Norbert Olberz, founder of the Southern California-based Sport Chalet chain of outdoor recreational equipment stores, died of natural causes Friday at his home in La Cañada Flintridge, the company announced. He was 86.
As chief executive for four decades, Olberz transformed Sport Chalet from a small local business into a large public company that operates 55 stores in California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
Born in the village of Niederhoevels, Germany, in 1925, Olberz arrived in the United States in 1955. After years of owning and running a bakery in Portland, Ore., Olberz had grown tired of the work, and more importantly, he had fallen in love with skiing.
“I didn’t like the night work and the sticky hands,” he told The Times in 2008. “I knew something about skiing and sports, and I had the right accent.”
Olberz, who had also driven a truck and worked as an oil roughneck in Canada, moved to what is now La Cañada Flintridge in 1959. With his wife, Irene — whom he married just three weeks after they met — he purchased a tiny ski and tennis shop for $4,000 and paid $6,000 for inventory. During Sport Chalet’s first two years, the couple worked and lived in the store, sleeping in rollaway beds, cooking over a single-burner propane stove and showering with a garden hose.
Olberz led Sport Chalet as a small business for its first 20 years, then doubled the size of the company in 1981 by adding a store in Huntington Beach.
As Americans took up more outdoor sports, Olberz added items to fill customers’ needs. Sport Chalet covers the basics, such as baseball and basketball, as well as more extreme sports such as surfing and mountain climbing.
He led Sport Chalet’s transition into a public company in 1992, but urged the company “to not be the biggest, but the best.”
After stepping down as chief executive in 1999, Olberz carried on as chairman of the board until 2001. His son, Eric, continues to serve as a board member.
“He really motivated us and pushed us to be the very best that we could be,” Craig Levra, Sport Chalet’s chief executive, said Monday. He was “incredibly persistent, did not know how to quit — which is a great thing — and he really touched everybody he came in contact with.”
Olberz did not see the completion of one of his biggest projects until after leaving the company: In 2008, a new Sport Chalet store opened as the centerpiece of the La Cañada Flintridge Town Center, a shopping mall Olberz had worked to build since 1983, seeking to expand the company’s headquarters.
Tough economies and residents’ opposition to development delayed the project for decades, but the center eventually was built at the northeast corner of Angeles Crest Highway and Foothill Boulevard, keeping Sport Chalet in the city where it began.
Over the years Olberz owned a hotel, a travel agency and an outdoor gear manufacturer. He was “just a true entrepreneur,” Levra said, “a true American success story.”
Besides skiing, his hobbies included hiking, bike riding and flying planes.
In addition to his wife of 52 years and his son, Olberz is survived by two grandchildren and his sister, Elizabeth Lepper.
A memorial service will be held at noon Friday in the Van De Kamp Hall at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Norbert Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge.