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G.I. Joe's

When the weather cooperates, things couldn't be much better for this Pacific Northwest outdoor supply chain celebrating 50 years in business

Mail Tribune

G.I. Joe's ran the gamut from military surplus to general merchandise in its first five decades.

Ultimately, the Wilsonville-based Northwest automotive and sporting goods chain decided to "seize the weekend" and cater to its long-term customers.

As it celebrates its 50th year, Joe's has 18 stores stretching from Lynnwood, Wash., to Medford and plans to expand into California and Nevada in the near future. Its 2001 sales were $166 million, up from $159 million in 2000 and $130 million in 1996.

While the Northwest has endured a two-year economic dip, Joe's has plugged along, just as cognizant of weather forecasts as stock market reports.

— — — — Medford store opened in 1986

— The company also opened outlets in Eugene and Bend in — the 1980s. Company President Norm Daniels says Klamath Falls and North Bend's Pony Village were — examined, but shaky economies and smaller populations caused the company to pass.

— When we came to Medford our confidence wasn't as — high as it is now, Daniels says. We wanted to be on the other side of town from Black — Bird. We belong to the same buying group and we've been friends with those guys for years. There — was a lot of growth on the east side and toward White City. We wanted to be in close proximity to — Fred Meyer, a great retailer that attracts a lot of traffic.

— Medford had an uptick in sales of — percent in 2001 — and the company as a whole had a 5 percent same-store increase. G.I. Joe's has outlasted two — property owners at Poplar Square shopping center, not to mention virtually every other tenant.

— Medford store manager Mike Murphy grew up working in — his father's sporting goods store in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

— When he and his wife moved to Bend, he went to work — for Joe's, rising to assistant manager before transferring to Salem where he became store manager. — He moved to Medford five years ago.

— Just as the parent company has altered its approach — from time to time, the local store has its own bent.

— Over the past four or five years we've done a — pretty good job tailoring our merchandise to the unique fishing equipment that's used down — here, Murphy says. Our store guide, Gene Garner, produces a whole line of spinners — tailored for the Rogue River.

— The store also is involved with car clubs and hosts — the third day of the annual Medford Cruise for classic cars. — — "Our business is driven by the weather more than anything I know of," says Norm Daniels, president and chief executive officer. "Bad economies and terrorist attacks are one thing. If I get past those things, what I want to know is if the weather is right so I can be skiing at Mount Ashland.

"What we want is a freezing level of about 2,000 feet so the snow doesn't melt too fast, because we want lots of fish in the river. And we want summer to start July 2."

Daniels, 54, began sweeping floors and burning boxes at Joe's north Portland location while attending Portland's Roosevelt High School. He moved to sporting goods, became a buyer, merchandise manager and then director of advertising. In 1993 he was named president.

In December of 1997 Daniels became the majority owner when he and Portland's

Peregrine Capital Inc., bought out board chairman David Orkney, founder Edward Orkney's son, who owned 77 percent of the company's shares.

It's hard to picture G.I. Joe's infancy in this day of big-box structures and highly regulated commercial developments. The company, founded by World War II pilot Edward Orkney in 1952, would certainly have encountered more obstacles today.

It all began under a big top, if that's what you can call a 1,000-square-foot tent in a field not far from where North Vancouver Avenue meets what is now known as Martin Luther King Drive.

Orkney launched his venture with 2,000 Army surplus mummy sleeping bags that he bought for $1.50 each. His product sold quickly and a modest profit encouraged further investment.

"From a security standpoint, I don't know if you could start that way today," Daniels says. "Certainly you see people set up on street corners, hoping to grow into something bigger."

Soon, there were plank walls and eventually a concrete floor. 1956, it took a 40,000-square-foot building to house the surplus goods. The company's first permanent building, an 80,000-square-foot structure, was constructed in 1960.

Levi Strauss and Coleman products were added in the late 1950s and early 1960s and as the surplus pipeline started drying, the store added other lines. During the 1970s, it was Columbia Sportswear. Today, surplus items have slowed to a trickle of ammo boxes and c-rations used by backpackers.

In its formative years, Joe's sold cartons of cigarettes and tokens for the interstate bridge crossing the Columbia River.

"The toll on the bridge was 25 cents per trip," Daniels says. "We sold them five for a dollar. You could get a break from the state if you bought thousands and we'd just pass that discount along."

In 1972, Joe's opened its second store in the Rockwood district near Gresham. For the next couple of decades the company added a new store every two years. It was during that period of growth in the 1970s and 1980s that the company cast itself as another Pay Less or Bi-Mart.

"We had the idea for a while that we were a general merchandiser," Daniels says. "We needed a traffic item, so we started selling beer and wine."

But as that phase passed, the core automotive and sporting goods activity remained strong.

"Retailers became specialists and for us to survive, we had to have something for us to hang our hats on and something for our customers to hang their hats on," Daniels says.

In early 1999, G.I. Joe's attempted to go public with an initial public offering of stock. But Daniels says the timing and strategy were both wrong.

"The market wasn't ready and it was terrible timing," he says. "We pulled it back and haven't tried since. We'll probably try again, but it will be a few years. One of the mistakes we made was that we tried to sell it to New York investors. We didn't try to sell it as a local stock. The better strategy would've been to sell to our customers, people who knew us and people who liked to buy Northwest companies."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail

G.I. Joe's