Eastern Mountain Sports management acquires company from ARG

Eastern Mountain Sports' executives this morning told SNEWS® that the retailer had completed a management-led buyout of the company from American Retail Group (ARG). The buyout was led by EMS President and CEO Will Manzer with financing coordinated by J. H. Whitney & Co. LLC. Terms of the deal were not announced.
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Eastern Mountain Sports' executives this morning told SNEWS® that the retailer had completed a management-led buyout of the company from American Retail Group (ARG). The buyout was led by EMS President and CEO Will Manzer with financing coordinated by J. H. Whitney & Co. LLC. Terms of the deal were not announced.

"A year-long dream has been realized for me," Manzer said. "This is the very best alternative for EMS strategically."

Manzer told us that he first had visions of acquiring EMS when he was part of a group of investors that explored a purchase from ARG just over three years ago. That deal fell through, but last year when a headhunter approached Manzer, who was president of Perry Ellis Men's Wear Corp., to become the head of EMS, Manzer knew owning the company was meant to be.

"ARG was very cooperative with me. Both parties knew this was something we wanted and we got the deal done very quickly," said Manzer.

Though Manzer would not elaborate on whom his other private investors were, he did allow that members of the executive management team, including Pete Gilmore, company GMM, and Scott Barrett, former brand marketer at PepsiCo and now EMS Chief Marketing Officer, had a financial stake in the company.

For Manzer, the transformation of the EMS brand has been inspiring and challenging, but something he knew was absolutely necessary even before he took the helm.

"I told ARG when I was interviewing that EMS was reminiscent of the GAP of climbing (gear). We began working immediately to cultivate a distinct and defined mission for the company, one that embodies a unique connection to the outdoor athlete and is exemplified by the way we merchandise, our product mix, our creation of a brand experience that is unlike any other retailer."

Tweaking the mission and direction of EMS to one that was more hardgoods and less apparel-focused was, admittedly, a risky one in many eyes, but Manzer told us his job was made all the easier by the overwhelming amount of talent at EMS.

"There is just so much talent here," glowed Manzer. "We are blessed with people that are personally dedicated to staying in the outdoor world. And while the changes were, to many, risky ones, I wanted to make sure that the changes were made and that the changes were sustainable and that they were immediately obvious to our consumer -- we are clearly an outdoor outfitter."

Added Gilmore, "We are really trying to bring back the future. Back to the '70s and when the catalog business was strong, EMS was the authentic outfitter for the outdoor athlete. It was the largest provider of kayaks in the country and largest seller of cross-country ski business in the country. It is critical if we are going to speak to the outdoor athlete, we have to have the right balance between hardgoods and softgoods."

EMS, which currently has 85 retail locations nationwide, will not be opening any new stores in the next 12 to 18 months, Manzer told us.

"We are building a new store model and have three to four versions of that model we want to get right before we expand. We also have a lot of company work to do before we make any expansion moves. We want to get the Web components right. We have systems issues we are working through. We are building ourselves as a consumer-centric company that will enhance the shopping experience through education, stewardship, inspiration and passion."

The company will be weaving together many components, including the Web, its climbing and kayaking school, its stores, its staff expertise, and, soon, a publication that is part catalog, part editorial content and full of attitude and edge that Manzer is calling a "Catazine" to demonstrate to the consumer that EMS is not only back, it is an exciting and cool retailer.

EMS will continue to be headquartered in Peterborough, N.H.

SNEWS® View: We have long suspected EMS was in the "for sale" mode since ARG began divesting itself of various U.S. retail businesses it owned earlier this year. ARG is the American part of the Brenninkmeyer family's $7 billion global retail business which the family, which employs 200 family members in the company, runs from a secluded compound in the Netherlands. The company is so secretive, in fact, that it has been reported to send its children to school under assumed names. Needless to say, that secretive nature didn't allow much open discussion between EMS company execs and the media in the past. Thankfully all that is behind us.

We can state unequivocally that morale at the company is at an all-time-high, according to insiders we've spoken with as well as others who have connections with the retailer. After spending 30 minutes on the phone with Manzer, a recent inductee to the Outdoor Industry Association board, there is little doubt his passion for the outdoors and his company is infectious. Heck, even we were ready to head to the nearest EMS to drink the Kool-Aid when we hung up the phone. Under Manzer, the turnaround appears to be well on its way, and it is quite spectacular to watch. This year, EMS launched the "Raise the Roof" tour, a grassroots tour that travels to sporting, cultural and goodwill events and encourages people to get outdoors. The company also initiated the EMS Base Team, a roster of amateur athletes who test gear and act as brand ambassadors in their communities. In addition, EMS has entered the adventure race team sponsorship game with "Team Eastern Mountain Sports," and, as a result of seeing a need, EMS created and is conducting a series of clinics on outdoor safety for children called "Stay Put, Stay Dry."

If Manzer and his team are successful, and by all indications, there is little to indicate they won't be, EMS has just returned to the ranks of being a formidable competitor, and that is good for the industry. Any excitement EMS can pump into our industry is a good thing. Any attitude the retailer can embody and generate to inspire youth is also a good thing.

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