What does the Next Generation of Retail Leadership Look Like?

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At Adventure 16 in Southern California, the next generation is the old one.

Over the past 40 years, John D. Mead, President of A16, has consistently adapted and evolved the company that was passed down to him from his uncle, who was in turn an innovator in the industry back in the ‘60s. Mead is unabashedly honest when it comes to his business—the good, the bad and the ugly all came up in our conversation about how he keeps A16 innovative and successful. From developing relationships with vendors to competing in a modern marketplace to appealing to new generations with high expectations, Mead unveiled his tips and tricks in our interview.

This photo is of John Mead and his Uncle Bob Phillips in 1962
on John’s very first camping trip to Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho
Q: A16 was a pioneer in the industry when it started back in the ‘50s/‘60s. How have you guys continued to be pioneers since then?

A: A16 was founded by Explorer Scouts and their active backpacking Scout Adult Leaders in 1962. “Creativity,” “Change,” “Having an Adventurous Spirit” (aka taking risks) and “Passion” are four of our 16 values; they guide us in helping provide our customers with great outdoor experiences, make A16 a better place to work, and help to make a buck in the process so that we can be around another 55 years.
I constantly preach that we have to try new processes and products that keep us relevant in an industry and an outdoor community that is constantly changing. I’m the first one to say that we haven’t always done it right, and over the years we’ve had had only a few more successes than failures. “Having Fun” is also one of our values, and doing business the same ole way day after day, year after year is no fun, so we try to keep things shaken up—we call it “Keeping it Wild.”
Q: How do you stay engaged with your community in new ways?
A: We’ve always worked hard to make A16 an outdoor community gathering place by holding events to help teach and inspire our people and our customers. In more recent years, to compete with folks who do the online thing way better than we do, we’ve greatly increased the number of events we host in and out of our shops. Our two bigger stores host an event nearly every week of the year (except December). The events range from showing the Best of Banff Mountain Films for 11 nights in three different venues to putting on a small outdoor photography clinic to a handful of customers. With very few exceptions, we don’t pay the presenters a dime; they are typically one of our customers who just wants to share their passion, skills and photos and hang out with like-minded folks. Our vendors play an important role in our events and help defer some of the expenses.
This year we launched the Sticker of the Month Club, which is designed to highlight 10 of our more artistic vendors and raise a few dollars for some worthy, outdoor-focused non-profits. Next year we’re shaking it up and will replace the program with a “Patch of the Month.”
We do several Outdoor Challenges a year that have our customers and employees running, hiking and climbing all over Southern California, achieving new heights and experiences in their lives and sharing details of their accomplishments. They do it not only to win great prizes from our vendors and for personal achievement, but also because social media makes it so easy and fun to do—we call it “getting their 16 minutes of Facebook fame.”
Q: What advice would you give to other specialty retailers for adapting and staying relevant?
A: The only way to stay relevant is to run an authentic organization that cares about its people and to work hard at staying well-connected to one’s customers. When we ran our outdoor classes and trips the first 40 years of our company’s life, it was much easier. Today we have to work harder at it, but because we’re outdoor folks ourselves, it’s fun work.
A handful of years back, my son who’s a Rep in the action sports world and 35, gave me some really good advice on how to be more relevant to his generation: beer, music and stickers. When I think about it, I actually think that’s always been the case and that trio seems to work with all ages.
Q. Many folks claim brick and mortars are dying—we say otherwise. What do you think?
A: In my opinion, today’s customers are not any different than they ever were. They want everything, only now they can darn near get it, or at least they are a lot closer to being able to get it all than ever before. By “all” I mean Value, Service, Selection, Convenience and Immediate Gratification (plus they can get more independent product information as well as recommendations than they could ever read). The brick and mortar retailers who can deliver consistently well to the new normal on those five magic things have a shot at staying relevant and in business. There is another thing that is harder to nail down and describe, but it too is important; it’s what happens when a shop or brand achieves a high overall rating on all those things. I call it the “warm and fuzzy.” It’s the feeling and pride a customer gets for being an important part of the relationship equation when they leave the shop or “log out,” and certainly it’s when they’re actually using the piece of gear they bought.
As a student of business history, I know that attempting to cut out the middle man has always been an objective. It’s easier said than done, but the internet has given that objective a very real and big boost forward. Our competition from our vendors is a bigger concern for me than Amazon. Yes, we do try to favor the vendors that don’t sell direct, but that solution is a bit short-sighted. A better strategy is to work with our vendors to find ways to collaborate and leverage their direct channel.
Q: Where have you been consistently successful over the years and of what accomplishments are you most proud?
1.) A ton of great people. Not that we had a choice, but for whatever reason, an unusually large number of good and talented people who cut their teeth in the outdoor industry at A16 have moved on but stayed in the industry and have done some amazing things and made a positive and significant impact. At any given time for the past 25 or so years, around 40 alums can be seen in the booths and aisles of OR making a difference. We’re really, really proud of that.
2.) In the very early 90’s we began to sit and swap best practices casually with some other dedicated retailers. Within a few years, with lots of support from others, we built it into a formal networking organization that I believe moved the dial and helped around 20 independent specialty outdoor retailers on many, many fronts. With the leadership of others who possessed skills I did not, over the past 20 years that organization became today’s Grassroots Outdoor Alliance. I’m very proud to have planted the seed of that great organization and the good it’s helped many of us do.
3.) In 1996 we began our Key Vendor Alliance. It was a formal agreement we forged with 11 of our most important vendors that helped us leverage each other’s strengths and voices to better attract and serve our shared customers in Southern California. Although it’s morphed a bit over the years, it remains at the core of how we work with some of our largest and most important key and like-minded vendors.
4.) A16’s Donate-A-Pack Foundation. This is our non-profit arm and it serves to gather gently used and new outdoor gear and clothing and then distributes it at no charge to dozens of other non-profits in Southern California who have programs that responsibly get underserved youth into the wilderness. It’s been going for 20 years now and each year we are able to donate more. All the work is done with volunteers. I’m proud to be its founder and continue to roll up my sleeves to help out nearly every weekend.


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