Gayle Robinson, Robinson's Outdoor Store

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Gayle Robinson couldn’t have picked a more challenging time to enter the sporting goods industry.

Within months of her taking over operations from her dad three years ago at the family owned Robinson’s Outdoor Store, a new competitor set up shop next door and industry giant Mountain Equipment Co-op began planning its first Island store two blocks away.

“We were a well-loved Victoria institution, but we saw what was ahead,” says Robinson, whose grandfather George opened the Broad Street business in 1929. “I was about to turn 50 and had actually been thinking of Tuscany and taking things easier. But I felt a real passion when I stepped into the store again.”

The Victoria entrepreneur not only survived the trial by fire, but thrived. Under her guidance, Robinson’s expanded into empty retail space next door and underwent an extensive interior redesign. Outside, the plywood “Robinson’s” that had decorated the storefront for decades was replaced. (“That was a tough one for my dad,” she says.)

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Robinson is a retail veteran with 25 years in the business, starting with a screenprint T-shirt shop in Florida she bought on a whim after a sailing trip to the Caribbean. The Victoria-born entrepreneur returned to Canada in 1985 and opened a gift store in Tillicum Shopping Centre, eventually taking time off to raise her two daughters and launch a small home-based business. Then came the fateful call in 2005 from her dad Doug, asking if she’d consider taking over the family store.

She admits she didn’t know much about sporting goods, outdoor sports, or how to sell any of it when she agreed to buy the business from her father. She knew she’d need “amazing staff” to succeed, and says she has found them in the 14 people she currently employs. Robinson works hard to hold onto them in a tight labour market through monthly performance bonuses and free flights to exotic trekking destinations. The trips give staff the know-how to help customers planning their own trips, she says.

Best unexpected bonus of Robinson’s new career? Her discovery that she loved adventure travel. She’s now got Machu Picchu under her belt and Kilimanjaro in her sights and plans for a fall hiking trip in the Rockies.

“Would I have gone hiking in Peru if not for the store? Not a chance. It wasn’t even on my agenda,” she says. “Now, I want to make more time for my own adventures.”

Did you expect to take over the family business?

That hadn’t been the plan. But we had a situation where the store manager was leaving. Dad had been retired probably 10 or 15 years by then, and he was totally stressed out over what was going to happen with the store. He couldn’t bring himself to sell it because it had been part of his life. All of a sudden, I felt this ownership over the family business. We weren’t in financial trouble, but we were at a turning point for the store, because another outdoor store had opened right next door to us [and has since closed] and there was talk of Mountain Equipment Co-op coming to town. But if my grandfather had the courage to start up the store and handle a world war as well as the Depression, I figured I could handle having a store next door and MEC. I stepped in with a one-year option to purchase, because I wanted to see MEC in business for six months first. They were saying that they were going to grow the business, and they did. I was kind of waffling, but then I decided I was 100-per-cent in. And yes, [MEC] has taken a significant share of the market, but they’ve also grown the pie.

What was the steepest learning curve?

I was used to owning a store and knowing all about what I was selling and buying. But this was different, and I couldn’t buy it or sell it. I’d tell my buyers that I knew retailing really well — I was great with staff, with customers, all of that. My weakness was product knowledge. So the plan from the start has been to hire only knowledgeable people as staff.

What surprised you about the outdoor industry?

That it isn’t defined by age. I’ve got lots of people in their 20s who come in to get ready for their first trip, but I’ve also got others who are 75. I just sent a group of people in their 60s off on a cycling trip in Italy. We’re the boomers, and 50 is the new 30. On the West Coast especially, we love being fit — here, you can be active outdoors year-round. We’re seeing lots of fit people in their 50s and 60s, and they’re doing things like going to Peru to hike the Inca Trail.

Robinson’s celebrates its 80th anniversary next year — what’s the secret to its longevity?

We’ve changed with the times. Robinson’s Sporting Goods started out as a hunting and fishing store. Then came bicycles and ice skates and archery. When the war came and the women didn’t have vehicles for getting around, my grandfather started selling baby carriages. We had a guest speaker at the store a while back who had lost both his legs, and he told us, “Those who will thrive are those who adapt best to change.” And you have to stay light on your feet. If MEC takes part of your market, you walk away and focus on what you’re good at.

What are the challenges ahead?

There will be increased competition, so it’s about holding our market share. Obviously you need to stay innovative, but mostly it’s going to be about service. You can have a satisfied customer, but what you really want is a loyal one. It’s going to be a challenge trying to hold onto the margins as the big box stores come in, and the question for customers becomes why they would shop here as opposed to elsewhere. We want people to feel that when they come here, good things happen. And everything that goes around comes around. When you take part in your community like we do, that comes back to you. I hope people will support Robinson’s because they see Robinson’s active in their community.  

› On the downtown: To me, there’s no middle ground. We’re either growing or dying. I’m passionate about downtown and I see the problems that we have, but I still see what’s going on over-all and know downtown is coming back.

› On locally owned businesses: I’m a big proponent of independent retail. When you shop at a big box store, 22 cents of your dollar stays in the community, but 40 cents stays local if you shop at an independent.

› On working for the family: There are five of us in my family, and all my brothers and sisters were very important in my decision to buy the store. I wouldn’t have done it without their support.

› On giving back: I could give a bit to everyone who walks through the door asking for our support and not make much of a difference to any of them, or I could pick one and really do it up. So we’ve picked Power to Be Adventure Therapy, because my passion is youth at risk.

› On hiring: I want staff who have travelled, who are out there. Have you gone for a week-long backpack? Stayed in a tent? I can teach you how to work in the store, but I can’t teach you to do the West Coast Trail.