Icon (Close Menu)

Logout

Gearhead Riding High Again: Looking Back on a 27-Year Ride with Ted HergetLock Icon

7 min read

Ted Herget is a study in contradictions.

He constantly runs marathons and rides thousands of miles on a bicycle every year. Yet he likes to relax, and 10 days ago was having a rooftop drink in Jonesboro, the home of his Gearhead Outfitters chain of nearly 20 outdoor stores.

He failed college semester after semester in grief after his mother died of cancer in his freshman year, and yet later got his accounting degree at Arkansas State University and accepted a job at Deloitte & Touche before starting his first store.

He loves Arkansas dearly and found transcendence in a recent ride from Jonesboro to Helena, relishing nature and passing historic Black cemeteries and Native American landmarks. Yet he found his path as a young man in faraway Breckenridge, Colorado, and brought its “mountain attitude” back home.

 

At 50, he has a strong, growing business, but less than three years ago, he “got his teeth knocked out” by the pandemic, which closed all but two of his stores and for a time cut his employee count from 300 to 25.

And then there was the tornado, but more on that in a bit.

“We’re knocking on 27 years this January,” Herget says, beginning a rambling but fascinating nearly hourlong interview.

“I started in a buddy’s living room in 1997 and then moved down the street to a little 700-square-foot place.”

Herget’s mother’s death when he was still in his teens inspired his eventual success, he said, but it also left him rudderless for a time.

“I just couldn’t find my path. It’s amazing how important parents are, and Mom was like having a backboard. All of a sudden I had no backboard.”

So he moved to Colorado with a friend and started working at a “gear shop,” an outdoor store where he found a deep appreciation for high-quality products and serving customers.

But he really fell in love with the mountain lifestyle. “The mountain attitude is just cool,” he said. “It’s work hard and play hard, but also laid-back and casual.”

After returning to Jonesboro to get his accounting degree, he and his friend Joe Clay Young walked to the end of Main Street. He and Young, now a prominent financial adviser and real estate investor in Jonesboro, looked around and both said they were reminded of Breckenridge.

Within nine months of accepting the job at Deloitte, Herget was renting a tiny space for $300 a month, ordering most of his merchandise. “I had a thousand bucks, but people trusted my knowledge of bikes and I just kept reinvesting and reinvesting.”

 

Now Gearhead Outfitters is far more than a biking, hiking and camping retailer. Its stores from Shreveport to Chicago sell thousands of items like high-end shoes, apparel, kayaks and accessories. The chain owner doesn’t directly reveal its revenue, but internet sites say it’s up to $36 million per year. “People see that on the web and ask me if it’s true,” he said. “I say I don’t know, maybe.”

That’s a far cry from the beginning, when Herget said he’d work just about any job, particularly as a DJ, “just to keep those doors open.”

The Buildup

Gearhead went from the 700-SF space to a 5,000-SF store on Main Street in Jonesboro, and has since added Arkansas stores in Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Little Rock. In early 2019, Gearhead Outfitters and Gamble Home Furnishings of Jonesboro together bought what real estate broker Joshua Brown calls the “single most important retail building in the history of our city,” the 82,000-SF Sears building at Highland Drive and Caraway Road. It was a cornerstone of uptown Jonesboro’s most famous shopping center in the mid-20th century, Indian Mall.

Gamble and Gearhead renovated the building and moved their retail operations that had been in Jonesboro’s Mall at Turtle Creek. A tornado ravaged the mall on March 28, 2019, and the center never fully recovered.

In August 2019, Gearhead Outfitters acquired Rock/Creek Outfitters of Chattanooga, including seven Rock/Creek brand stores in Tennessee as well as six Uncle Dan’s store sites in the Chicago area and one in Glendale, Wisconsin. Herget rebranded the Uncle Dan’s stores as Gearhead Outfitters. Financial terms were not disclosed, but the deal was said to be in the tens of millions of dollars. Uncle Dan’s was previously a subsidiary of publicly traded Camping World of Lincolnshire, Illinois.

Gearhead Outfitters Brand Store Locations*

Store Name

Location

Gearhead Outfitters Oak Park Mall

Overland Park, Kansas

Gearhead Outfitters Lincoln Square

Chicago, Illinois

Gearhead Outfitters Highland Park

Illinois

Gearhead Outfitters Evanston

Illinois

Gearhead Outfitters Bentonville

Arkansas

Gearhead Outfitters Fayetteville

Arkansas

Gearhead Outfitters Utica Square Mall

Tulsa, Oklahoma

Gearhead Outfitters West County

Des Peres, Missouri

Gearhead Outfitters Battlefield Mall

Springfield, Missouri

Gearhead Outfitters Chenal Parkway

Little Rock, Arkansas

Gearhead Outfitters Pinnacle Hills Promenade

Rogers, Arkansas

Gearhead Outfitters Uptown Jonesboro

Arkansas

Gearhead Outfitters Downtown Jonesboro

Arkansas

*Gearhead Outfitters also has several Rock/Creek stores operating under that brand in Chattanooga and nearby in Tennessee.

 

“Before COVID we had 23 or 24 stores and post-COVID we were down to like 17,” Herget said.

“We furloughed everybody and things got biblical, going from about 300 employees to just 25 still working. The tornado went through Jonesboro on a Saturday, and we had already closed that location, which was a blessing, really. If we’d had a team there, and customers, it could have been tragic.”

Those times tried his entrepreneur’s soul, he said.

“You’ve shut down all but two stores, you’re down to 25 employees from 300, and you’re still paying for all this insurance and maintenance, just getting your teeth knocked out. PPP [Paycheck Protection Plan loans] saved us. Every penny saved us.” The company now has about 200 employees, Herget said, giving credit to Centennial Bank and Davy Carter, its regional president and former Arkansas House speaker, who helped with the PPP process.

 

“We still get together,” Herget said. “I have a little speakeasy, and we sit and talk through how I was the first PPP application in the whole Centennial-Home BancShares deal.”

Over the years, he said, Gearhead Outfitters pivoted. “We were first pretty much just a bike shop with a little outdoor equipment, but now we’re very into footwear” and apparel. “It’s more than sport and after-sport wear. We have best-in-class, comfortable shoes and gear. It’s a lifestyle; it’s not necessities. I mean, people don’t need to buy this shit.”

But they do enjoy buying and using  it, and part of that joy comes from going to the Gearhead store.

“That’s part of the adventure, and our people love to help the customer find what excites them. I’d guess less than 2% of our sales come from online,” Herget said.

Bigger Store Concepts

Gearhead’s traditional 4,000-SF stores have been giving way to 10,000-SF and 12,000-SF sites, Herget said. “This 10, 11 and 12,000-SF concept is really cool and very successful. We took over the Nike space in Little Rock [in the Promenade at Chenal] working with Chris Monroe and those dudes and just reopened that. We have the new store in uptown Jonesboro [in the old Sears building], and in Q2 of 2024, we’re going to open a 10,000-SF store” opposite the Pinnacle Hills Promenade in Rogers.

“We’re going to keep the Rogers store, which is a traditional 4,000-SF store, but we’re going to put a 10,000-SF store across the interstate.”

Monroe, a principal at Moses Tucker Partners, which represented the landlords in the Chenal deal, called the Gearhead expansion “another example of their continued success and growth.” Customers will appreciate the greater inventory, he said, “and we are extremely proud of Gearhead’s further commitment to the Promenade at Chenal.”

 

Gearhead Outfitters’ Lincoln Square site is one of several in the Chicago area.
Gearhead Outfitters’ Lincoln Square site is one of several in the Chicago area. (Sarah Friedman)

 

Gearhead plans to acquire two more stores next year, probably in Colorado, Herget said, and they will follow the company’s vision of offering customers an excellent and relaxed shopping experience in pursuit of “active, fulfilling lives.”

“Typical outdoor stores are intimidating, because you walk in and there are climbing ropes and paddling shit everywhere,” Herget said.

 

“That’s intimidating for somebody wanting to buy a comfortable pair of shoes. In the time it takes a customer to take in all that we’ll already have a team member helping them find what they’ll like. I say we’re like a gateway drug to the outdoors.”

Spiritual Ride

In retrospect, Herget thinks the pandemic was probably good for outdoor retailing. It stopped the world and made people take a look around — and get outdoors.

“I made the joke earlier that no one needs this shit, but they do want to be active and get out and see nature,” preferably in comfortable shoes and clothes.

While COVID raged, Herget saw a chance to double down, buy the Sears building and invest in hometown real estate. “I was saying, ‘You know, guys, we may go broke but we’re going to go down swinging.’”

He and his wife, Amanda, are constantly grateful for the outdoor beauty and wonder of the Natural State. She and a group of friends who dubbed themselves the Trail Sisters go hiking and biking together in the Rockies and the Ozarks. Herget, a lifelong runner and biker, is enjoying his home state more than ever.

“I did a gravel ride recently from Jonesboro to Helena, Arkansas, and it was the most spiritual bike ride I’ve ever done,” Herget said. “I thought, man, this is right in my backyard, pay attention! I think Arkansans right now are having an enlightenment, an outdoor enlightenment, realizing how great we are as the Natural State. Man, it’s awesome.”

Send this to a friend