Norbert Olberz, the founder of La Cañada Flintridge-based Sport Chalet, died Friday, a company spokesperson announced. He was 86.
Olberz, who arrived in the U.S. in 1955 after immigrating to Canada from his native Germany, was a fixture of the La Cañada business community and the driving force behind the recently constructed Town Center.
Olberz built Sport Chalet from a humble winter-sports-gear retailer in 1959 into a publicly-traded sporting-goods empire that now comprises 55 locations.
Craig Levra, the chairman and chief executive of Sport Chalet, said Olberz was the driving force behind the company.
“Norbert meant everything to Sport Chalet. He taught us how to run retail,” said Levra. “And [Olberz was] such a great leader, you know, an innovator of product, [he] took pride in listening to the customers and responding.”
Olberz’s greatest impact on La Cañada Flintridge can be seen on Foothill Boulevard at Angeles Crest Highway, where the Town Center finally opened in 2008 decades after he originally conceived the idea and began purchasing property.
The 7.6-acre shopping center recently was sold by the family to the Los Angeles-based IDS Real Estate Group for more than $40 million, but officials said the project stands as a testament to Olberz’s willingness to fight for three decades to get it built.
Mayor David Spence, who joined the City Council in 1992, said seeing Olberz contend with vitriolic opposition to the Town Center plan helped motivate him to get into politics.
“People had the attitude that we were a sleepy little community and they didn’t want anybody to see any major developments,” Spence said. “I think it was his German stubbornness and his tenaciousness that made him push on.”
Levra remembered this same stubbornness as one of the qualities that helped Olberz grow Sport Chalet.
“He was so passionate about the business...trying to do everything right. He used to kid around a lot that they called him ‘the micromanager;’ no detail was too small,” Levra said.
Olberz served as Sport Chalet's chief executive until 1999 and as chairman of the board of directors until 2001, according to the company.
Sport Chalet has only recently started to rebound from the hard financial hit it took during the recession.
In the fourth quarter ending March 28, sales at the sporting goods chain increased 6.8% to $90.2 million, up from $84.5 million for the same quarter a year ago.
The increase ended 10 consecutive quarters of negative same-store sales, although total sales for the year were down 5.1% to $353.7 million compared to the year prior.
Councilwoman Laura Olhasso, who chaired the Planning Commission during the hearings on the Town Center in the late 1990s, said
that although it was unfortunate that the Town Center finally opened just as the recession hit, she thought that the sale to IDS could spur further growth.
“By their patience and perseverance, they contributed millions of dollars to the betterment of our commercial corridor,” said Olhasso of Olberz and his wife, Irene.
The completion of the center was a hard-won accomplishment for Olberz, who came to La Cañada with a unique background: He was a pilot in the German Luftwaffe during World War II who learned English in a British POW camp in Italy.
In an article published in the La Cañada Valley Sun in 1959, Olberz said his arrival in the states was no accident.
“I’ve always been interested in America, ever since I began reading the Mark Twain books in school back in Germany,” Olberz said.
Although there were bumps along the way, Spence said Olberz always pushed past obstacles.
“I think he had a dream of making something bigger and better than what he had already started,” Spence said. “He came here with virtually nothing and he had a dream and he made that dream come true.”
A memorial service for Norbert Olberz is scheduled for noon Friday at the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club at 5500 Godbey Drive in La Cañada.
In lieu of gifts or flowers, the family requested donations be made in Norbert Olberz's memory to the Sierra Club Foundation, 85 Second Street, Suite 750, San Francisco, CA, 94105, or to the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, 4490 Cornishon Avenue, La Cañada, 91011.
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a change in venue for Norbert Olberz's memorial service]