Lonnie Schmidt spent his earliest working days loading trucks and doing part-time bookkeeping for a Spokane-based hauling company.
“I never expected I’d own a company and have 200 employees,” said Schmidt, now president of Farwest Sports, the multimillion-dollar business that sells sporting goods through its better-recognized retail locations, Sportco in Fife and Outdoor Emporium in Seattle.
Farwest’s history is an interesting one full of pivots and expansions. “The company’s original partners were trapshooters,” Schmidt recalled. “Two of them also ran a high-end retail gun store in Spokane called The Trap House.”
This side interest, Schmidt said, ultimately motivated ownership to reinvent Farwest’s business model, turning it into a wholesale supplier of outdoor sporting gear. The entity rebranded to Farwest Sports and relocated to the Olympia area in 1976.
“Ten years later,” Schmidt said, “wholesale business was evaporating, banks were nervous, interest rates were high, and acquisitions were happening everywhere.”
Farwest’s answer was a retail subsidiary that could take advantage of in-house wholesale capabilities to keep pricing competitive.
“We picked Fife, because it was 30 miles from everything, and we decided to call it Sportco,” Schmidt said, adding that the idea was modeled on the new Costco concept, including an annual membership program offering members 5 percent off purchases and access to exclusive promotions.
In 2007, following a surge in local outdoor sports chains, Farwest brought Outdoor Emporium into its fold. Farwest’s wholesale division also was spun off to a new subsidiary named Sport Service, which, according to Schmidt, now supports a large salesforce and more than 300 accounts, including Amazon, Costco, Walmart, and Tractor Supply.
Meanwhile, Schmidt rose in the ranks and began buying stock whenever a partner retired, eventually becoming the majority shareholder. “One is still alive and like a father (to me),” Schmidt said. “He took me under his wing and let me buy the company.”
Schmidt said Farwest’s retail entities carry similar products to other outdoor stores and said these newer competitors have had an impact on sales. But he also noted that his customers always return.
“Our pricing is so competitive, and we’re not paying for the higher overhead,” he said. “It doesn’t take the consumer long to figure out we have the right product for less.”
Regardless, Schmidt said sustainability as an independent brand is an ongoing battle. “We’re still small enough for a few people to make all the decisions, and the diversity of our sales channels help us balance through the bad seasons. But you have to be adaptable and flexible to survive. It’s definitely a competitive world, and it’s getting tougher with everyone buying on the internet. Everything learned in Business 101 goes out the window, because internet companies don’t play the same game as in-person retailers.”
Looking out at the 200,000-square-foot operation in Fife — nearly 4,000 percent larger now than its original footprint — Schmidt reflected on what he’s learned since joining the company decades ago.
“Time evolves, and business changes,” he said. “If you’re not adapting, you’re going to go away.”