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The REI culture: Firm takes active community roles

Dennis Madsen took a job at Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) his senior year in high school to help pay for outdoor gear and lift tickets. He stocked shelves and sold the outdoor retailer's products, part-time.

That was 37 years ago. Today, the 54-year old Washington native serves as the company's chief executive officer, if still somewhat disbelievingly.

"If anyone had told me 37 years ago that I'd still be with REI, I would have laughed," Madsen said Thursday at the company's new Sandy store at the South Towne shopping complex. "In essence, it has remained fun, exciting and stimulating for me. REI is a lifestyle. It's a sense of family, a culture, and that is really its own form of compensation."

The new store, 10450 S. State, opened for business this morning and will celebrate its grand opening on April 4. The Sandy store is Utah's second, representing what Madsen called a recognition of the state's role in REI's future.

"Utah has been an important part of the retail market for REI since 1984, when we opened our first store at Brickyard Plaza," he said. "It is one of a handful of communities — the others being Denver, Seattle and the Bay area of California — that really epitomize what the outdoor market is all about. It represents the driving force behind the outdoor community."

Still, the Utah market hasn't always responded. The company in 1998 closed a store in Orem, citing slow sales. Despite that, and competition from other retailers, like Galyans at The Gateway and Gart Sports (which is located within skipping distance of the new REI store), Madsen said the Sandy store has all the right elements to succeed.

"We are in a place supplying products for an activity that people genuinely seek out — recreation," he said. Also, he said, the store is centrally located in the southern part of the valley — more convenient to Utah Valley customers; it is in close proximity to other shopping alternatives; and it offers ample parking and freeway access.

The company survived a bumpy start to the decade, reporting its first loss in the company's history in 2000. The company that year lost $11.4 million. Since then, however, Madsen said REI has rebounded.

Without disclosing specific numbers, Madsen said REI recorded record sales and revenue last year. This year, the company is focused on implementing its strategy of conservative growth and community involvement. Though REI has felt the impact of the recession and the economic ripple-effect of geopolitical unrest, Madsen said the company continues to emphasize its core values.

"Like any business, we're in an economy that will impact us to one degree or another," he said. "But what impacts us most is the stuff we can control: our products, and hiring great sales associates. Those are the things that drive our company, more than the economy, the competition or anything else."

It's that culture that attracted Greta Eaton, the Sandy store's manager. It has kept her with REI for the last 10 years, through 5 stores and four states.

"I love the values of the company," Eaton said. "They are in alignment with my personal values, my belief in the need for balance between work and play, and the importance of integrity."

Despite hard economic times, Eaton said Utahns in the southern part of the valley are ready for their own REI.

"The time is right for us to come into this market," she said. "A lot of our outdoor retailers are based here, a lot of industry folks are right here in the valley. And, the market is growing in population.

"The Olympics provided a lot of really great exposure, and I think it's paying off. So this is the right time for us to be here, to enhance the overall outdoor market."


E-MAIL: jnii@desnews.com