BOARDMAN, Ohio – It is fitting that when Rick Blase, owner of Rick’s Factory Boot Outlet, opened his business 44 years ago, he did so with hard work and a little cowboy bravado.
“I started it with 72 pairs of actual boots and 500 empty boxes,” Blase says, sitting in the office of his store in Boardman.
The year was 1978 and the 23-year-old Blase was a manager at Regal Shoes inside the Southern Park Mall. Having transferred to the area from Cleveland, the young Blase’s plan was to stay a year and open a store.
“Do I want to go into footwear and get a really small piece of a really big pie or do I want to get a really big piece of a smaller pie?” he asked himself.
Blase chose the latter, deciding his store would focus on boots, mainly of the cowboy variety. He saved the boxes of every pair of boots he sold at Regal and asked several friends in the business to do likewise.
When he was ready to open the store, he prominently displayed the empty boxes “so it looked like I had something,” Blase says. “In hindsight, there’s no way I should have made it in business because I didn’t have enough capital.”
Blase was the sole employee at the store, which at the time was named Rick’s Ranchwear. He worked 14-hour days, he says, and performed every duty needed, from stocking the shelves to bookkeeping. “I did everything,‘ he says. “I washed the windows. I vacuumed the carpet.”
After one year in business, he hired his first employee. “Now I have 230,” Blase says.
But it wasn’t all easy riding. Just as the business gained steam and began to draw customers from hours away, a new threat, the internet, appeared on the horizon.
As the popularity of the internet grew, Blase says it became more and more common to see customers coming in to select and try on boots, only to leave and buy them at a lower price online. The result was a shot to Blase’s bottom line that caused him to close a few of the new stores he had opened. “It about put us out of business,” he says.
So Blase circled the wagons and came up with a new strategy. After noticing that the clothing and other items his store offered weren’t as profitable as the boots, he decided to eliminate all clothing, a move that led to rebranding his store in Boardman.
He had already named all his other stores Rick’s Boot Factory Outlet. “We made the name change, confused a lot of people but it actually brought us even more business,” Blase says.”
The big move, however, was his decision to begin manufacturing his own boots, a strategy he hoped would allow him to gain the upper hand in the pricing battle with the internet.
In 1992, Blase visited two manufacturing plants in Mexico, one of which had never made cowboy boots, and “convinced them to build boots for us,” he says.
“First trial-and-error stuff was pretty rough,” but they soon got the hang of it and today Rick’s manufactures several private labels, the most popular being the J.B. Dillon line.
“It has enabled us to be able to have the best prices out of anybody. Nobody’s even close [even on the internet],” Blase says.
Customers who frequent a Rick’s establishment are well acquainted with the popular “Buy 1 Pair Get 2 Free” deal offered at all stores. “Bottom boots are $199,”he says, “and you get three pair. So it’s $66 a pair.”
The foray into manufacturing has been so successful that Blase has expanded production several times, even investing in some of the factories “because we need them to grow faster than they can grow on their own,” he says.
The move has also helped to insulate the business from the supply chain issues other manufacturers are dealing with as a result of getting most of their footwear from Asia. “They can’t get their goods,” Blase says. “So we’re in a really good spot.”
Since 2004, the company has been steadily growing with no signs of slowing down. “Women’s boots are hotter than they’ve ever been,” he says.
Blase employs a team of designers who are constantly developing new styles, which Blase oversees and approves, to ensure there is always something new on the shelf.
A big part of his job today is following the fashion trends to make sure his designs follow suit.
“You need to know what color palettes are going to be popular,” Blase says.
Currently, there are eight Rick’s Boot Factory Outlet stores: two in Nashville, Tennessee, as well as Orlando, Florida, and one each in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee; Lake City, Florida, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Boardman.
Rick notes that all the stores are in tourist destinations, the Boardman store being the exception.
Still, customer service manager Crystal York says people regularly drive hours to visit the store, which is particularly popular among bridal parties. “Wedding season in the fall. Everybody wants to do the rustic, country wedding,” York says.
The Boardman site has just about every type of boot imaginable, including some made from exotic materials such as caiman, python and ostrich skin, although York says work boots are always popular. “We sell a lot of work boots, hunting boots. We even carry riding boots. Motorcycle and horse,” she says.
Since overcoming the challenge posed by the internet, Blase has been mostly content to keep his business offline and in-person. Although Rick’s does have a website, customers must order over the phone.
Soon, Blase plans to add to his arsenal the weapon that almost ended his business – and launch BootFactoryOutlet.com.
Blase says the site has been ready for two years, but he was afraid the surge in demand would exceed his production capabilities. So he’s spent the intervening years building capacity. “We just know it’s going to go gangbusters,” he says.
As for future plans, Blase says he has none. After more than 40 years of riding from town to town and defeating threats, he’s content to hang up his boots, at least for a little while, and tend to the homestead.
“I could open up 20 more stores but how much is enough?”
Pictured: When Rick Blase started his business 44 years ago, he was its sole employee. Now he has 230.