EDITOR’S NOTE: After working in the family business in his youth, Ed Stack took over his father’s Dick’s stores in the early 1980s and grew the chain from two stores to more than 850 to make it the largest sporting-goods retailer in the United States. A major supporter of junior golf programs, a sponsor of a PGA Tour Champions event and president of Oakmont Country Club, Stack had a passion for golf, and it directly affected his stores’ retail footprint. Led by Stack’s insistence, Dick’s commitment to carry premium brands in sporting-goods stores raised the profile and reach of golf equipment to unprecedented levels. There’s not a golf decision made at Dick’s that doesn’t include his personal involvement, which is why he’s widely considered the most powerful man in the industry. Purchasing the Golf Galaxy brand and growing it to nearly 100 stores made it the largest golf-specialty chain in the country. He later bought Golf-smith and integrated it into Golf Galaxy. In total, Dick’s and its stores are the largest retail supplier of golf equipment in the world, and that might be because Stack thinks the game is more than a game. Here is an adaptation of his new book: It’s How We Play the Game: Build a Business. Take a Stand. Make a Difference (Scribner, 320 pages, $28).
Golf has been an important part of my life since my grandfather began teaching me the game when I was 18. Before that, I played baseball and football. My grandfather, who was probably the most influential person in my life, constantly yet gently tried to get me interested in the game.
Gramp picked up golf at about age 35, when his baseball playing days were done, and he fell in love with it. And, although he was disappointed that I never gave golf any serious effort, he never missed a baseball or football game from my first Little League game at the age of 9 through my last high school game.
My plan always was to play quarterback for the Giants or catcher for the Yankees. I had an opportunity to play football for a couple of small Division III schools but realized that when I eventually graduated from college, I was going to be 5-10 and 155 pounds—not exactly the physical characteristics of an NFL quarterback.
I’d been consumed by baseball and football, and I hadn’t applied myself in school. But from a baseball perspective, I couldn’t hit if my life depended on it. So, it was sometime during my senior year of high school that I decided not to play football in college. I needed an education, and a job upon graduation.
It was that summer after high school graduation that I took up golf with my grandfather, Karl Krupitza. And just like my grandfather did when he was 35, I fell in love with the game at 18. It’s a love affair that is as strong today as it was when I happily walked the fairways of the En-Joie Golf Club in Endicott, N.Y., with Gramp.
Four years after he started playing, Gramp broke 100 for the first time at 39, and five years later, he won the Broome County Amateur title. He never boasted about his accomplishments. To be honest, I only learned about them later in his life through newspaper articles. He was the club champion many times, made nine holes-in-one and broke his age for 19 consecutive years beginning at 71. His humble response to this feat: “It gets easier every year—I have another shot to play with.”
Gramp had a simple solution to my problems on the golf course. If I’d say, “Gramp, I’m hitting everything left,” he’d calmly say, “Eddie, aim a little more right.”
CLOSING A SALE AT 15
I grew up working in my father’s small sporting-goods store. My jobs included unloading trucks, ticketing merchandise, stocking shelves and cleaning bathrooms. You name it, I did it. I knew a little about golf from just hanging around the business and reading through Gramp’s golf magazines while watching the Yankees at his house.
One day while walking through the store carrying a tent from the warehouse, I saw a customer looking at golf clubs. I stopped and talked with him about them for a few minutes. He said he’d think about the clubs and left. I didn’t think a thing about it until two days later. I was lugging something from the warehouse, as usual, and the customer was back in the store. I heard my father ask if he could help him. The customer responded, “No, I’d like to talk to that young man.” My father followed his line of sight and saw it was me, a skinny 15-year-old kid. I told the customer I remembered talking to him. A few minutes later, he walked out with a set of Wilson Black Heather woods and irons. With that sale, Dad said, “You can sell. Tomorrow, you start working on the sales floor.”
So began my career in retail with a $119 sale in 1969. I worked in the store from age 13 through graduating from college, and to be honest with you, I hated every minute of it. But as I was about to graduate from college, my dad became quite sick, and I had to come back to help in the family business. I quickly fell in love with the sporting-goods business. In 1984, my siblings and I bought the two small stores from my father. Since then, there have been good times and bad days in my life as a retailer. We almost went out of business twice, lost control of the company to our venture-capital investors in 1996 and regained it in 1999. But through all the ups and downs, golf was always my favorite area of the store.
We tried to disrupt the way golf was sold. We wanted to sell in our stores the same golf balls and clubs played by pros that were sold only in golf-club pro shops. Back in the late ’70s, that was unheard of. The brands would not allow us to sell their best products—Wilson Pro Staff, Wilson Staff, Titleist golf balls, MacGregor Tourney clubs.
During this time, there was a big change happening in the golf business. The old brands—Wilson, H&B, MacGregor—got caught flat-footed by Callaway Golf and a bit later by TaylorMade. The Callaway Big Bertha quickly became the driver of choice and completely upended the golf market. The only way for us to be a serious player in the golf business was to sell Callaway clubs. The problem was, they had absolutely no interest in selling to a full-line sporting-goods retailer. We were actually starting to make inroads in the golf business, as a few other brands had started supporting our effort to be a serious player in golf retail. But Callaway was the key brand to truly authenticate us.
Golf has intersected so many aspects of my life. When my son, Michael, was 4, he picked up a golf club and never put it down until graduating from high school. Some of my favorite moments have been with Michael on the golf course. He loved to play. During the summer, Michael was at the range or on the course from sunrise to sunset. Many nights after dinner, we would walk a five-hole loop behind our house. He would talk about things on that walk that he’d never talk about at the dinner table.
As sons always do, Michael was eager for the day he beat me. It took me back to the days I played golf with my father. I wanted to beat him so badly. (For some reason, I never cared or tried to beat my grandfather.) I don’t remember the date, but eventually I beat Dad. But as the years went on and Dad got older and his health failed, all I ever wanted when we played was for him to play well. So, as Michael continued to press to beat me, I put my arm around him one day after a round and said, “Michael, stop pressing so hard to beat me. It will definitely happen someday. But I promise as we get older, you won’t worry about beating me. You’ll just hope and pray that I play well.” As you would expect from a 12-year-old, he just looked up at me and said, “I doubt that, Dad.”
Over the past two years, Michael and I have rooted one another on to win our flight in the member-guest at Allegheny Country Club outside Pittsburgh, only to be defeated by Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers’ quarterback, in the shootout. But we had a blast giving it our best shot.
Another significant moment in my life involved golf, my father and Michael. It was during a round of golf, or I should say just before the round started, I began to realize my father had a serious medical issue. We hit a few balls to warm up, as we always did, and then got into the cart when my father looked at me with a scared and horrified look on his face and said, “Ed, I can’t remember how to get to the first tee.” From that day, his mental and physical health deteriorated. About four years later, Michael did not have school on March 31, 1998. I told him I’d take the morning off, and we’d play golf. To my surprise he said, “Mom said I need some new clothes, so I should go to the mall with her.”
My father had been in very bad health, so when Michael decided not to play golf that day, it made me think somebody was trying to tell me something. I decided to fly from Pittsburgh to my hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., to see my father. The next morning, I was on a USAir flight at 8. I arrived to visit my dad, and he was unconscious. I took Dad’s hand and talked to him. I told him I loved him and that he had done all he could for all my siblings and me. I told him I would take care of the business and our family. With tears in my eyes, I told my father if he wanted to go, it was OK. I flew back to Pittsburgh late that day. At 2 a.m., my sister, Kim, called to say my father had passed away.
HOW TO HELP YOUTH
My reason for writing It’s How We Play the Game is to hopefully impart knowledge to the next generation of entrepreneurs. Maybe they’ll learn from my mistakes—I made a bunch! I talk about buying the first two stores from my father, growing the business, working with venture capitalists, losing control of the company, and regaining control. It provides insight into taking the company public and how we have focused the company on two main issues that are having a profound impact on the kids in our country.
With significant budget cuts, youth sports programs have been cut to the point that 24 percent of our country’s public high schools do not have interscholastic sports. Think about that. It’s catastrophic for our kids. They need a place to go, a place where they feel they belong, a place where they make a difference. They need a place to be coached and mentored. Coaches often have more influence on kids getting their homework done and staying off academic probation. That’s because coaches make the decision that is most important to the kids: Who plays on Friday night.
Kids also need a place to find self-worth and confidence in their abilities. They need a healthy self-esteem to be confident in making good decisions about drugs, sex, gangs and violence. Many kids don’t or won’t find that in the classroom, but they will find it singing in the school play or playing on the basketball team or football team.
Dick’s commissioned a study with the Women’s Sports Foundation and the nonprofit RAND Corporation to do the following:
• Understand the state of funding for and access to youth sports in and out of schools.
• Gain insight on populations with the least access to youth sports and the crisis of funding.
• Gain insight on the impacts of youth-sports participation on education, character and other youth-development outcomes.
As we expected, the study revealed that kids who play sports are more likely to have higher grades, are absent from school 50 percent less than other students and have a higher propensity to go to college.
To support sports programs for youth in jeopardy of not being able to play, Dick’s Sporting Goods and The Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation developed our Sports Matter program in 2014. Since then, Sports Matter has provided more than $100 million to support teams throughout our country, impacting more than one million kids. Our goal is to help another million over the next five years. We truly believe every kid deserves a chance to play.
SAVING A TOURNAMENT
The first time I met Arnold Palmer was at En-Joie. He was bigger than life, a real inspiration for golfers and non-golfers alike. My grandfather and I played golf almost every Monday at En-Joie, the home of the B.C. Open, a PGA Tour stop from 1973-2006. In 2006, the tour changed the schedule for 2007, and the B.C. Open was eliminated.
Subsequently, the tour told Alex Alexander, founder of the event, it would host a Champions Tour tournament at En-Joie if he could find a title sponsor. I suspect Alex talked to a lot of businesses about sponsoring the tournament, including Dick’s Sporting Goods. Alex called me and wrote a letter. He was persistent but always a gentleman. Every time I heard from Alex, he’d very politely ask if Dick’s would become the title sponsor, and I would politely tell him we could not justify the expense. A few days before the deadline to find a title sponsor, Alex sent me one last letter. As always, he was respectful and never tried to leverage our success by indicating we should do this for our hometown just because. Alex ended the letter with what he suspected his late friend, my grandfather, would have said if we decided to sponsor the tournament. He wrote, “I can hear what Dutch [Gramp’s nickname] would say if you did this. He’d say, ‘Hey, Alex, how ’bout that.’ ”
I was sitting alone in my office in Pittsburgh when I read that sentence, and a chill went up my spine. I looked around and thought, My grandfather is trying to tell me something because that’s exactly what he’d say. I got up from my chair, went to our head of marketing’s office and asked him to work out the details with the tour.
Our first Dick’s Sporting Goods Open tournament was in 2007, and we have been the title sponsor for the past 13 years. The team has done a great job running this tournament. In 2018, the tournament director and his staff were presented the Players Award for consistently going above and beyond in the experience provided to players. The Greater Binghamton community is always so appreciative of Dick’s Sporting Goods for saving a professional golf tournament in Binghamton. In reality, it was my late grandfather who saved this tournament. It is now a lasting legacy of the inseparable bond between my grandfather and me through the wonderful game of golf.