Today: How Norbert Olberz built a corporate giant from a tiny mom and pop business.
Born in Germany in 1925, after World War ll Norbert went to Canada where he worked as an oil roughneck and a truck driver. When a sponsor posted $2,500 and assured the U.S. government Norbert had a job, he came to the U.S. in 1955 at the age of 30.
Meanwhile, his friend Margit asked him to post $2,500 and sponsor her German friend Irene Kitz. Norbert was happy to help, paid the $2,500 and gladly forgave the debt.
Nearly a year later, Irene arrived and was introduced to Norbert. She instantly touched his heart and he asked her out on a date. On their 2nd date, suddenly he proposed marriage. Startled, she considered his proposal and during dinner, she said, “Here are the rules,” defining a marriage of equals, something largely unheard of in the 1950’s.
After Norbert agreed, she accepted his proposal and three weeks later they were married.
In 1959 they moved to what is now La Canada Flintridge, northeast of Los Angeles as Norbert found what he hoped would be a great opportunity. They bought a little ski and tennis store they named Sport Chalet for $4,000 and then the couple used the rest of their life savings of $6,000 to pay for the inventory.
But it wasn’t enough money. Norbert borrowed another $5,000 from suppliers and the couple was now in debt way over their heads.
They were so broke, they lived in the store. For the 1st two years, they slept on portable beds, cooked their meals on a small propane stove and showered using a garden hose.
Norbert often worried about all the debt he and Irene had. Fortunately, she got a job as a teller at a local Bank of America branch and she worked after hours in the store, the two of them being at first the store’s only employees.
Gradually, through listening to their customers and through trial and error, their little Sport Chalet grew into a profitable business and Norbert began to expand it.
One story Norbert loved to tell about that expansion was about a woman who came to the store on a summer day wanting to buy a baseball mitt for her son. At first Norbert was thrilled thinking he was going to make an off-season sale of ski mittens.
When she corrected him, he asked what a mitt is. And when she explained that, he asked what a baseball is, for baseball was not played in Germany. As a result of that conversation, he added some baseball equipment and when that sold well, he realized there was real money to be made in team sports, especially in selling uniforms, shoes and other apparel.
So much money, that in 1974, he took over an old shuttered supermarket across the street and opened a 30,000 square foot facility to cater to the sports team market. This big risk paid off well.
In 1981 he opened a 2nd store in Huntington Beach in Orange County and that soon caught on. He kept opening stores and in 1992, to raise more money to open additional stores, he took the company public. Today there are 55 stores located in California, Nevada, Arizona and Utah and the company has $364 million in annual sales.
Norbert also became a real estate investor. His dream was to build a beautiful shopping center to include a Sport Chalet and its corporate headquarters
Over the years, when Norbert had a good year, he bought 2 or 3 houses in an adjoining tract to his store and when he had a bad year, he scrambled and bought 1 house. Eventually he owned 29 homes and for years, he rented them to employees for an incredibly low $500 a month. Many of those homes were three bedrooms and some had swimming pools.
A three bedroom apartment near his store rented for 2 -3 times that much and a house for even more. Employees loved his generosity and moved into “Norbertville.” It was understood by all that someday Norbertville would be replaced by a beautiful shopping center but that turned out to be many years into the future.
Finally in 2008, Norbert and Irene proudly opened on what had been Norbertville, a beautiful shopping center, with retail space, the new corporate headquarters and a park and a pre-school.
But subsidized housing aside, Norbert and Irene did something else extraordinary to express their appreciation for Sport Chalet employees.
In 1998, nearly 40 years after Sport Chalet began, to reward their longest term 129 employees for helping build the company, they gave them $3 million of their own stock, a rare act of generosity in corporate America. Suddenly those employees had huge and unexpected bonuses.
A year earlier, 72 year old Norbert hired Craig Levra to work closely with him and to replace him as CEO, which Craig did in 1999. Norbert served as Chairman until 2001 when he was 76 years of age and Craig replaced him in that role as well.
For the next 10 years, Norbert and Irene could focus on making the shopping center a reality and on the outdoor activities they loved. They were also long term supporters of the Sierra Club.
But on July 15th 2011, 86 year old Norbert died at his home of natural causes. He is survived by Irene, his wife of 52 years, their 48 year old son Eric, who serves on the Sport Chalet board of directors, and by their grandsons Karl and Marcus.
But Norbert is survived as well by the many thousands of employees, customers, suppliers and shareholders of Sport Chalet who it was his honor and passion to serve. The company employs 3,200 people and over the 52 years, estimates that it has employed about 40,000 people full or part time.
Among those former employees are doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, bankers, police officers, firefighters and others who got their start at Sport Chalet.
Success Tip of the Week:
Norbert and Irene succeeded by having the courage to act. If you have a dream, don’t let it languish. Take at least some action this week to make it a reality.
Thank you to Sport Chalet Chairman/CEO Craig Levra whose assistance was vital in telling Norbert and Irene Olberz’s story. To learn more about Sport Chalet and to see a Tribute to Norbert, please visit http://www.sportchalet.com/.
In the next KazanToday:
A young man’s little invention that revolutionized home medical care.