Company News

Rick’s Ranchwear Marks 40 Years with New Name

BOARDMAN, Ohio — With 230 employees and eight storefronts, Rick’s Ranchwear Inc. has come a long way since owner and president, Rick Blase, left his management job at the former Regal Shoes at the Southern Park Mall. Not bad for a guy who started with an inventory of 72 pairs of boots – and 500 empty boxes.

While working at the mall in the late 1970s, Blase knew all the other shoe store managers there. When he decided to set off on his own, he would go around and collect boot boxes every time a pair was sold. Blase said he would stack the boxes in the store to make it look like he had more inventory.

One of his contacts was Ron Smrek, then manager at Hanover Shoes, and now executive manager of the Youngstown store at 7336 Market Street.

“He used to come get some boxes from me and we always kept in touch,” said Smrek, who started with the company in November 1981.

On May 20, 1978, Blase opened the store and had nearly $300 in sales, “and I thought ‘Wow, this is going to be easy,’ ” he said. At the time, it was all he needed to break even. But for the next four days, he didn’t have a single customer.

“During the first year, I almost went out of business every other day,” he said with a laugh.

Blase started to advertise his new business and by the second year he had made a small profit. From then on, the company grew slow and steady, he said.

In the early to mid 1990s, business started going south as a new marketplace – the internet – came to prominence. Customers would come in and try on a pair they liked, then go online to try to find it cheaper, he said.

To keep things going, Blase added new elements to his business model. He started manufacturing his own lines of boots and introduced the ‘Buy One Pair, Get Two Free’ deal that continues today. Customers pay for the most expensive pair then get two of equal or lesser value for free.

“The only way I could do that is I have multiple stores,” he said. “A lot of people think we just have the Youngstown store. I have stores in Tennessee and Florida and we have a huge warehouse.” The company is headquartered in Canfield.

The additional space allows Rick’s to buy at a better cost so they can sell the boots at a smaller margin than other retailers, he said. The company’s average bid on merchandise is $180, which after factoring in the deal, “that’s $59.99 a pair,” he said. It helps him compete with online retailers that can’t sell as low as he can, he added.

Rick’s carries every major boot brand and only carries first-quality boots, which essentially means the boots are free of aesthetic or functional defects.

“A lot of places that have discounts, they carry seconds, ” which are factory-damaged, he said. “Maybe there will be a nick in the leather or the sole wouldn’t be put on right. We don’t do any of that.”

The company’s three lines of manufactured boots – Masterson, J.B. Dillon and Sterling River – make up about half of its business, he said. Prices differ between the three, with Sterling River being the  higher end, designer-type boot.

Rick’s started manufacturing in 1992. Initially, Blase designed the boots and oversaw their construction. He hired another designer who’s been with the company for some 20 years, he said.

“Those brands have been around for a long time, so there’s a history behind them,” said Smrek.

All boots are available at the Rick’s store in Youngstown, as well as the company’s five Boot Factory Outlet Stores in Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Nashville, Tennessee; Orlando and Lake City, Florida, and two other outlets in Nashville. Dealers from areas where Rick’s doesn’t have stores purchase the boots and resell them, Blase said.

After the initial hit from the internet, it took the company about five or six years to turn the tide. Since then, the company has enjoyed steady increases over the last 20 years, he said.

“Had we not changed our business model, we would not be in business,” he said. “And now business has never been better.”

After 40 years, Rick’s Ranchwear will locally be rebranded as Rick’s Boot Factory Outlet, bringing the store’s name in line with the other out-of-state stores. The name change reflects the company’s evolution over the last 10 years to do away with the ranchwear clothing that it used to carry, including blue jeans, shirts and jackets.

In addition to clarifying what the store sells, Blase said he expects the change to drive an increase in business – increases that the company enjoyed after changing the out-of-state stores to Boot Factory Outlets.

“When I changed the name to Boot Factory Outlet,” he said, “our sales went up by 40%.”

A billboard on the Ohio Turnpike with the new branding is already driving in business, he said. Yesterday, two customers from the Pittsburgh area said they stopped in because they saw the billboard. “They came in because they saw ‘Boot Factory Outlet,’ ” he said.

Along with the name change comes inventory changes, including expanded lines of western, motorcycle, work, hunting and fashion boots. “In the old days, we just carried cowboy boots,” he said. “So, things have changed.”

The popularity of country music in recent years has driven some of those changes and helped to increase business for the company. While the out-of-state stores are in tourist areas that cater to the country music genre, particularly Nashville, even the Youngstown local sees customers buying western boots as more of a fashion decision, Smrek said.

“With the other markets, we pull from across the world, literally,” he said. “I was in Nashville last week for the CMA Music Festival and I’m talking to people from Australia.”

“You don’t have to be a cowboy to buy a pair of cowboy boots,” Blase added. “It’s a fashion staple. Almost every woman has at least a pair.”

While the western boots are the store’s bread and butter, its lines of women’s fashion boots are popular as well, making up nearly 50% of its sales, Blase said. It forces the company to pay close attention to the fashion world, such as what colors are going to be popular.

“You’ve got to know the fashion colors two years ahead of time,” he said. “You always have your basics. But are metallics going to be big this year? Things change.”

Along with keeping ahead of industry changes, Blase said the key to the company’s success is the quality of his management and employees, including Helen Slack, his vice president for 30 years. His commitment to hiring a knowledgeable staff has helped the company maintain optimal customer service for the last 40 years, he said.

As for the dusty trail ahead, Blase isn’t resting on his heels. He’s still looking for the next idea to improve the company and move it forward, he said.

“We’re constantly re-evaluating everything we do,” he said. “We’re always thinking ‘What can we do now? What can we change?’ The people in business who don’t change are the ones who go out of business.”

Pictured: Rick Blase, owner of Rick Ranchwear Inc./Rick’s Boot Factory Outlet, with a pair of J.B. Dillon snakeskin boots.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.