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Dick Cabela dies at 77; co-founded Cabela's sporting goods empire

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The Cabela's Inc. sporting goods empire — with $3.1 billion in sales in 2012 from mail order and big-box retail stores — started at a kitchen table in 1961 in the small town of Chappell, Neb.

Dick Cabela had spent $45 on nearly 3,000 hand-tied fishing lures while on a buying trip to Chicago with his father for the family hardware and furniture store. Cabela tried to sell the fishing flies in the store, but they were a dud — not one sold. Next he took out an ad in a Casper, Wyo., newspaper offering 12 of the flies for $1, and got only one sale.

Finally, according to a Cabela's company history, he placed an ad in Sports Afield magazine: "FREE Introductory offer!!! 5 popular Grade A hand-tied flies. Send 25c for postage and handling." The orders started pouring in — Cabela and his wife, Mary, began assembling packages of the lures in their kitchen and sending them out.

"Anyone in business is going to make mistakes," Cabela told Investor's Business Daily in 2012. "We always learn something valuable from them."

Cabela, 77, died Monday at home in Sidney, Neb., according to company spokesman Joe Arterburn. The company declined to disclose the cause.

Richard Cabela was born Oct. 8, 1936, in Chappell. He said he believed from a young age that he would follow in his father's footsteps of running his own business. "You grow up in a family like that, a family of merchants, that is what you do," he said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. "I never thought I would do anything else."

The profit from the "free" fishing flies was only about 11 cents per transaction, but it gave the Cabelas something far more valuable for the future — the start of a mailing list. Mary kept a record of names and addresses on recipe cards, and Dick bought more imported gear.

"We sent each new customer offers for other fishing supplies," he told Investment Business Daily, "eventually putting together a four-page mimeographed catalog with a wider selection of products for outdoor recreation, the most expensive being a pellet gun for $9.95."

Business got so brisk that in 1963 they offered Dick's brother, Jim, half ownership of the operation if he quit his job to join the venture. As the operation continued to grow and the mimeographed sheets became a printed catalog, they moved into the basement of the family store and then to a former American Legion Hall, where they had a small retail outlet.

In 1968 they moved operations into a former John Deere dealer in the nearby town of Sidney. Sales were booming and the catalogs went far beyond fishing to offer products for hunting, backpacking and other outdoor activities. Teams of telephone operators in the building took orders.

In 1991 the company opened a separate 75,000-square-foot retail store in Sidney, dominated by a man-made mountain populated by stuffed, mounted animals. The big-box stores spread and greatly expanded in size. The Cabela's store in Rogers, Minn., at 185,000 square feet, features a three-story mountain with nearly 400 animals mounted on display, plus aquariums with 55,000 gallons of water, two shooting ranges and an archery range. Currently there are 50 Cabela's retail stores across the United States and Canada.

Guns are a major part of the company's business, and Dick Cabela was an ardent supporter of the National Rifle Assn. A 2013 Forbes article on the company quoted from a video interview with him saying of the NRA, "These guys protect your right to own a gun, that's what it's all about." The interview took place in his home trophy room, featuring an elephant and giraffe.

Dick Cabela stepped down as company chairman last year, and his brother Jim took over that post.

In addition to his wife and brother, Dick Cabela is survived by daughters Nancy, Geri, Teri and Carolyn; sons Richard, Charles, Daniel, David and Joseph; sisters Diann and Jane; brothers Jerry and Tom; 22 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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