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John Forzani (Colin Way/Colin Way)
John Forzani (Colin Way/Colin Way)

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Off and running: Forzani's sporting goods empire Add to ...

From a single store in Calgary in the early 1970s, footballer John Forzani built a sports retailing powerhouse, with 550 locations bearing names such as Sport Chek, Sports Experts, Sport Mart, and Athletes World. Now, at 64, he has supported the sale of Forzani Group to Canadian Tire, which acquired the business in an $800-million deal

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The right mindset

My mother and father were very entrepreneurial. My dad immigrated from Italy, and within a few years he had built his own business. He actually owned almost a square block and a big car service business in Calgary. I never knew my dad to have “a job.” He always told us if you have to work, you might as well work for yourself.

At one point, three Forzani brothers were at Utah State University, and we all played on the same football team. Tom was a receiver, I was an offensive lineman and Joe was a linebacker. I took business and I graduated, and I’d like to tell you I had this great life and career plan. But I didn’t. If you had a college degree, you could do substitute teaching, and that’s what I did the first year back in Calgary.

Luckiest guy in the world

I ended up playing football for the Calgary Stampeders, and at Christmas, 1973, I visited my in-laws in Logan, Utah. The family had a very good general sports store, and I was helping my father-in-law count inventory. I was reading an article in a trade magazine about a company called Foot Locker, which had opened a store in California that specialized in selling only athletic footwear. It was a new trend.

I knew the Stampeders always ordered their shoes from the U.S. So why not open a little store to just sell this specific footwear to athletes? At that point, kids weren’t wearing running shoes to school like they do today. So while I’d like to be seen as the smartest guy in the world, I’m actually the luckiest guy. I decided to open a store, and my brothers Joe and Tommy and teammate Basil Bark gave me $2,500 apiece for 10 per cent of the business. We started with about $10,000.

I never thought we would have the kind of legs we did, but we made money the first year and, at the end of the second, I thought this could be something. You get the bug. I started to think: “Wouldn’t it be nice to have 10 or 15 of these stores?” – and one thing led to another.

A stressful year

We had a lousy, lousy year in fiscal 1997, after we bought a Montreal company, Sports Experts, that was three times bigger than us. In the first year, things went swimmingly because we ran two separate businesses. But when we started to merge them, things got very difficult. They had a computer system; we had a computer system, but we went to a third system and it didn’t work so well. We just banged it out of control. It was the highest-stress point of my life.

And two big American sports retailers decided to do a foray into Canada. It was touch and go, but we got very aggressive in pricing and they were hurt by the low Canadian dollar. They couldn’t get their formulas to work here – and so they both folded shop and went back.

I remember the highest-stress day of all. Our chief lender was GE Capital, and we were offside on a couple of covenants. I had to fly to Chicago to tell them. I was all alone because I had just terminated our CFO, and the sharks were circling the pool. When I walked in the room, there were five lawyers and several layers of management waiting.

I said I had a plan, and I explained that to accomplish it, they had to give me another $7-million. And they said okay. So we had the breathing room and could get goods shipped that spring. By the end of 1997, we had an almost complete turnaround.

By then, I knew we had a different scale of business. You don’t have to go to Harvard to know you don’t have the skill sets. I have good common sense and good people skills, but when it comes to the finer points of the business, we needed people well educated in their disciplines. It helps if they have worked for big companies that gave them good exposure. So we hired some key guys in those areas.

Next steps

The Canadian Tire deal is the right thing for the business and employees – certainly the right thing for me. In retail today, big is good. And, as I’ve challenged many a guy over a glass of wine, I would argue retail is the hardest business. There are so many variables – some you get to control and some you don’t. There is no built-in market, and barriers to entry are low.

You really have to have people motivated by the job and put together a structure that can manage all these things. You try to cut down on some of the variables, because you can’t control the weather, you can’t control the economy and you can’t control the fickle finger of fashion.

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