Obituary: Norbert Olberz, 1925-2011
Before the retailing of sporting goods went truly bananas—the Bass Pro Shops store in Springfield, Missouri, measures 330,000 square feet—there was Sport Chalet, a ski-and-scuba mecca in the Los Angeles suburb of La Cañada, founded in 1959 on a shoestring and infused with an OCD management approach by a young German immigrant, Norbert Olberz.
Sport Chalet grew to a chain of 55 stores in California and surrounding states, with an unusual strategy: It is pan-sports, offering bicycles, diving
gear, and mountaineering stuff under one roof; but the merchandise is almost all high end—what you would find in a store devoted to a single activity. Rather than disinterested minimum wagers, Olberz hired dedicated sportsmen and -women, paying more and encouraging each one to sell and instruct. In-store scuba pools are a regular feature.
Olberz always knew what he wanted. He proposed to his wife, Irene, also from Germany, on their second date, and they married within three weeks of meeting. The couple lived for a time behind the original Sport Chalet, dining off a hot plate and showering under a garden hose. Olberz died of natural causes on July 15 at 86.
Sporting goods chains come and go. But Olberz's unbending will and attention to detail sustained his company, even as they occasionally frustrated his managers. His five principles—"do a thousand things a little better" captures the spirit of the other four—may seem low on vision. But when Craig Levra, CEO since 1999, commissioned a strategic review, the conclusions sounded an awful lot like his boss, Olberz, who remarked, "Why did you go to the trouble?"
Olberz carried a stack of 3-by-5 cards, lists of uncompleted tasks, a manager's initials next to each. "I have a few notes," he would intone in his German accent, and managers would wince. A fan of open space, he declared the 57-75 (inches off the ground) rule: Nothing could be stacked or hung to obscure views. No new store could be more than one hour from headquarters (Levra persuaded Olberz to make it an hour's flight, not drive, as expansion proceeded). For a job well done, Olberz told underlings, "You can stay another week."
Though set in his ways, Olberz demanded Sport Chalet stock only the latest equipment. That limits the need to discount goods. And it maintains buzz. Sport Chalet claims, for example, to have been the first U.S. chain to stock Uggs.
Olberz had a sense of humor. He once stocked a sailboat with a plastic mast, which, sadly, wilted in the heat. Sport Chalet employees presented the boss with a "horse's ass" award, and he proudly displayed it. He initialed proposals N.O. "If things worked, great," Levra says. "If not, he'd say, 'I told you no.' Always with a twinkle in his eye."