Eight years ago today, my father passed away after a long battle with cancer. It was on the 100th anniversary of the founding of Rotary International. Richard W. Cleveland was an attorney, my coach and my hero in so many ways. He was an instrument rated recreational pilot and very serious about preparation, safety and teaching his kids about the importance of being a life long student. I learned to fly because he wanted to be sure that my brother and I would be able to land in an emergency. Of course, we never had one of those, but we sure had fun!
Any telling of our experience in these last twelve months would not be complete without recognizing Jim Martin.
Like many of you, we have a collection of Hobby Lobby catalogs. Some feature our founder, Jim Martin, on the cover, or on the flight line and always presenting "The Best Stuff" of the day -- year in and year out -- for over 40 years. Just flipping through these classic mail order catalogs is a walk down memory lane (in case you have an extra copy in your collection, we are missing Catalog #2 and Catalog #10) and each page helps me appreciate where we are today...
After selling this company to a private equity firm about five years ago, Jim engaged me as a management training consultant for the team at Hobby Lobby. Years later, a majority of that team was still on the job when an opportunity to buy Hobby Lobby presented itself in early 2009. I enjoy working with that same group of people today.
Jim Martin built his vision for a hobby company many years before Hobbico and Tower came together to become that goliath operation you know today, and a full twenty years before Horizon was created. Today, we're recognized as the number three player for hobby airplane design, distribution and direct retail channel sales in the U.S., but Hobby Lobby is just a little campfire in Nashville compared to these two, "towering infernos" in Champaign. Good companies, very focused on growth and indeed they are corporate giants today, but that was not the model Jim had in mind.
He flew refueling tankers during his service in the Air Force which must have given him the nerves of steel required to start his own business in Nashville. As Jim's passion for RC airplanes grew, so did his hobby shop and family business. Jim returned to Europe frequently and discovered some of the coolest RC stuff on the planet. He made many friends and drank the local brew with modelers, engineers and craftsmen producing high quality, cutting edge products. Well before it was cool, Jim and Hobby Lobby were first in electric flight. Committed to his vision to be the best, not the biggest, he developed long term partnerships with Axi Motors, Jeti and Graupner among other fine manufacturers, and Hobby Lobby became known for offering the Best Stuff. Everything was flight tested, quality tested and backed by an amazing technical staff. That's exactly who we are today -- it's in our DNA.
Famous for delivering the best catalog in the world of modeling, we mailed his copy of Catalog #52 and I last talked to Jim in December when extending a personal invitation to our grand opening celebration of the new hobby store. We might not see him very often, but you can't mistake the roots deeply planted.
One year after jumping into the pilot's seat at Hobby Lobby, I have an even more healthy respect for Jim Martin.
In the first few weeks after we announced Hobby Lobby had a new owner, I got several calls and lots of advice from people honestly interested in our success. Today, we can see the seeds from that feedback which contributed to our experience this year.
My biggest concern at the time was this lingering notion that the RC hobby is aging fast. Industry research, surveys and a snap shot of our own customer base confirmed my fear.
What is the path to a healthy future for this modeler's hobby?
I have no magic answer, but I know that we get back only a measure of what we put into any challenge. Perhaps we should set a goal to be more proactive and involved with the AMA, but that idea was quickly pushed off the flight line by every day business issues.
Then I got a call from Mark Smith, a retired Sprint executive, dedicated modeler and a volunteer AMA board member. Because he reached out to me, he made it easier for us to get involved and that's why we credit this lesson to Mark.
From his home in Kansas City, Mark drove to Nashville to walk me through industry research, introduce me to the work of the AMA Marketing Committee and invite me to participate. This was special, like a visit from a neighbor bearing gifts when you first move into a new home; you're too busy unpacking to be as gracious as you want to be... Still, when you are the new guy on the block, it's that experience helping you appreciate how important it is to be welcoming to others.
The path to a healthy hobby is simple: be welcoming. "Welcome to the industry" -- my first experience with the AMA. "Welcome to Hobby Lobby" -- our first words every time someone enters our new retail store. "Welcome to our flying field" -- the all important greeting from a club member who sees an unfamiliar face and helps them wrestle that park flyer out of the box.
The best ambassadors for this hobby and most important customers for any hobby store are the 150,000 AMA members.
How and with whom you spend your time and money is the future playing itself out -- one purchase at a time.
Because hobby store employees struggle to find time to mind the store and train customers too, that's your opportunity to be proactive, to organize and volunteer time providing skills training that makes a difference and new friends too.
As I welcome more customers to Hobby Lobby, it gets easer to see that path to a bright future: It's you.
Outside of the "insiders" at Hobby Lobby, the first person in the industry who knew I was buying this business was Jim Bourke.
The RC Groups forum and community that Jim created was, in my mind, one of the most amazingly simple and artful examples of web marketing -- done right. I had heard the story about Hobby Lobby as the first significant advertiser, the early adopter and long term creative partner.
Jim Bourke was at the center of the RC community: the right guy to bounce around ideas.
Hobby Lobby was and remains an active sponsor. Our consistent commitment to RC Groups made it feel right that I was on my way to Corvallis Oregon to meet the man. I grew up 90 miles away in Eugene Oregon. As a rabid Duck fan, my only worry was discovering he was an equally rabid Beaver fan and that things might get ugly...
As it turned out, he's the kind of guy who could keep a confidence. We devoured a full boat of Sushi and talked about the acquisition, the market and how our hobby was changing...
We talked about his prize Russian Thunder -- the only Yak-54 currently flying in the U.S. and his passion for aerobatic flight. We finished lunch and checked out the 1/4 scale model of his Yak-54 (he was rebuilding it after a crash) and we chatted with all the development guys at Knife Edge Software. I had a copy of their flight simulator back home and was finally getting comfortable with frequently crashing on my big screen.
Through Jim's eyes I could see Hobby Lobby as a company that has clearly established itself as an innovator in the hobby. When you're buying something, particularly when it's something REALLY BIG like Hobby Lobby (or even something simple like purchasing one of our cool new airplanes) it's nice to confirm the story that you heard is the real deal. Someone authoritative, someone like JIm, was in a great place to confirm the reputation of this business. He helped me see how the RC community values quality.
I appreciated his confirmation that modelers prefer to talk to and do business with modelers -- and Hobby Lobby employees are, nearly every single one of them, sick in the head, super scale detail, perfectionist modelers. Yep, almost every one - sick like genius. They ARE experts. The idea that we know what modelers want, came to life.
I came back to Tennessee more confident, thanks to Jim. And thanks to Jim, the legacy of innovation, focus on quality and our reputation for providing the best products rang true. I see it every day now, but I don't want to ever forget how great it felt to become a believer -- to better understand it -- through Jim Bourke's eyes.
Today is my anniversary. One year ago today -- which is a very long time, but it honestly feels like yesterday - I closed on the deal to buy Hobby Lobby International: my next adventure in business.
Not just because of the down economy everyone talks about, but based on the fast changing hobby itself, it was a very challenging year for our clients, our suppliers and our dealer partners. Together, we all rose to the occasion.
My experience has been nothing short of a thrill ride. At times, something closer to the ride you get from a jet jockey at the local air show... that pilot trying to get you to barf for sport... regardless, what a terrific life experience!
For the past few days, folks at the Hobby Lobby have been taking note for the occasion. I thought long and hard about this year in review. What would I say when there is so much to say?
So, rather than use my words, I plan to note the advice, observations and coaching I got from the many industry icons and outstanding customers, employees (and bankers) who generously gave me priceless support throughout my first full year at the helm of this company. A company that is, quite simply, a very special place.
I discovered, through their eyes, how to fully appreciate the unique position the team at Hobby Lobby has carved out over the last 44 years. Tomorrow, I will share what I learned from Jim Bourke, President and Super Cool Dude at RC Groups. Each subsequent day, I'll share personal notes here in our forum, paying tribute to people on that long list of friends, observers, customers and competitors.
It's more important than my experience. It's your experience that counts. This will be fun!