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Given a sporting chance

Times Staff Writer

Decades have passed since Sport Chalet Inc. founder Norbert Olberz, 83, began pressing to develop a shopping plaza in the heart of La Canada Flintridge.

Sometimes he wondered if it would ever happen. “I just hope I don’t die first,” he said eight years ago.

He didn’t.

On Thursday, the tenacious German immigrant will celebrate the opening of a 45,000-square-foot Sport Chalet that is the centerpiece of the La Canada Flintridge Town Center development. The $60-million project stretches over about 11 acres at the northeast corner of Angeles Crest Highway and Foothill Boulevard, and ultimately will be home to 15 stores and restaurants.

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Olberz’s campaign to develop the parcel pitched this normally tranquil bedroom community into a furor in the 1990s, sparking a political brouhaha and leading the community to create a master plan to guide development.

Much has changed since then for Olberz, and for Sport Chalet, which went public in 1992. He’s now retired, but don’t ask him how he likes it.

“I was a workhorse, and now I’m retired,” he said. “I’m bored stiff.”

Sport Chalet Chief Executive Craig Levra doesn’t have time to be bored.

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Sales at the company’s 52 stores have been waylaid by a weak economy. Sport Chalet’s share price has sunk from nearly $10 last year to $3.12 on Tuesday, and the company lost $3.4 million in the fiscal year that ended March 30, its first annual loss in 12 years. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, it lost $4.5 million.

“People we talk to, whether it’s manufacturers or retailers or mall landlords or the financial community . . . say the same thing,” Levra said in the latest earnings conference call. “They’ve never seen anything, an economy, quite like this.”

In addition, the fiercely competitive marketplace where Olberz staked his claim is about to get even tougher as Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. elbows its way into the state. The nation’s largest sporting goods chain by revenue didn’t have any stores in California until last year, when it bought Covina-based Chick’s Sporting Goods Inc., operator of 15 Southland stores.

In the next seven to 10 years, Dick’s expects to have 90 stores in California. That is “definitely a long-term concern” for Sport Chalet, said Jeff Mintz, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.

Olberz has seen the competitive landscape change dramatically since he and his wife, Irene, bought a tiny ski and tennis shop in La Canada Flintridge for $4,000 nearly 50 years ago. They recalled the early days in an interview at the company’s headquarters in the city.

The couple met in Portland, Ore., in 1959, after Olberz lent $2,500 to another German immigrant who was trying to sponsor her friend Irene’s passage to the U.S. from West Germany. Less than three weeks after they met, they married.

“I thought I wouldn’t be the marrying type, but then I saw Norbert and I changed my mind,” said Irene, 74.

The newlyweds, looking for a business to buy, headed for La Canada and the Sport Chalet shop Olberz had seen.

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In the past, he had worked in oil fields, driven an 18-wheeler and was a Fuller Brush salesman. Mostly, though, he had been a pastry chef, specializing in petits fours. He had owned a bakery in Oregon after immigrating to the U.S. in 1955, and he was tired of the business.

“I didn’t like the night work and the sticky hands,” he said. “I knew something about skiing and sports, and I had the right accent.”

To stock the store with ski gear, the couple took out a $5,000 loan and borrowed money from a relative and some employees. The repair shop at the rear of the store became their home. They slept on rollaway beds and bathed with a garden hose. Once a week, a customer let them take warm showers at her house.

Initially, when customers came to his store to rent skis, Olberz lent them without even collecting their names. “We just gave them the skis,” he said. “They all came back.”

They made about $800 a month in the first three months. Then, slowly, sales started rising. Americans were becoming enthusiastic about outdoor sports, and Olberz seized on that, stocking products that few other stores were selling, such as scuba and mountain-climbing gear. As surfing became popular in the early 1960s, he loaded up on longboards and wetsuits.

At the same time, Olberz launched other businesses -- a hotel at Mammoth Mountain, a travel agency and an outdoor gear manufacturer. Customers could rent skis at his store, buy a ski jacket, book a room at his hotel and ride one of his tour buses up the mountain.

“You talk about vertical integration,” Levra said. “He had it.”

Sport Chalet grew piecemeal in La Canada along Foothill Boulevard. Olberz converted a former grocery store into a full-line sporting goods store and an old furniture store became the ski shop. He turned a gas station into a ski rental shop and opened a golf store down the street. Another building housed the company’s computer department.

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In 1981, Sport Chalet opened a store in Huntington Beach. By the mid-1980s, the company amped up its expansion, opening stores throughout Southern California and beefing up its management.

Christo Kuzmich, who worked for Sport Chalet from 1990 to 1997, recalls Olberz’s commitment.

“He’s got a great sense of how to keep costs down,” said Kuzmich, now manager of the Adventure-16 store in San Diego. “When the company got to the point where it was larger, really, than his abilities, he ran the warehouse.”

In 1998, Olberz gave $1.5 million in stock to 109 employees who had been with the company for at least 10 years.

Over the years, Olberz also had been buying property in the center of La Canada Flintridge, collecting 29 homes and some businesses. His goal was to build a commercial hub that would include Sport Chalet’s headquarters and a flagship store, consolidating the company’s businesses.

In the 1980s, Olberz had proposed a project that won approval but was shelved due to the economic downturn in the early ‘90s.

A $32-million center proposal in the late 1990s went through dozens of public hearings. Some residents considered it an oversized strip mall that didn’t fit the area’s small-town atmosphere. The project won approval at City Hall, but opponents launched a referendum drive and ultimately the approval was overturned.

“It was probably the most significant controversy to befall this community,” senior planner Fred Buss said.

The city hammered out a new Specific Plan for the downtown area, about 100 acres, Buss said, and the new development approved in 2006 hewed to that plan, for the most part.

“This project came through and was well supported by the community and the council,” Buss said. “It went through in record time.”

Given the wobbly economy, signing up other tenants has been trickier than anticipated.

“It’s a different market than it was 16 months ago,” developer Darren Mattix said. Still, he said, the center is 77% leased. Tenants will include Home Goods, a seafood and steak house, an AT&T; store and a Mexican restaurant.

The development is owned by the Olberzes. Their only child, 45-year-old Eric Olberz, took charge of the project a few years ago. A certified public accountant, he also serves on Sport Chalet’s board.

Although Norbert Olberz is no longer involved in Sport Chalet’s day-to-day operations, he took an important step in helping to direct its future three years ago. A recapitalization plan shifted stock then valued at about $8 million from Olberz to Levra and Chief Financial Officer Howard Kaminsky, in effect transferring voting power to the company’s management.

Olberz said at the time that he wanted Sport Chalet to “exist in good hands, since I’m 80 years old and not active [in the company] anymore.” He and Irene still own the largest stake in the company.

Their lives -- which have included climbing Mt. Whitney, hiking the John Muir Trail and traveling the Sierra with mules and horses -- are different now.

“I talk to Irene and drink coffee and eat and sleep,” Olberz says.

Irene, a former marathon runner who has collected trophies from around the world, keeps busy with her exercise and memoir-writing classes. She zips around town in a Porsche Carerra with GOIRENE on the license plate.

After describing how their lives have played out, the couple, with Levra, walked out of the headquarters and into the sweltering heat. Norbert sat for a moment on a shaded picnic bench. Behind him, noisy bulldozers trampled the rocky dirt that soon would become Olberz Park, part of the new development. It was the sound of his dream coming true.

“I’m happy,” he said, with a sudden smile.


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