Go Fish

A corporate financial planner embarked on a business opportunity and awoke a passion

by Tom Gresham

Roger Ranz bought a fly-fishing shop in 1988 and renamed it Classic Outfitters. After a few mistakes, tinkering with his design and making several moves, he's settled in South Burlington and says he's found a formula that works.

As well as anybody, Roger Ranz knows a successful business is the product of a series of starts and stops; of both blissful inspirations and regrettable miscalculations. Ranz knows obstacles will come and they won't always be dealt with adeptly. Still: adjust, adapt, fiddle and persevere, and success can be had.

"We've had to get past our mistakes and learn some things over the years," says Ranz, the owner of Classic Outfitters, a fishing gear store in South Burlington. "We've gained a lot, though, by having the experiences and trying some things. I think what we've learned has really benefited us, made the business better. And now we like to think we've settled down a bit."

The business model for Classic Outfitters has been a fluid one, changing often, but the alterations have been more than mere lashing about. There was always a design, and when the design proved flawed, it was simply altered. Eventually the tinkering fell on a formula that worked and Ranz stuck with it.

It's the nature of business.

"You've got to try things, and sometimes they're not going to work, but you have to take risks," Ranz says. "We missed a few trends and overrode a few others, but that's just the way it works. I've already looked at the summer lines for next year, and I've got to make a decision next week. That's a long way away to predict things. You just have to be ready for things not to work out occasionally."

Ranz purchased Classic Outfitters then known as the Fly Fishing Shop in 1988 from Farrow Allen. In the 12 years Allen owned the business, it was frequently on the move from St. Johsbury to Main Street in Burlington to Williston Road in South Burlington to the Champlain Mill in Winooski.

The adjustments continued under Ranz's leadership. First, the Champlain Mill location expanded from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 square feet and increased its offerings to include apparel and other outdoor products. Then, in 1993, Ranz elected to go after Stowe's abundant tourist traffic and opened The Classic Outfitters on Main Street. He was hoping, he explains, to take advantage of the fly-fishing buzz generated from the movie A River Runs Through It. The Stowe shop eventually moved to the Mountain Road.

Then, Ranz opened a third shop The Tackle Box in Essex Junction, creating an all-around basic fishing tackle store unlimited by the borders of fly fishing.

The overall results weren't great, he says, and the three-store configuration was short-lived. "Eventually, we decided we needed an economy of scale, which meant combining everything together into one spot."

Ranz closed the Stowe shop in 1996 and one year later closed the Essex Junction and Champlain Mill stores and opened a new location the largest yet in the Staples Plaza in South Burlington.

It was not easy leaving the Champlain Mill, which had some attractive features.

"It was a great spot in that the river was right there behind us," says Ranz. "We could just take people out back and let them try the gear in the river, but it just wasn't a prime retail location."

The current site is. Among the advantages: West Marine, a nearby boating supply store, acts as a natural neighbor. "We have a symbiotic relationship," Ranz says.

Classic Outfitters has seen heavy traffic in its current digs.

"This place is perfect for us," Ranz says. "It's right off the Interstate, so the access for people is great; there's a good customer base; we can draw from a really large area. We get customers from Montpelier, Barre, even some from New York. We get some from southern Vermont, too Rutland, Middlebury."

Classic Outfitters attracts customers both for its comprehensive collection of fly-fishing equipment and other tackle and for its dedication to expert, face-to-face service. Ranz and his second-in-command, Rhey Plumley, view catalogs (Orvis, Cabal, etc.) and big-box stores (Dick's Sporting Goods) as their chief competition. The way to combat those businesses' inherent advantages, they say, is with individual attention.

"We have used all of this equipment and we've been out on the rivers," Plumley says. "We have experience with this stuff, so we're able to impart some knowledge to our customers."

Classic Outfitters employees don't only use their fly-fishing experience to help customers during store hours. Plumley, employee Dana Baker and part-time helpers Mike Golia and Jim Christman run a medley of classes and lessons for people at all levels of fishing expertise. Offerings include private lessons, one-day group classes, casting classes, etymology lessons, and expert fly-tying classes taught by some of New England's most renowned fly-tiers. Fishing courses outside the category of fly fishing often are included.

Plumley says instruction serves an essential purpose for the business. It brings in a number of customers, including those with no experience critical in a time when purchases of fishing licenses in Vermont are lagging.

"We get a lot of people who are just learning, and we also help people that are trying to take the next step," Plumley says. "The winter fly-tying classes are particularly popular. We've got a really nice classroom out back and we get a lot of use out of it. It's really one of the important parts of our business, the instructional part. We need to keep interest up."

The instructional aspect was already a critical element of the business when Ranz acquired it. Although an Orvis-certified instructor, Ranz prefers to leave the instruction to his staff. Ranz enjoys and practices fly fishing, but he doesn't see himself as expert as his employees.

Ranz says he often finds that people assume he bought Classic Outfitters because of a passion for fly fishing. However, he was only a casual participant when he decided to purchase the shop and make fishing the center of his life.

He says he simply saw a solid investment.

Rhey Plumley was a social worker and sometimes fly-fisherman when he found work at a fishing store. By the time he joined Classic Outfitters, he was teaching fly-fishing classes.

"I had always had fishing as a hobby from when I was a kid," Ranz says, "but that's not what made me want to buy the store. I saw a business opportunity and just that, though it might have been a little more appealing to me because it was about fly fishing. After I bought the store, I started rediscovering the hobby I'd had as a kid, but I didn't get into this because I wanted to fish all the time."

Ranz had not been living in Vermont very long when he took control of Classic Outfitters, but he was no newcomer to the state.

He grew up in Minneapolis, Minn., where his father was a professor at the University of Minnesota. The teaching profession allowed the family the luxury of traveling in the summers. Each year the family packed up and moved to Vermont in the hot months, settling into a summer camp on Caspian Lake. Ranz remembers it was an idyllic existence.

Ranz returned to the Northeast for college, eventually graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island. He later earned a graduate degree from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

After college, Ranz spent seven years as a financial and corporate planner at Exxon, with stints in New Orleans and Houston. Eventually, though, between the long workday and the one-hour commute, Ranz and his wife, Sally, also an Exxon employee, realized they weren't spending enough time with their young son.

Ranz's sister lived in Vermont at the time and suggested he move here. Ranz was comfortable in Vermont his family's roots in the state can be traced back to the 1880s and he and his wife decided to take the dramatic leap from the big city and big business to Vermont and a much-smaller-scale economy.

"We were never seeing our son; we were working all the time; and we just decided we had to do something different," Ranz says. "Our only regret was leaving the paycheck behind, because, as my mom told us, 'You can't eat the scenery.'"

Ranz's first job, controller for a bagel company, lasted about two months. He spent the subsequent year scouring the job market.

"After a while, it became clear to me that jobs like the ones I'd had don't exist for the most part in Vermont," Ranz says. "I came from a large corporation and this is a small state. There just aren't those kinds of businesses here, except for IBM. It's hard to be absorbed into the work force. Eventually I realized I would have to build something on my own."

Like Ranz, Plumley is not a native Vermonter. He came to the Green Mountain State after graduating from college in Kansas. He chose Vermont because he'd secured a job doing psychological testing at the Brandon Training School, though the state itself offered sufficient attractions.

"I have family here so it wasn't hard to move here," Plumley says, "and once I got here, it really wasn't difficult to stay."

Plumley worked in various areas of social services for 15 years before falling victim to a state layoff. A sometimes fly-fisherman but not quite a devotee Plumley found work at a fishing store in Essex Junction in the early 1980s.

He dove headfirst into fly fishing, lapping up all the knowledge he could find. He took numerous classes and soon was passionate about it.

Plumley joined Classic Outfitters in 1993. He says Ranz has been a consistently generous supporter of his and his fellow staff members' continuing education. Ranz allows Plumley to fit his extensive teaching plans into his schedule; he also accommodates Plumley's interests as a student of fly fishing.

"He's supported my education from the beginning, and that's made a big difference for me," Plumley says. "His broad support of all of us has made us better able to serve our customers, to be able to impart knowledge to them. It also has gotten me stimulated and it makes it very easy to hang around. My friends tell me I've got a really nice office."

Plumley says fly fishing is a discipline that requires constant study.

"In fly fishing, you never know it all," Plumley says. "You're constantly learning new things no matter how much experience you have."

In addition to teaching classes at Classic Outfitters, Plumley is the instructor of a popular one-credit PE course on fly fishing at the University of Vermont. He also spends a week teaching each summer at the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum in Livingston Manor, N.Y.

With consumer discretionary income down in the last two years, Classic Outfitters appears to be weathering the challenge. Checking out the goods are customers Mark Wilde of Uncle Jammer's Guide Service (left) and James Catanzaro.

Ranz says he's been fortunate to keep highly trained staff members like Plumley.

"Our most important resource has always been our staff," Ranz says. "We've been lucky to keep guys like Rhey during a time when a lot of businesses are having a hard time keeping employees. The staff has been here, and been here and been here."

Ranz and Plumley have proved to be a good match. Ranz, the pragmatist, regards the store with his business acumen. Plumley, meanwhile, views it through the eyes of a fishing purist. Plumley prevented Ranz from stocking convenience items, while Ranz persuaded Plumley that adding canoes did not make financial sense.

"We serve as moderating forces for each other," Plumley says. "We get along well together, though we sometimes offer very different perspectives. It seems to be a good mix."

Ranz and Plumley have had to work particularly hard and creatively in the past two years. Ranz says the period following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been the toughest stretch for Classic Outfitters. The consumer's lack of discretionary income just does not translate well for a fishing gear business, he says.

Still, he says, he's faced challenges before and so has every other successful business owner.

"It is tough, but if you're creative and ambitious you can make it work."

Originally published in August 2003 Business People-Vermont