VOL. 9 | NO. 41 | Saturday, October 8, 2016
Love of Outdoors Turned Into Life’s Work for Joe Royer
By Don Wade
No video games, no cell phones, but plenty of sunshine and fresh air. “I grew up like most Tennessee people, my dad took me hunting and fishing,” said Joe Royer, now 68.
“He got a canoe for using on a small river and I just fell in love with it.”
Outdoors, Inc. owner Joe Royer paddles the Wolf River Harbor for exercise on most days.
(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)
Royer, who owns Outdoors Inc., grew up in Milan, Tenn. Dad was a small developer in Milan, but started out as a civil engineer with the local public utilities department.
“He was a surveyor and I used to be his rodman,” Royer recalled. “He would survey farms and lay out lots. I grew up outdoors.”
Royer came to Memphis to study engineering at Memphis State. He got an internship with the Army Corps of Engineers and that provided an opportunity to learn – and love – the Mississippi River.
“I learned how the river worked,” Royer said. “I learned what a wing dike was. I learned the importance of navigation of the barge traffic, the importance of flood control to protect our city and farmland.”
Royer likes to say his life’s ambition was to become, a “great paddler; I became a good one.”
But he also found his career. In 1974, he and Lawrence Migliara merged their respective paddling businesses into what became Outdoors Inc. Initially, the business concentrated on selling performance paddling equipment.
After going to Mt. Rainier Mountaineering School, inventory was expanded to include climbing equipment. Then apparel and equipment for snow sports were added and biking equipment, too.
Today, Outdoors Inc. also is synonymous with the annual Canoe and Kayak Race on the Mississippi River and for acting as host for the longest-running cyclocross race in the country.
“My business is completing its 41st year,” Royer said. “Our biggest talent as a business is we don’t underestimate Memphis. The Memphians we’re serving are climbing the Matterhorn (in the Alps), they’re paddling their kayaks down the Grand Canyon. They’re running the Memphis Marathon, the Boston Marathon. We recognized that 40 years ago, that Memphians were smart and strong.”
And more and more, they have very specific tastes when shopping at one of the three retail Outdoors Inc. locations in Memphis, the outlet store here, or the retail location in Jackson, Tenn., or online.
“Business has changed,” Royer said. “We used to sell navy blue jackets and khaki shorts. Now Nike’s in the outdoor business. The designers. It’s become more mainstream, but there’s more competition.
“My business is a specialty business. Dick’s (Sporting Goods) is a great business. Bass Pro is a great business. But that’s a different business model. Our business model is we’ll adjust the stem of your bike, we’ll adjust the handlebars, adjust the seat.”
Clothing is now a huge part of the business – for men, women and children. Seasons matter and so do fashions.
“One of the things we’ve had to adjust, and I don’t want to be too political but it’s just an absolute fact, our fall is later,” said Royer. “We used to bring fleece in a little earlier. We’re probably holding up six weeks on our fleece because it’s simply just not as cool as it used to be. I’m a believer in the climate change, but regardless, whether it’s just cyclical, that’s one change.
“Also, it’s become a little bit fashionable to have a Patagonia or North Face jacket. So when something becomes fashionable, then colors become real important.”
Royer has been in business long enough that many of his employees have gone on to become owners – of bike shops here and even outdoors stores in Montana. He also has employees who have been with him 10, 20, even 30 years.
Typically, Outdoors Inc. has around 55 to 60 employees and about 35 of them are full-time. Royer has learned to trust his younger employees when a new shipment arrives.
“What I watch for when a product comes in, whether it’s a bicycle or a Patagonia fleece, I know when our employees unpack it and put it on hold, that’s the style and that’s the color the public’s gonna want,” Royer said. “I watch that real careful. Our staff is the best indicator because they’re discriminating.”
Royer says while the staff includes people who have biked across the United States and hiked the Appalachian Trail, only a small percentage of their customers are “hard-core” outdoorsmen and women. Catering to the recreational outdoors person is the backbone of the business.
“We have to be a little more service-oriented,” he said. “You don’t have to come to me, so I need to offer an experience and I need to be price-competitive.
“When you’re 25, you’re fit and you’re broke,” he added. “When you’re about 45 or 50, you’ve got the peak of your career but you don’t need to be quite as aerodynamic on your bike. So it’s just looking at an individual and saying, ‘Are you going to be riding the Shelby Farms Greenline? Or are you gonna try to do the Memphis in May Triathlon?’”