Woodchuck Tales: Bob Matheson finds his calling while waiting for a ‘real’ job

Bob Matheson, General Manager, Mountain Equipment Co-op -- Like pretty much everyone I know in outdoor industry I fell into the job while waiting to get a "real" job. I was signed up to join the military but I had lost my required birth certificate and needed some cash while I waited for its replacement. It was 1977 and I was a pretty avid Nordic skier at the time and thought "hey, it’d be cool to get a job talking about ski stuff; while I wait". I applied at a few places but the only place that said yes was a store called "Collegiate Sports".
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Bob Matheson, General Manager, Mountain Equipment Co-op



Like pretty much everyone I know in outdoor industry I fell into the job while waiting to get a "real" job. I was signed up to join the military but I had lost my required birth certificate and needed some cash while I waited for its replacement. It was 1977 and I was a pretty avid Nordic skier at the time and thought "hey, it’d be cool to get a job talking about ski stuff; while I wait". I applied at a few places but the only place that said yes was a store called "Collegiate Sports". They were mostly into general sporting goods and mostly hockey at that (this is Canada eh!) but they did Nordic too. As someone with zero retail experience it was of course the only store that pretty much didn't care what my outdoor experience was -- they needed warm bodies and I was at least a little above absolute zero. In fact all of my outdoor credentials were treated at best as a small added bonus and at worst a liability (I may have expected to be given some sort of credit or - horrors - more money, given my experience).

It was here that I learned the ropes of selling and dealing with the vast array of people that we in the store so neatly fit into categories that made our daily frustrations bearable. There were the "good" customers. Those who were attractive (it was a near stampede when a great looking 20-year-old came wandering into our area) and those that were not. There were those who knew what they were talking about, were not concerned about how much something cost and seemed able to appreciate the subtle difference between each model, and those who couldn't get the most basic concepts, still believed in the fairy tale of low price and high quality, and thought every upgrade you mentioned was just another upsell. There were those that didn't want help, replied "good morning" to your greeting and then looked around and left and those that glared at you because you asked them if they needed help, "can't I just browse", then wandered the aisles removing product from shelves and hangers tossing them elsewhere all the while muttering sotto voice "you can't get anyone to help in this place.” It was here I learned that after saying the same sales spiel 100+ times you can actually have your mouth move while mind is hotly engaged with planning your next vacation. And finally it was here I leaned that for some reason, despite the low pay, nutty customers, and poor managers I loved getting up every morning to come to work.

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I worked hard and was lucky enough to be recruited by a few folks that worked for Collegiate at the time that were off to open a "hardcore" outdoor store that they would call Sporting Life. It was at Sporting Life that I continued my love affair with retail and in those early days with "the Life' it was just fine. We worked hard and for long hours but it was with a bunch of very cool people and the owners really appreciated and rewarded your efforts. We had ton's of training (they even paid for a 5 day "Ski Mechanics and Managers workshop" course - some of you might remember it??) and stuck to their principles: staff need to be outdoor experienced, well trained and well rewarded, we carry clothing only to support the hardgoods, we will not have any sales and we don't advertise. It sure felt great working for them. Unfortunately as the many years went by and the lure of the high margins in clothing beckoned and the expense of experienced and trained staff came to roost, things changed. Not for the worst or the better just different but it was a kind of different I didn't like. So off my wife and I went to Asia for an extended vacation to think about what real job she and I might like.

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I never did come to any firm conclusion, teacher crossed my mind, police office seemed pretty cool but it all washed out with an event that occurred while I was away. To be clear, I love my family but….. Before I left for my extended vacation I lent my brother money that he would pay back over the course of the time we were away. It was this money that we would use to live on, on our return. As you have no doubt already concluded no money = no time to leisurely look for work. But, as luck would have it, almost immediately upon my return I got a call from a former colleague saying he got a call from a headhunter about some management job at some store called Mountain Equipment Co-op that he was not interested in but that perhaps I might be. The timing was right and so…. I interviewed that Thursday – in which I believe my most endearing line was “well it’s not like I drive a truck or something” – this to three people who all drove trucks, and by a miracle re-interviewed Friday – to which I brought homemade cookies, and thanks to some superior chocolate chips I was in Vancouver training (at that time “training” consisted of putting our catalogue in your pocket and getting out on the sales floor) the following Monday. That was in 1988, almost 20+ years ago and, although there’s a lot of water and stories under the bridge since then, I still get up most every morning excited to come to work even if I’m also still trying to sort out what my real job might eventually be.

Back in the early 1990s, outdoor industry veteran Larry Harrison decided it was time to ensure the stories of those who were integral in the establishment and growth of what we now know as the outdoor industry were not forgotten. He began to bestow an honor upon anyone who had been in the outdoor industry for 20 years or more and was willing to fill out a questionnaire ensuring the names and records were recorded for posterity. Each recipient of the honor receives a pin, bearing the visage of the logo you see at the top of this article. Wearers of this pin are members of a cadre of individuals proud to call themselves Woodchucks. SNEWS® president Michael Hodgson is equally proud to now be the keeper of the Woodchuck flame and archives.

If you already have a Woodchuck pin, welcome! We need you to enter the den and join your fellow Woodchucks – click here http://www.linkedin.com/e/gis/1183317 If you are not yet recognized as an official Woodchuck and are willing to endure the initiation (there is no wood gnawing required) we want to hear from you too. Send an email to industrywoodchucks@gmail.com and Hodsgon will send an official Woodchuck application form your way. You fill that out, send it back, and a pin will be yours. Harrison and Hodgson know – painful initiation process!

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