Three months after selling the Alabama Outdoors chain of stores to an investment group, Mark Gatewood has opened Black Warrior Outdoor, a new 7,000-square-foot shop in downtown Tuscaloosa, Ala., about half a mile from the campus of the University of Alabama.
Financial difficulties led Gatewood to sell Alabama Outdoors in July, but he didn’t want to leave the outdoor industry.
“I love the industry and the relationships I’ve developed over the last 20 years,” Gatewood told SNEWS®.
Named after the nearby Black Warrior River, Gatewood’s new store -- which opened Oct. 16 -- lies in the heart of an area that real estate developers have focused on for the past few years. “This is where all the energy of the town is now,” said Gatewood (photo - right). “This is where all the new construction is, and where new businesses are coming.”
Just across the street from Black Warrior Outdoor is the popular Moe’s Original Barbecue. It and several other new restaurants and bars have made the downtown area more popular with locals, as well as the swelling population of students at the University of Alabama. Since 2003, enrollment at the university has grown from 20,000 to 28,000.
As the student population has grown, so have certain communities of outdoor enthusiasts. “If there’s anything growing the most, it’s the climbing community,” said Gatewood, noting that the university has a large climbing area in its rec center that “stays 15 people deep.” While there’s little natural rock to climb right around Tuscaloosa, there are plenty of places within a one- or two-hour drive.
To better serve Tuscaloosa climbers, Gatewood constructed a separate, 600-square-foot climbing wall room for the store, including 45-degree and 35-degree overhangs.
He is also catering to the growing population of skiers by carrying core ski brands like Spyder. Gatewood said his intention is to outfit people with the most technical apparel and gear, rather than being a “lifestyle” store. He said a growing number of people have expressed interest in emerging activities like barefoot running, and he’ll bring in product to serve such trends.
Drawing from his experience with Alabama Outdoors, Gatewood also designed the store to be more of a place to linger and hang out. A separate footwear room has a large, comfortable leather couch, and high-definition TVs are located throughout the store. “Over the years, I’ve learned ways to make a store more appealing,” said Gatewood, adding that he made the dressing rooms especially spacious.
During his time at the helm of Alabama Outdoors, Gatewood not only learned some helpful things about retail; he also learned some hard lessons about growing a business, especially during tough economic times.
He said the effects of the recession certainly played a role in his need to sell Alabama Outdoors. In July, the investment group Porter White & Co. purchased the assets of Alabama Outdoors, which now has six locations. “It’s all about timing in a lot of ways,” said Gatewood. “In 2006 and 2007, we were completely flourishing, and we just grew too fast. I got aggressive and added two doors and then two more doors, and then the economy went south.”
As the economy was tanking, Gatewood’s health was also deteriorating. “There was the absolute stress of having multiple locations and having to run between the stores,” he said. “It was wearing on me, absolutely wearing on me. It just got to where my health was going down and it wasn’t fun. I was no longer doing what I really wanted to do.”
But Gatewood said that now he is doing exactly what he loves. “It’s a huge role reversal from what I was doing,” he said. “I was the principal of a 10-store chain with 100 employees. Now I’m back to waiting on customers, buying the product and dealing with the vendors again. I really enjoy that aspect of it, and it puts the fun back into retail again.”