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The SCHEELS Way With CEO Steve M. Scheel: How To Build A Business That Will Last

The Scheels Way

PORTRAITS BY J. Alan Paul Photography and photos courtesy of SCHEELS
SPECIAL THANKS TO Shaun Harrison, Kara Jeffers & Hillary Ehlen

SCHEELS CEO Steve M. Scheel gives his take on what makes the 115-year-old sporting-goods giant such a special place to shop and work.

PURPOSE

“The best leaders focus on developing people, and they get more satisfaction from watching those they work with have success than they do from being in the spotlight themselves.”

The Scheels Way
Steve M. Scheel –  CEO, Scheels

Q: Many companies figure out their “what” and “how,” but few ever really figure out their “why.” What is SCHEELS’ “why?” Why do you do what you do?

A: We do what we do at SCHEELS to help our customers—as well as our associates who share their passions—get the most out of what they enjoy. Simply put, it feels good to help others. Whether we make a person’s day with a smile, teach them more about their sport or passion, develop a career associate within our company or support a need in our community, we put others needs before our own, and that feels good.

Q: What advice would you give to other companies trying to figure out their “why”?

A: To me, it’s like the person who chooses to live a healthy lifestyle. We all know why we should chose a healthy lifestyle, and there are many resources to help us do it, but it’s up to the individual to make the commitment.

In the same manner, we all know a company should figure out their “why,” but unless they are willing to make the commitment to what they figure out, it’s just a work project and will not make any meaningful change. Our leadership team is a constant example of “why” at SCHEELS in everything they do for our customers and associates.

The Scheels Way
Four Generations of Scheels: (L to R) Fred B., Fred M., Steve M. and Steve D. (1970s)

Q: What’s a non-starter for SCHEELS when it comes to hiring a team member?

A: You have to have the right attitude toward life. Our process digs deep into an applicant’s character to determine if they have what it takes to be successful in a company that moves quickly, will challenge you mentally and physically and require you to put others’ needs before your own and do this all with a smile and great service.

No matter the position you’re interested in, if you don’t have a great attitude that will fit with our culture, you probably aren’t going to make the cut. We can train most people on the skills they need, but it’s nearly impossible to train someone’s attitude toward life.

Q: What’s an example of something you could see a SCHEELS employee doing that would give you the most pride and satisfaction as CEO of the company?

A: I love hearing when a member of our team goes way beyond anything in their listed job responsibilities to take care of a customer. The other day on Facebook, I just read about an example at one of our stores. This is the type of thing that makes me proud of the people I get to work with every day.

From Facebook:
“So we’re at the SCHEELS bike counter, and there’s a kid who was in the vicinity that took a digger and wrecked his bike. Not only are the guys fixing the bike, they’re patching up the kid, too. I should add that they’re doing this all free of charge since, well, you know, he’s like 12 and doesn’t have any money. Well done, Sioux Falls SCHEELS.”

Q: What’s the biggest misconception about effective leadership?

A: I think that far too often in today’s world, leadership is seen as some CEO who is the charismatic face of a company who sets the direction of the company and proclaims it from some pedestal.

I would tell you that the best leaders, in my opinion—and those whom I admire most both at SCHEELS and elsewhere—are those who we seldom read about in the news. The best leaders focus on developing people, and they get more satisfaction from watching those they work with have success than they do from being in the spotlight themselves. Great leaders surround themselves with great people and they empower and lift them up to their fullest potential.

The Scheels Way
Fred opens first SCHEELS store, SCHEELS Hardware/General Store. Sabin, Minnesota

Q: What role does employee ownership play in SCHEELS’ continued success?

A: This makes a huge difference in our success. Our associates take more ownership in what they see, hear and do on a daily basis. They know that their decisions and actions not only affect their paycheck, but also affect our company success and ultimately their retirement. I firmly believe that this ownership helps our people have more pride in what they do. With pride comes a deep passion for your work, stability and low turnover, especially in a retail business. Our associates are at the core of our current and future success.

Q: How does SCHEELS’ roots as a small hardware store in Sabin, Minnesota, still permeate the company today?

A: I think there are two important parts of our roots that still permeate today:

  1. Customer service – I am pretty sure my great, great grandfather knew his customers by name and took care of them as best he could. While the scale has certainly changed since those first days, the attention to our customers is still something we believe sets us apart.
  2. Employee ownership – This is still a part of our company as it was then. When you’re an owner, you tend to take more pride in what you do every day, and this is a big part of who we are at SCHEELS.

SCHEELS: A SHORT HISTORY

Three acres of potatoes were the seed for the first SCHEELS store in 1902.

Frederick A. Scheel, a German immigrant, used the $300 he earned from that first harvest of potatoes as the down payment on the first SCHEELS, a small hardware and general merchandise store in Sabin, Minnesota.

Over the years, SCHEELS opened in surrounding communities, including Fargo, where the company’s corporate office is now located.

Firmly planted in the hardware business, SCHEELS started adding a small selection of sporting goods to their stores in the mid-1950s. Customer interest grew, and more and more sports lines were added, with athletic shoes and clothing being introduced to the product mix in the early ’70s.

SCHEELS’ first All Sports Superstore opened in Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1989, and its Reno-Sparks, Nevada, location, which opened in 2008, is the world’s largest all-sports store. Today, SCHEELS is a 26-store operation with locations in 11 states.

Scheels locations United States

Today, Steve D. Scheel, the great grandson of one of the SCHEELS cofounders, is the company’s chairman of the board and his son, Steve M. Scheel, serves as CEO. Bill Nelson serves as president and oversees SCHEELS’ daily operations and more than 6,000 associates.

SCHEELS is an employee-owned, privately held business that owes its consistent success to its empowered associates, leaders, and partners who think and make decisions for their individual stores and the entire company.

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Written by Nate Mickelberg

Nate Mickelberg is the former editor of Fargo INC! He holds his master's in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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