Mast General Store takes down-home approach for success

For Fred Martin, the phone calls keep coming -- at least two a week. As the vice president of operations for Mast General Store Inc., a seven-store chain, Martin is "always getting calls from towns throughout the South wanting a Mast General store as an anchor in their downtown."
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For Fred Martin, the phone calls keep coming -- at least two a week. As the vice president of operations for Mast General Store Inc., a seven-store chain, Martin is "always getting calls from towns throughout the South wanting a Mast General store as an anchor in their downtown."

It's not surprising that town developers want a piece of the action. The first Mast General Store opened in Valle Crucis, N.C., in 1882, and the company has been thriving ever since. "We haven't experienced the same economic effects that other stores are seeing elsewhere," Martin said.

One reason may be that Mast General typically sets up shop in tourist destinations, such as Asheville, N.C., a town that not only draws tourists, but a steady influx of new residents. The newest Mast General Store, with 18,000 square feet of space, opened in Greenville, S.C., in March. "For years, as we visited Greenville for the EORA show, we watched the town development closely," Martin said. "The technical industry continues to grow there, which isn't happening in most of the U.S."

While location is important, there are other reasons for Mast General's success. "Everyone has a past history," Martin said. And how you deal with that history is important. The owners of Mast General have embraced their heritage to create stores with a sort of old-world charm.

Owned by a pioneer family, the first Mast General was truly "general," carrying everything from cradles to caskets. The store's saying was, "If you can't buy it here, you probably don't need it." Store owners went out of their way to serve customers, allowing payments in trade, bartering chickens and sacks of flour.

Modern Mast General stores continue to carry an eclectic mix of goods, while also fostering a down-home sense of community. Folks who walk through the door are treated more like neighbors than customers.

Hard Candy and Hiking Boots

As you walk into the Greenville shop, the first thing you notice is the floor squeaking beneath your feet. To retain a rural feel, all Mast stores have oiled maple hardwood floors. Martin says that when he sources floor materials, he tells suppliers, "If it doesn't squeak, I don't want it."

Next you'll pass a well-merchandised area with men's and women's lifestyle apparel from outdoor brands such as Royal Robbins. The clothes hang from original fixtures produced by Mast General.

From the apparel section, you can step down to a department selling old-fashioned candy, a carryover from the original general store in Valle Crucis. Then there's the mercantile section stocked with old-fashioned hand tools. Upstairs is a mezzanine with a broad offering of casual and technical footwear, now a major portion of Mast General's business. "We're big believers in the Phil Oren Fit System, and we put a lot of emphasis on custom fitting," Martin said.

Mast General carries products from some 2,300 manufacturers, and each store carries a mix that caters to the local population. Martin said that when they opened the Greenville store, he honestly wasn't sure what would sell, "But in the first three days, we sold 20 percent of our stock." Apparently, they must have figured it out pretty well.

An odd assortment of products and country store furnishings play key roles in defining the Mast General brand, setting it apart form other retail operations. "We do a lot of things that, to others, don't seem to make much sense," Martin said. "For example, we'll take a prime floor space and fill it with rocking chairs where people can just sit, and kids can play with wooden toys. People tell us we could make a whole lot more money filling that space with something else." But the strategy pays off, as the casual ambience transforms a store into a true destination.

"I'm reluctant to say this, but we had a sharp increase in business after 9/11," Martin noted. He explains that "people just didn't know what to do," but they definitely searched out comforting places. "A lot of people just came in and stood."

A Friendly Welcome

People feel welcome in Mast General stores because the owners strive to hire employees who are not only friendly, but simply like to visit with folks. "People feel intimidated when they walk into a lot of the core outdoor stores, where the staff often won't even talk to them if they see the person is new to the outdoors," Martin said. "At Mast General, there's no sense of arrogance or elitism. We want employees who will just talk with folks and make them feel welcome."

Martin says he bends over backward to please customers, often allowing them to return products that weren't even purchased in the store. "If someone swears they bought something from us, and I know we never even carried that label, I'm just as likely to say, 'What would it take for me to make you happy?'"

The quality of the staff has also remained high because Mast General is now employee-owned through an ESOP program. Now there are about 100 employee-owners in the company. "This was an expensive process, and an ESOP can hurt a business as easily as it can help," Martin said. "You have to be committed to making real owners out of the employees. We spend a lot of time teaching people to understand how to run a business, how to read and understand the financial statements. I think this has been a major thing that's helped improve our business."

Mast General has also joined the ROI buying group to make the most out of its relationships with vendors and strengthen its negotiating power. "ROI has really shown us where our parameters are in negotiating," Martin said.

As Mast General continues to expand, he says the greatest challenge is to take advantage of the company's size, while still operating as if it were a small business run by a single entrepreneur. Martin keeps in mind the words of news and travel correspondent Charles Kuralt who visited the store in the '80s. Kuralt said that if he could send a person to one place to find the soul of the South, he would send them to Mast General.

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