37 years ago, Jesse Brown's has morphed into a sportsman’s paradise where novices and experienced mountaineers of all ages come to plan and prepare for their next adventure.


Opportunity and Necessity

   Named after its founder, Jesse Brown’s Outdoors first opened in Greer, South Carolina, in 1970. Brown, an airline pilot and an avid backpacker and mountaineer, saw a need for such a store in this region after visiting similar specialty shops during his travels. The Greer location was only open one year when Brown decided to move to Charlotte.

   In Charlotte, Brown found a robust city with more business opportunity. He remained an active partner in the business until 1980, when his wife Elizabeth took over leadership. During the late ’80s a young man named Bill Bartee worked at the shop under then-owner Joe Hedrick, folding t-shirts and stocking shelves. Although this wasn’t the most exciting work, it did give Bartee an appreciation for what this specialty store was offering its customers as well as a glimpse inside the retail industry.

   Bartee worked his way up the ranks in the company and in 1993, when the opportunity presented itself, made the decision to buy the store. That same year, Jesse Brown’s settled into their third Charlotte location and current home in the Sharon Corners Shopping Center in SouthPark.

   “My decision to buy the store came from both opportunity and necessity. I decided if this is what I was going to do with my life, I wanted to make that kind of commitment,” he recalls. “My dad was also invested in the company, which made it easier for me, since I already had blood in the game.”

   Bartee is quick to admit that he didn’t always see himself in the retail industry: “I didn’t grow up thinking I wanted to be a retailer, but I can honestly say that there isn’t a job I’d rather have than this one. Every day I get to do something different and every day offers new challenges; that is exciting.”

   Another influencing factor in Bartee’s career choice was his passion for the outdoors, evident in his youth growing up on his family’s farm in Clover, S.C. He also credits the Boy Scouts for setting him up with an introduction and foundation into outdoor survival skills.

  As Bartee was taking over leadership of the store, the world of outdoor recreation was also seeing vast changes. Many of the sporting activities that Jesse Brown’s was serving were becoming mainstream: rock climbing and backpacking were no longer seen as extreme sports, so the demand and popularity of them exploded, as did word of Jesse Brown’s Outdoors.

   Being part of the Charlotte marketplace for nearly four decades, Jesse Brown’s has evolved alongside the city. “This is a great place for us because there is a very active group of people of all ages with the willingness and the ability to participate in outdoor recreation,” comments Bartee.


Something for Everyone

   As you enter Jesse Brown’s second story 7,200-square-foot store you are likely to see enthusiasts of all ages planning their next excursion into the wilderness, and Bartee and his staff take this responsibility seriously. “Our goal is to help make their trip as memorable and safe as possible,” he affirms. “Whether they are planning a day hike or the trip of a lifetime, we are happy to be a part of it.”

   In addition to experienced sportsmen, you are also likely to see local businesspeople looking for an escape from their cubicle. “People spend five days a week in an office, and by the end of the week they are ready for a break from that life, and that is where we can help them,” says Bartee. “We can introduce them to equipment and ways to escape.”

   And this assistance need not involve an expensive new fishing rod or fancy apparel, but may merely involve some simple direction on how to live a more active lifestyle.

   “A lot of people are intimidated by the outdoors. They think it means they have to trek into the woods and sleep in a tent, which doesn’t appeal to everyone,” Bartee explains. “Sure, camping isn’t for everyone, but there are few people out there who would say they don’t enjoy going on a walk or watching a sunset—and what they don’t realize is that they too are outdoor enthusiasts.”

   Bartee notes that commitment to the outdoors depends on where a person is in their life, which varies greatly. What makes Jesse Brown’s stand out is that they are able to fit the demands of the novice looking to improve their health and well-being, or the seasoned mountaineer planning to climb Mount Everest.

   Bartee himself has had to adjust to being both a business owner and a father of three young children. “You just have to find out what works for you given where you are and go with it,” he says.

   The diversity of Jesse Brown’s customers is only matched by the wide assortment of equipment available in the store. “We appeal to the young and trendy with stylish and popular brands, as well as a wide variety of environmental friendly products,” says Bartee, “and we do a lot of business with the baby boomers who are still mobile and active and looking to rekindle old passions as well as entertain new interests.”


From Backpacking to Fly Fishing

   In the early ’80s, Jesse Brown’s business expanded yet again, this time to encompass fly fishing, making it one of the earliest retailers in the region to cater to the sport. Bartee acknowledges that it was a potentially risky decision, seeing as this was years before the sport would become mainstream with the help of the movie A River Runs Through It.

   The decision turned out to be a good one for business, and Jesse Brown’s has since become one of the largest fly fishing outfitters in the Carolinas, known as “the place to go” for anglers of all skill levels.

   Though Bartee is quick to admit fly fishing isn’t always the easiest sell. “Fly fishing can be an intimidating sport to a lot of people, but we try hard to take the mystery out of it and make it an attainable goal.” And it would seem they are succeeding in selling the sport as it has become a bookend of the company’s business, alongside hiking equipment and apparel.

   Leading the effort to help customers achieve their goals is long-time employee Don Yager, who founded Angler Services, a fly fishing outfitter that specializes in teaching first-timers the sport.

   “The trips we arrange are made to remove the intimidation through simplified explanations and illustrations,” says Yager. “Fly fishing has a vast appeal to the young and old alike because of its active role with nature. We focus on basic education and creating a solid foundation that participants can build upon to whatever extent the feel compelled in the future.”

   “Don’s trips have really been great for business and promoting the sport of fly fishing,” comments Bartee. “We see young kids wanting to learn as well as a strong resurgence of women and baby boomers who are looking for ways to stay active.”

   “I think the appeal of fly fishing is that it is not limited by physical abilities, age or gender. It is enhanced by imagination and a willingness to be a part of nature,” says Yager.


The Business of Retail

   Having the clientele who are looking to live active lifestyles is an important factor in the success of Jesse Brown’s and Bartee credits the city of Charlotte and its location for helping with this.

   “Part of our success is tied to just being in this city, and having access to all sorts of activities right in our own backyard. Being part of a large and economically strong urban center with access to both the mountains and the ocean has been huge for us,” Bartee comments. Though he quickly notes that being in Charlotte also has its downside.

   “One of the hardest parts of this business is inventory control. Combine that with the unpredictable seasonal changes we experience, and it makes that job even harder.” Bartee explains that the warmer winter we had in 2006 left them with extra winter apparel, while the cooler spring we had in 2007 made the buying more challenging. Bartee admits, “The weather plays a big role in the buying trends of our customers.”

   Another challenge Bartee and his staff face is staying on top of trends, and he says they do this by staying in touch with the peripheral needs. “We try to look at what is going on in all industries to see how that is going to impact outdoor recreation.”

   This is how Bartee knew to jump on trends such as the popular shoes Crocs, and the ‘Life is Good’ brand, both of which have exploded in the marketplace. But Bartee is realistic about the fact that you are bound to miss the boat from time to time. He admits he hasn’t quite mastered timing yet, “We carried Ugg boots for a long time and when sales slowed down, we stopped carrying them; that was right before they were seen in all the magazines and we were left out in the cold.”

   Luckily, Jesse Brown’s has managed to stay on top of most trends over the years, earning them the respect of outdoor enthusiasts around the region, and recently national recognition as well. Bartee proudly acknowledges their recent ranking as one of the Top 25 Independent Outdoor Specialty Retailers in the country by Outdoor Business magazine.


Walking the Walk

   Though there are many factors in Jesse Brown’s success, it becomes apparent walking through their door that one of the largest is the quality of its staff. “We are in the people business and we look for people with the skills to communicate information and share in our customers’ enthusiasm.”

   In fact, it is their staff that sets them apart from the large sporting good chains, though Bartee is quick to point out that these chains are not their major competition.

   “We aren’t competing with other retailers as much as we are competing with televisions, computers, video games, and essentially the couch,” he says matter of factly. “One of our goals and biggest challenges is simply to encourage people to get off the couch and get outside.”

   Spreading the motivation to “just get outside” is one that Bartee and his staff work hard at. And the addition of their store in Ballantyne Village in 2006 has broadened their reach enabling them to serve more customers than ever before.

   “We continue to seek out new, innovative brands and sports that revolve around escape, active lifestyle and comfort,” says Bartee. The Ballantyne store also helped Bartee attain his goal of having two healthy stores in the Charlotte marketplace.

   At Jesse Brown’s, they do more than sell the active lifestyle; they live it themselves. One medium Bartee uses to spread the message is the airwaves, where he and Don Yager share their passion for the outdoors every Saturday morning at 5:00 a.m. hosting Carolina Outdoors on WBT 1110AM. Their show is intended to educate listeners about the abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities in the region.

   Bartee is a firm believer in the advantages of an active lifestyle. He states: “The real beauty of the sports we cater to is that they can be played by any gender and any generation. They are fun to enjoy alone or in the company of friends and most important, they are human-powered sports and they are good for your mind, spirit and body.”

   Whether you are a skier, a fisherman, a backpacker, a kayaker, a hiker, or simply someone who wants to live a healthier lifestyle, there is no doubt that Jesse Brown’s can outfit your needs.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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