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Soul-Searching After Parkland, Dick's CEO Embraces Tougher Stance On Guns

22 hours ago
Originally published on February 12, 2019 10:13 am

Almost nine months after the Parkland shooting, Ed Stack — the CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods — stood up in the audience of a New York Times conference. He got up to talk about restricting gun sales at his stores. He had done it many times before, but this time, he got personal.

"I'm not embarrassed to say I'm viewed as a relatively tough guy," Stack said. "I wouldn't characterize myself as a crier. And that weekend, I watched those kids, and I watched those parents, and I hadn't cried as much since my mother passed away."

His highly publicized tougher stance on gun sales and outspoken push for reform turned the now-64-year-old into an unlikely corporate face of gun control. To Wall Street, the company's new gun policy wasn't out of line with its business interests. But to most Americans, this was a staid, dependable athletics store suddenly plunging into activism.

One year after the Parkland, Fla., school shooting, Stack's early lobbying efforts have proved difficult. But on a corporate level, the company remains steadfast in its new gun sales policy. Dick's no longer sells the type of semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting, which is sometimes called assault-style or military-style. Dick's also no longer sells any firearms to people under 21.

This situation has been remarkable for several reasons. Dick's is the biggest sporting goods retailer in the country and has a subsidiary dedicated to hunting and fishing, called Field & Stream. Stack himself is a gun owner and was a longtime Republican donor. And Dick's is based in a Pittsburgh suburb — in Western Pennsylvania, where the gun rights debate is heated.

"Dick's Sporting Goods had a personal connection to Parkland and they were the first to take action of a lot of businesses that then followed suit: Walmart, the banks, insurance companies, credit card companies. Made a big difference in the NRA," said Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was killed in the Parkland shooting and who says he personally knows one of Dick's executives.

Around Pittsburgh, where the memory of the mass shooting at a local synagogue in October is still raw, opinions on Dick's post-Parkland gun policies vary.

In the city itself and its liberal suburbs, people said they were proud of Dick's taking a tougher stand on guns. At Dick's stores around the city, most shoppers said the gun policy has not affected them or changed their shopping habits. Beyond the city, gun owners said they felt betrayed.

"I'll never shop there again. They'll never get another dime from me," said Jody Salerno, standing behind the counter of her gun store and shooting range, called Elite Firearms & Training, outside Pittsburgh. Her business partner William DeForte nodded.

"With it being a homegrown company, it was more of a slap in the face to Western PA. Our roots are pretty deep with the Second Amendment," Salerno said, as DeForte picked up her thought: "The gun-owning community, hunting, defense, all the shooting sports," he said. "They pissed off their core firearm customer base."

Many shoppers at this Dick's Sporting Goods near Pittsburgh said the company's new gun policy has not affected them or changed their shopping habits.
Alina Selyukh / NPR

Rash decision?

The most common take on the new policy at Dick's — even among its supporters — is that the company had a knee-jerk reaction to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Seventeen people were killed, and an unprecedented wave of youth activism followed.

And indeed, the Parkland shooting was a game-changer for Stack.

Dick's executives ran the shooter's name through the internal systems and found that months earlier, the retailer had sold him a gun — while following all the laws. It was a different kind and wasn't used in the shooting. Still, in interviews that followed, Stack would point out how the sale illustrated a broken system, which he wanted lawmakers to fix.

Inside Dick's, this position had been percolating for some time.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Dick's stopped selling assault-style rifles. The company dealt with a backlash from the gun-owning community. Later, the rifles were back on sale only at the Field & Stream stores.

Dick's as a company is not known to go out on a limb. Take its headquarters, which is next to the airport for efficiency — instead of some snazzy downtown office. Its dress code did not officially allow jeans at work until 2017.

And people who know Stack will say he does not make rash calls.

"Every decision he makes in the company I think is very calculated, and he's made good decisions," said Jim Roddey, former chief executive of Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, home to Dick's Sporting Goods.

Roddey also used to chair the county's Republican Party, which in 2011 wanted Stack to run for the Senate. "We thought he would be a great candidate," Roddey said. "His story is wonderful. Here's the young son that took over and built this empire."

Stack's father — the eponymous Dick Stack — had started the company in 1948 almost on a dare, as a bait-and-tackle shop in Binghamton, N.Y. When his health declined, son Ed and Ed's siblings took over. Ed Stack opened the headquarters near Pittsburgh, took the company public in 2002. Including subsidiaries, Dick's now has more than 800 stores.

"That business is his religion," was how Roddey put it.

And so historically, Stack's political and corporate work aligned. When Dick's Sporting Goods would lobby Congress, it was usually about tax policy.

"He believed in lower taxes, certainly in lower business taxes. He believed in personal responsibility, individual freedoms, the Second Amendment," Roddey said.

In all his interviews last year, Stack always mentioned his support of the Second Amendment. According to his company, he still owns guns and is a registered independent. Stack declined NPR's interview request.

Lobbying effort

After Parkland, Stack began calling on Congress to write new laws that would echo Dick's corporate policy: Ban assault-style firearms and raise the minimum age to purchase firearms to 21, among other things.

The key part of Stack's media campaign after Parkland was an open letter "imploring" lawmakers to act. Later, in an op-ed video for The Washington Post, he declared: "I suspect that many of our legislators know what's right. It's kind of a cliché, but leaders lead. They make difficult decisions."

In April, Dick's hired a lobbying firm in Washington to advocate for gun control, a move that conservative media critics chewed over.

But recent records show the company spent somewhere between $0 and $5,000 on the effort — barely anything by lobbying standards. The lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association, for example, spends millions of dollars every year.

Faced with gridlock and politicking ahead of midterm elections, Dick's Sporting Goods retreated from Capitol Hill.

"In the second half of 2018, Mr. Stack felt that no progress was made coming out of his meetings in Washington, D.C., as each member of Congress talked straight across party lines," a company spokeswoman said in a statement.

Instead, Stack decided to speak about gun laws and his company's restrictions at events, like that New York Times conference.

"We don't know for sure, we actually think that saved some lives," he said standing in the audience. "And if we had a mulligan to do it all over again, we'd do it all over again."

The fallout

What's been the financial fallout for Dick's so far?

In November, the company reported a 3.9 percent dip in sales, dragged down particularly by hunting goods. Wall Street expects a similar trend to show up in Dick's full-year results due in March.

At the same time, the company's profit margin improved slightly. That's because guns and ammunition "tend to be very, very low margin," said Wedbush analyst Christopher Svezia. Dick's makes more money from selling most other items in its stores, like sports equipment or clothing.

And that's why Wall Street has been far less stirred by the Dick's story than the media, Svezia said.

For example, Walmart caused far less outcry when it stopped selling modern sporting rifles in 2015. The retailer simply said it was a business decision because those weapons weren't selling well. Last year, Walmart said it will also stop selling guns and ammo to anyone under 21 — right after Dick's made the same announcement.

And hunting has been a drag for Dick's for a long time. Fewer people hunt these days. Gun sales overall are in a decline because of what's known as the "Trump slump": The constant fear of a gun-ownership crackdown drove sales during the Obama years but has dissipated under President Trump.

In 10 stores, Dick's is actually running a test, removing virtually all hunting gear entirely.

In December, Stack disclosed that 62 employees had quit Dick's in response to the change in its gun policy. At least two of the resignations had gone viral on social media. One of them was by Griffin McCullar, who at the time was 20 and worked at Dick's in North Carolina.

"I honestly liked it a good bit, even up until the day I left," he said. "I got to talk to people about hunting and fishing every day." Both are his huge interests. So are guns and the Second Amendment. He says he worked a full day after the policy changed.

"My problem was I had 18-, 19-, 20-year-old Marines — I mean, we were right next to a Marine Corps base," McCullar said. "The U.S. government is handing them various different extremely high-caliber firearms. And I can't hand him a 12-gauge shotgun off the shelf to check out? That's where I had a huge disagreement."

McCullar said more of his co-workers agreed with him but couldn't quit as easily as he did. He also stopped shopping at Dick's, though he said he has plenty of friends who still do.

Stack actually mentioned McCullar's story in December as he disclosed the 62 resignations. He said he respected the man's handling of the situation — stating his disagreement with the policy without bad-mouthing the company — and would hire him back anytime.

"It's OK to have differing views," Stack said, speaking at a Wall Street Journal event. "We just have to respect each other and have a civil conversation."

McCullar said he wouldn't go back unless Dick's reversed its policy. "But it was kind of funny to me that [Stack] actually mentioned me in a good way," McCullar said. "I kind of can respect that a little bit."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This week, we're marking one year since the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. We're hearing from families trying to forge a way out of their grief and survivors who have turned their pain into political activism. Today we hear about the CEO who became an unlikely ally in pushing for more gun control. His company Dick's Sporting Goods is based near Pittsburgh, the site of another mass shooting that happened last October at a synagogue. NPR's Alina Selyukh reports.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Almost nine months after the Parkland shooting, Ed Stack, CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, stands up in the audience of a New York Times conference. He's in his early 60s, white hair, navy suit. And he's up to talk about restricting gun sales at his stores. He's done it before. But this time, he gets personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ED STACK: I'm not embarrassed to say I'm viewed as a relatively tough guy. I wouldn't characterize myself as a crier. And that weekend, I watched those kids. And I watched those parents, and I hadn't cried as much since my mother passed away.

SELYUKH: When Dick's executives ran the shooter's name through the internal systems, they discovered that months earlier they did sell him a gun while following all the laws. It was a different kind. It wasn't used in the shooting. But still, to Stack, this illustrated a broken system. So in February 2018, he went on a media tour. Here he is on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACK: You know, everybody talks about thoughts and prayers going out to them, and that's great. But that doesn't really do anything. And we felt that we needed to take a stand and do this.

SELYUKH: That stand had two key parts. Dick's Sporting Goods would completely stop selling the type of semi-automatic rifle used in the Parkland shooting. They're sometimes called assault style or military style, And Dick's would no longer sell any firearm to people under 21.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACK: We don't want to be a part of this story any longer now.

SELYUKH: Now, Dick's Sporting Goods is not a company known to go out on a limb. Its dress code didn't officially allow jeans at work until two years ago. But suddenly, Dick's was trending. It planted itself in the middle of the gun debate calling for reforms. This was remarkable. Dick's is the biggest sporting goods retailer in the country. Stack himself is a gun owner and was a longtime Republican donor. And Dick's is based in Western Pennsylvania where the gun rights debate is heated.

JODY SALERNO: I'll never shop there again. They'll never get another dime from me.

SELYUKH: I met Jody Salerno along with her business partner William DeForte at Salerno's gun store and shooting range called Elite Firearms & Training outside Pittsburgh.

SALERNO: With it being a homegrown company, it was more of a slap in the face...

WILLIAM DEFORTE: Yeah.

SALERNO: ...To Western Pa.

DEFORTE: Yeah.

SELYUKH: In which way?

SALERNO: You know, our roots are pretty deep with...

DEFORTE: The gun owner community.

SALERNO: ...The Second Amendment. Yeah.

DEFORTE: Hunting, defense, all the shooting sports.

SALERNO: Yeah.

DEFORTE: They pissed off their core firearm customer base.

SELYUKH: Opinions were divided around Pittsburgh. In the more liberal city center, people would say they were proud of the company. But beyond the city, gun owners said they felt betrayed. A few miles from Dick's headquarters are the grounds of the Forest Grove Sportsmen Association. Michael Karkalla shows me around the beautiful valley with shooting ranges, snowy woods, an icy creek.

MICHAEL KARKALLA: I grew up walking this crick. If I was 12 or 13 years old, I would've been out on that ice.

SELYUKH: Forest Grove is a club for hunters and fishers, archery and gun enthusiasts. And Karkalla is the chairman. He says some of the members actually work at Dick's. When Dick's decided to restrict gun sales, it was a huge topic of conversation, especially the new age limit of 21 now applying to all firearms and not just handguns as federal law says.

KARKALLA: You can vote at 18. That means you can vote. It's the way this country runs. You can enlist in the military and go fight and carry a fully automatic firearm.

SELYUKH: Now a year later, he says Dick's doesn't come up so often. The club tries not to talk politics. And personally, he disagrees with their policy but still shops there.

KARKALLA: They usually have the best price on, like, Penguins jerseys and Steelers jerseys.

SELYUKH: And Karkalla said something I actually heard a lot as I talked to people about Dick's Sporting Goods, even from supporters. It's this impression that the change was a knee-jerk reaction to Parkland. But Dick's had actually done something similar before. After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, Dick's stopped selling assault-style rifles. Later, they were back on sale only at the company's hunting-oriented field and stream stores. And people who know Stack will say he does not make rash decisions.

JIM RODDEY: Every decision he makes in the company, I think, is very calculated, and he's made good decisions.

SELYUKH: Jim Roddey is former chief executive of Allegheny County, home to Dick's Sporting Goods. He also used to chair the county's Republican Party which, in 2011, wanted Stack to run for Senate.

RODDEY: And we thought he would be a great candidate. His story is wonderful. Here's the young son that took over and built this empire.

SELYUKH: Stack's father, the eponymous Dick Stack, had started the company almost on a dare as a bait and tackle shop in Binghamton, N.Y. When his health declined, his son Ed and siblings took over. Ed opened the headquarters near Pittsburgh, took the company public. And it grew to more than 800 stores.

RODDEY: That business is his religion.

SELYUKH: And so historically, Stack's political and corporate work aligned. When Dick's Sporting Goods would lobby Congress, it was often on taxes.

RODDEY: He believed in lower taxes, certainly in lower business taxes. He believed in personal responsibility, individual freedoms, the Second Amendment.

SELYUKH: In all his interviews last year, Stack always mentions his support of the Second Amendment. According to his company, he still owns guns and is a registered independent. So what's been the financial fallout at Dick's? The company lost sales, especially in hunting goods. But its profit margin went up slightly because it makes less selling guns and ammo than sports equipment or clothing. Plus...

ROBERT SPITZER: Gun sales generally have been slipping.

SELYUKH: Robert Spitzer, professor at SUNY Cortland, says during the Obama years, there was a constant fear of a crackdown on gun ownership - not under Trump.

SPITZER: This has been widely referred to as the Trump slump.

SELYUKH: And hunting has been a drag for Dick's Sporting Goods for a long time. Fewer people hunt these days. In 10 stores, Dick's is actually running a test removing hunting goods entirely. But of all the moves by Dick's, the most controversial was the hiring of a new lobbying firm to advocate for gun control. Yet records show the company barely spent anything on the effort. When I asked the company about this, they said Stack saw no progress from his meetings in gridlocked Washington. So instead, he decided to speak about gun laws and his company's gun restrictions at events like that New York Times conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STACK: We don't know for sure, but we actually think that saved some lives. And if we had a mulligan to do it all over again, we'd do it all over again.

SELYUKH: And he says Dick's is never turning back. Alina Selyukh, NPR News, Pittsburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON PARKS' "PROFESSOR STRANGEWEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.