It has taken Cabela’s a long time to move into Montana, but now that iconic retailer of hunting and fishing goods finally has a stake in the sand down in Billings, it might be wondering if it was the right decision.
Cabela’s has become accustomed to being revered by hunters and anglers, but in Montana, many sportsmen and women now have the opposite attitude, disdain–and they’re sending back their catalogs with promises never to spend another penny there. When opening a new store, Cabela’s expects the local hunters and anglers who have lusted for years to have a store nearby to more or less knell on the doorstep, but if Cabela’s doesn’t stop endorsing the loss of public hunting, the corporate VIPs might see people picketing the Billings store opening with anti-Cabela’s placards.
Here’s the rub. Back in June 2004, Cabela’s went public and is now listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol CAB. Such initial public offerings are always accompanied by plans on how to use all the new money for aggressive growth. And sure enough, Cabela’s launched into a major expansion, which primarily involving more and faster store openings.
No problem so far, the more and faster the better as far as I’m concerned, but a small part of that growth plan, a real estate marketing division called Cabela’s Trophy Properties might hurt Cabela’s bottom line and stock performance (already down to about half of its opening price) more than it helps. In Montana, the ruckus over the real estate division has already tarnished the best brand in the business, and it looks like it could get much worse and spread to other states.
I personally don’t want to see this happen because I’m one of those who grew up revering Cabela’s. I’d probably live in a Cabela’s store if they’d let me–at least for a few days until I had to leave to file for bankruptcy. And I bet the company’s brass and shareholders want to prevent damage to their brand even more than I do. If so, they need to act quickly and decisively instead of doing what they’re doing right now, which is seriously underestimating the potential of the problem.
The controversy erupted when Cabela’s Trophy Properties opened an office in Montana and started listing what the Montana Wildlife Federation (MWF), the state’s largest group of hunters and anglers, calls “traditional public hunting properties.” Those listings shot up a warning flare to the MWF’s 7,000 members, and the result was a strongly worded letter from executive director Craig Sharpe going to Dennis Highby, president & CEO of Cabela’s. In the letter, Sharpe warned of a “strong response” to the real estate marketing, such as mailing back or burning catalogs, unless Cabela’s addressed the group’s concerns and agreed to a meeting to discuss the issues.
A flash point in the controversy was the sale, planned subdivision and eventual closure to public hunting of two large ranches in central Montana by Cabela’s Trophy Properties. “Is this in line with Cabela’s mission?” Sharpe asked in his letter.
Following Sharpe’s letter and several others sent to Cabela’s by MWF members, two of Montana’s premier outdoor writers, Mike Babcock at the Great Falls Tribune and Mark Henckel of the Billings Gazette wrote detailed articles on the debate. Neither article painted a rosy picture of Cabela’s real estate deals and ended up turning up the heat another notch.
Then, and typical of large corporations that don’t really understand damage control, Cabela’s managed to make it worse with its responses. First, Cabela’s spokesperson David Draper implied that this was no big deal and told Montana hunters they shouldn’t fret because the properties were selling to sportsmen who are “probably going to make the land better,” a bonehead statement that Sharpe called “insulting.”
Throwing more gas on the fire was the corporate response that, in essence, tried to dodge the bullet by saying we aren’t really in the real estate business, just the real estate marketing business.
Here’s how that works. Cabela’s doesn’t actually buy and sell land. Instead, it licenses its brand to local real estate brokers and allows them to market prime hunting and fishing properties under the banner of Cabela’s Trophy Properties. The brokers pay Cabela’s for the license, probably with a license fee and a slice of the commission on property sales.
Cabela’s third response was the old “can’t we just get along” comeback, which was in the form of an invitation for the MWF board to an exclusive VIP reception at the Billings store opening and agreeing to send out a packet of information to buyers of “trophy properties” suggesting they do good things for wildlife.
Well, we all hope buyers do good things like leave land open to public hunting and file for a conservation easement preventing future subdivision and that the board members has a jolly time at the reception, but that response doesn’t address what concerns Montana hunters i.e. Cabela’s promoting the loss of public hunting. In fact, the tokenism worsened the problem.
Sorry, Cabela’s, these responses get zero traction. Licensing your name to realtors who use it to market property definitely makes you part of the real estate biz–and not just any real estate biz, but the worst kind.
I doubt anybody has a problem with Cabela’s buying 44 acres down on the edge of Billings and then selling off a chuck or two to Burger King or Day’s Inn. But using a nation’s top hunting and fishing brand to promote the sale, subdivision and closure to public access of prime hunting land is quite a different real estate deal. It is, in fact, exactly opposite of everything Cabela’s stands for, and you’d think the company would be trying to distance itself as far and as fast as possible from it.
Earth to Cabela’s. You’re using your brand to promote the loss of public hunting on private land in large sections of Montana and other sates. This could destroy your brand, and you really don’t want to do this.
Getting out of real estate can’t be that tough a decision for a company with $2 billion in sales, very little of it from real estate marketing. I perused the annual report and couldn’t even find the words “Cabela’s Trophy Properties,” let alone anything about the millions Cabela’s makes in license fees and commissions–because, of course, this is probably a microscopic part of the giant’s revenue.
It has potential, though–potential to cost Cabela’s fifty dollars in retail sales for every dollar earned in license fee income.
So, I hope President & CEO Highby sees this column, recognizes the real estate division as a major (but still correctable) mistake, and decides to get out of the real estate business faster than he can say it.
If you’d like to support me in encouraging, Cabela’s to rapidly get back on course, here’s a couple of phone numbers that might work, 308-254-5505 and 1-800-237-4444, or you can go to the customer service email page (click here) and send your comments in writing. In the meantime, until we get a better response, keep sending those catalogs back. Cabela’s definitely understands what that means.