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Banking on KC – Andrew Dowis of Pro Athlete

Banking on KC – Andrew Dowis of Pro Athlete

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Andrew Dowis, the CEO of Pro Athlete. Pro Athlete is an online sporting goods store that sells bats and gloves and other sporting equipment, but they're also making a lot of lives better. We're going to talk with Andrew about the company's retail success and importantly about its culture and the key to creating a purpose-driven brand. Welcome, Andrew.

Andrew Dowis:

Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Congratulations. Believe you became CEO after 12 years with the company just what, right before COVID hit?

Andrew Dowis:

It was actually early 2019, so I had a little bit of time to prep for what was coming our way. Not sure you can ever prep for that, but I had a little bit of a time in the seat before that happened, but yeah, thank you very much. It's been absolutely amazing being a part of Pro Athlete for the last 12 plus years and couldn't think of a better place to be. Always trying to make an impact and things like that and so thankful for the opportunity I was given 12 years ago.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's talk about that impact. You know, as I said, Pro Athlete is an online sporting goods store and the company has tried different things and it's really found a winning retail formula online, but besides finding that sales niche, your company culture has been generating a lot of media attention lately. In fact, some would say, and I've read this actually, that Pro Athlete has fielded a major league caliber culture. So what is it about Pro Athlete's culture that's created such a game-winning experience for your associates?

Andrew Dowis:

Yeah. Well, thank you for saying all that. We really appreciate it and always pleased when others recognize our intent to have a cool company culture. I think it goes back to the founders of the company, Wes and Judi Hedrick, in 1987, they really laid the foundation for what was important in the business. And what was important in the business wasn't selling a bunch of stuff, as hard as that is to say, as a startup in '87, it was about how we treated our employees, how we treated our vendors, what we did to give back to the community and local baseball and football teams. They put that emphasis on the business way back in 1987 and we've just continued to build upon that every year since, and it's come in many different forms throughout as we've evolved, but I think they really put an emphasis on this business model of being much more than about the products you sell. So at the highest level, that's kind of what's driven us ever since.

Kelly Scanlon:

You really have to throw yourself back to 1987. I mean, that's what nearly 40 years ago now, or close to it, 35 years ago. And now in this day and age of socially responsible corporations, companies, that it doesn't seem so far-fetched at all to lead first with employees, but in 1987, that was rather pioneering, especially for a startup. When you talk about stewardship at Pro Athlete, how do you as a company make that actionable? Because that's the other thing, a lot of companies talk about stewardship and they talk about a good company culture and that's as far as it goes. So how do you make it actionable?

Andrew Dowis:

I've learned a ton in my time here. And Scott Hedrick, the son of Wes and Judi, the founders, he really took that whole idea of stewardship that his parents kind laid the foundation for and he took it to a whole new level. When he took us online in 1999, we continue to adapt how we did certain things like stewardship and things in the community. And he always talks about how his father-in-law taught him about giving back and how you can donate to certain charities. You can also go donate your time and volunteer and things like that. And he always credits his father-in-law for teaching him that. That's why his father-in-law is one of our Hall of Fame members at our company, along with our founders, Wes and Judi Hedrick.

Andrew Dowis:

But I think when I started back in '09, we had this program already in place where we gave every employee $1,500 to donate to the charity or charities of their choice. Each year every employee got that. And that was really built around what Scott was taught from his father-in-law just about the power of giving back and wanting to give others the opportunity. Maybe they didn't have an extra $1,500 to give back right now, so giving them that headstart snowballed, and we've seen them teach their kids and their families about giving back. And then the impact that has on your community and the world is pretty great when everybody kind of goes into giving back and stewardship with that mindset, really great things can happen. And that's what we've seen here at Pro Athlete.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, it has an exponential impact. I mean, Scott, or you, or the company could give a one-time contribution to not-for-profit charities that you select, but then it stops there. But when the employees can get involved, as you say, and they're empowered to go out and do that, maybe add some of their own to it as well, their children witnessed them doing that, it's a very impactful way of paying it forward.

Andrew Dowis:

The reason we kind of took that approach was we want each person to get passionate about a certain charity or anything along those lines. And instead of me setting up here in the C-suite saying, "We're going to write one big check to this charity," that maybe 50 of the employees aren't as passionate about. We want to empower them to go out and get passionate about a certain charity. And one of my favorite stories is watching our company go and interact with the YMCA Challenger Program. And it's just an amazing program. There's these adaptive fields up north by our facility where kids with all kinds of abilities can go out and play just like any able-bodied kid. So they have like the base paths are flat so if you're in a wheelchair, you can roll right over the base path, different things like that.

Andrew Dowis:

We had a whole team of volunteers and it was the Just Bats team and there were nine or 10 athletes that we all buddied with. And it was just one of the coolest things to watch every Tuesday our employees get excited to go out there and interact with that. And then on the flip side, while they're spending their time there, they also can contribute if they want to the $1,500 to that charity and see that money go to work with maybe one of their buddies, and it's so great to see our on-site chef talk about the athlete that he's worked with for the last three or four years and how her parents would call him and ask if he was going to be there that night and stuff like that. So it's making a lot bigger impact than $1,500. It goes so much bigger and wider than that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh definitely, and you see those dollars at work and you see the people behind the impact that you're having. It's not just an anonymous donation somewhere and your work, unlike others who for whatever reason so many companies were in bad straits, still are, because of the pandemic, you stepped up your contributions during the pandemic. You worked with the Negro League Baseball Museum. You worked in other ways as well. Tell us about that and why you felt it was still important to do that even though I know your company was struggling as well.

Andrew Dowis:

It's probably one of the things I'm most proud about that our team did this the last year and a half was staying committed to our core values. You sit back and you look at everything going on. And yeah, we were down 95%. The day that the NBA shut down, the world kind of shut down, and our website. Nobody was going there. There was no baseball to be played so people didn't need product. And it was in our busiest two-week span of the year. March is always when people are buying their baseball products. So it couldn't have happened at a worse time. But you step back after the initial shock, you make sure everybody's safe first and foremost, which we did, and then you start thinking, "All right, there are two ways this can go down. We can complain and play the victim card and potentially go out of business if you don't handle things right, or we can get down, focus, stay true to our core values and double down on everything that we've been talking about since 2009."

Andrew Dowis:

If you really believe in these core values and it's not just marketing material that you put up in the lobby, which we definitely believe in ours, then turn to those. You should be able to turn to those in the best of times and the worst of times. And we were able to turn to those in the worst of times and what those told us was to go help all those who have helped you get here. So we sent out an email to all of our alumni members and Hall of Fame members and business partners and said, "Hey, we're struggling, but if you need anything, let us know." And you know that might've been a former employee that now has a small coffee shop in north KC that might need some accounting advice. We're going to give that to you in this time of need. Somebody might need help with a website. We've got developers, "Hey, we're going to help you in times of need because you helped us get here."

Andrew Dowis:

Somebody asked me if it was smart for us to be focusing on helping others right now and I'll never forget I said, "You're damn right it is and we're going to do it and we're going to do it more than we ever have." And that just came out so natural when I said it. And you know, at first, I was like, "Ooh, is that too forward?" And then I'm like, "Nope, they know where we stand as a company now." And just because of the times got tough, we did not abandon who we were and that's what I'm most proud of that our team did during this whole pandemic

Kelly Scanlon:

That had to have, at a time when people didn't understand what was going to happen the next day, it had to just really re-emphasize though the kind of company that they were a part of. That remained consistent the fact that you, you adhered to your core values, you continued to give back, had to have actually lifted, not just other people in the community that you were helping, but your employees, your staff as well.

Andrew Dowis:

You know, I hope it did. I hope everybody that's still here saw that this is the type of company they want to be at for a long time. And another thing I told our team, "I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that we do not have to lay anybody off." And we were able to stay true to that. We had, being an e-commerce company, we had five or six people that when we were working remote they didn't really have anything to do, people in our hospitality department or different things like that where they actually need to be in the building to do their job. So with them, we created a giving back team and said, "We're going to pay you to give back to the community. We know you can't do any work to necessarily help the company, but by doing this, you are helping the company and you're helping the community."

Andrew Dowis:

And I'm really proud of the work that they did and things like that because it would've been really easy to just cut that and not have to pay those salaries, but knowing that we were going to get through it, I'd much rather look back and say we did our best to take care of everybody who helped us get to where we are.

Kelly Scanlon:

You talked about getting through it. Well, you've done more than get through it. You are actually growing once again. You've introduced a new line of product, but also, prior to the pandemic, you guys were growing year, after year, after year. How in the midst of all of that growth, do you continue to keep a culture like that firing on all cylinders. I mean, it is so chaotic during periods of growth anyway for most companies, but then to have this whole other layer of being able to serve the community simultaneously, how is that sustainable? How do you handle that?

Andrew Dowis:

We've had our fair share and hiccup managing all that for sure, but I think, not to be a broken record, but the core values. We have 12 of them and there's one that really in every part of our business seems to make sense for every decision that we make. And I think just continuing to use those to guide us. But we have great people. We're not the traditional big corporate company that has a lot of red tape. We always like to say we tend to live in the gray. Because I just think being a 60-employee company and the ever-changing landscape of e-commerce and things like that, you have to be nimble and be willing to kind of move and change things. And we may be set on something today and then rip it to shreds tomorrow and do something different. And I always tell people we were built for times like this, tough times.

Andrew Dowis:

And I think the Mr. K process couldn't have come at a better time. Everything was looking bad for our business and most businesses in the country and that was a nice boost for morale for our employees to, "Hey, things are slowly coming back, but wow, the Kansas City community is saying we really value the way you run your business, especially during these tough times that our country is facing." And that meant a lot. I think it gave us the confidence to continue to push forward. And yeah, you mentioned it, we actually did our first acquisition in December of 2019 right before the pandemic. We bought a baseball lifestyle brand that we'd been monitoring for several years. And you know, our first big challenge was "Okay, now supply chain is severely slowed down. How do you handle that?"

Andrew Dowis:

Well, we were just trying to figure out what we were doing. We'd only sold bats and gloves and so that was our first real big offensive move in terms of growth outside of bats and gloves that we'd really ever had. And boom, there's the pandemic. Well, to double down on things, we thought, "Hey, what better time than a pandemic than to start a new brand of your own." So we've seen and been monitoring just the rise of pickleball and we had kind of sat back and said maybe it's not for us and then all of a sudden it just hit us during the pandemic, yes it is for us. It's a very similar model online as bats and gloves are for us. Let's do it. So in the middle of a pandemic, we started a new business and it's been going pretty great.

Andrew Dowis:

We are definitely riding the wave that everyone else in the country involved with pickleball is. It's the fastest-growing sport out there. We owe a lot of that to our friends down at Chicken and Pickle for getting that going here in the Midwest. But I think it's been really nice for our business. It was always the number one question I would get from employees, "When are we going to do something different? We've been doing bats and gloves for 30 years." We finally have an answer for people and it's here now. Everybody's excited and now we just have to figure out how to make those new opportunities grow like bats and gloves did.

Kelly Scanlon:

Some people would say, "I admire what you're doing. I think it's great. More power to you, but I'm such a little company, or we're just running already, just crazy. What you have is a nice to have strategy for me, but I just really can't stop and do it. It would be a distraction to my business." What would you say to people like that?

Andrew Dowis:

Yeah, that's a great question. I always start with saying, "Hey, we do this a very unique way. It's not for everybody. It's probably not for most." If you look out there and look around at businesses, most probably don't do this because it's really hard to debunk that way of thinking that this costs money and if you didn't do it, you could save so much more. We don't believe it costs, we believe it saves. We believe this methodology gets us the best people. It gives them a good life. It makes work fun. I always talk about how somewhere along the way when we all grow up we lose sight of that fun piece. And why? Nobody's making you do that. So, that's what we've created here. Let's keep having fun, keep doing things for each other and putting a dent in the universe while selling products and creating the next game-winning home run, the next diving catch, all those types of things.

Andrew Dowis:

But it is hard. And where do you start? I mean, I don't know if you just can add a pool and it fixes everything. You've got to have the right intention and have people that want to do it for the right reasons and not to do it just to say that you have cool perks. We could take away the swimming pool, the batting cage, the food, the spa, the bar, all those things that we have and we would be the same company. We may not get asked as many questions by people and do as many podcasts and things like that, but the people working here know that it's the same people and the same core values behind all those things and that's why they work here. They may click on an ad because they see swimming pool, but they find out really quickly here that if you took the pool out, this company still continues to move forward based on its core values.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. That's kind of the window dressing. The core values are what people there internalize and it's really what makes them tick and drives them rather than all those trappings that you just talked about. Those are the nice to have things. You know, they say that you have a culture anyway. I mean, whether you think one or not, you have one. So for our listeners who have been hearing what you've talked about and why it's an investment really to have a culture like yours, and they know they have some work to do, how would they start? What are some tips that you can give them to kind of start turning that boat in a different direction?

Andrew Dowis:

This is going to sound so funny because I've been asked this question a lot, but I usually give this answer. Start with food. I know it sounds so weird. I know that's not what you were asking, but honestly, start with food. Everyone likes to eat and what we find is that's where our culture really takes shape. People come together, they sit down at lunch, they talk, they get to learn more about each other. The food is the side piece, but it brings everybody in at this certain time. So it's like take something like that, that shows that you care and you'll start to see those little bonds start to form. True answer is I would take a look at your culture, take a look at the people you have and go through the exercise to build out core values that really matter and that you will stick to and are not just marketing material in the lobby like I said earlier.

Andrew Dowis:

And let the employees and everybody participate in that exercise and then find ways that you enact those core values in your everyday business. Like us, embrace stewardship, here's a couple of ways that we do it. We have the $1,500 thing. Create a healthy work environment is another one for us. We have the gym, personal trainer, healthy food. We pay 100% of your health insurance. Do that. Find out what matters to people. Maybe you've got a lot of people that have young children; pay for daycare. Do things that matter to them, not just that you think they would want. You know, working remote opens up a great opportunity for people to get into the world of this type of culture.

Andrew Dowis:

For us, an e-commerce company, they don't need to be in here. Think about the challenge we're going through right now with all this... We have basically an amusement park of stuff in our building. We still don't have employees in here from last March. We still haven't brought everybody back, but we've found a way to continue having a good culture because those things that we have, the pool, all those things, it's not what matters.

Andrew Dowis:

But again, I think the remote work provides everyone a great opportunity. Listen to the people. If they want to work remote and you can get by with that, let them. I was so pleased with how our production went up as a company this last year. We're having our best year ever.

Kelly Scanlon:

Well, you make a good point when you said to figure out what are your core values and how are you going to bring them to life in the workplace, in the community, to involve your employees in that discussion. Because when people feel ownership of something, there's going to be more buy-in. And so don't sit from on high and try to figure out what you want or what you think your employees want, involve them. That's a huge, huge tip there. Andrew, as you look over the next 10 years, where do you see Pro Athlete headed as a business, and second, where do you see the work that you are empowering your employees to do in the community taking Kansas City?

Andrew Dowis:

Oh, wow. Love this question. So many thoughts but I'll try to keep it concise. I think Pro Athlete is going to look a lot different. I think the remote work thing and the hybrid approach and all those types of things that we're all facing right now are a real part of the future for Pro Athlete. More people working from other states for us, so our talent isn't just restricted to this city or these people inside the walls here. We can go out and find talent anywhere because we've learned how to manage that process.

Andrew Dowis:

I'd like to see the Pro Athlete e-commerce machine, we're on four brands right now, maybe we're on 10 brands in 10 years. I think the last part of your question is the thing I'm most excited about. I'm so excited to see what this new way of doing business allows us to do in the community that we didn't do before. Bringing in more speakers to talk to our businesses, like we had our speaker series before. We can do more of that remote. Continuing to give our employees opportunities to go out and donate their time and their money to places in Kansas City. I think big things are on the horizon for the relationship with us and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. We're very excited about a couple of things we've got in the pipeline with them.

Kelly Scanlon:

Can you talk about them?

Andrew Dowis:

Can't talk a lot about them yet. I think they're going to be very, very cool things. I also just think there's so many great organizations in Kansas City and we need to have more of a local presence here. Right now our identity is that company with the cool culture, and then nationally we're the company that sells all the bats and gloves. But we need to have signature community engagement, things that we're known for around here. So many companies have those and we need to start stepping into that arena as well and really flex that community engagement muscle and hopefully inspire others to get out there and do things as well. And I think there's so many cool companies. I think you're going to start to see companies coming together and doing some really big things and I'm excited to have Pro Athlete be a part of that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. Collaborate. Sometimes I think smaller businesses look at some of the things the big corporations can do and think, "Oh, there's no way I can achieve that." But collaboration, you can accomplish a lot when like-minded people set their minds to getting something done. So, best of luck with all of those goals. Thank you for what you're doing in the community. Glad that you made it through the pandemic. And just thank you again for everything that you're doing for the community, for your staff, and just being a great corporate citizen here in Kansas City.

Andrew Dowis:

Thank you.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, President of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Andrew Dowis for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. We all know that a solid foundation is critical to the success of anything we build. The founders of Pro Athlete, Wes and Judi Hedrick, recognized from the company's earliest days that to hit a home run with a new company, they not only needed quality bats and gloves to sell, but also, and most important, they needed to focus on people, their employees, their vendors, and the community. It's been a game-winning strategy that's led them to major league success. The company has created raving fans through Wow, customer experiences, built a fun and trusted environment for employees, and embraced stewardship in all its forms.

Joe Close:

Country Club Bank shares the same core values. As Jackie Robinson so famously said, "A life is not important except in the impact that it has on other lives." Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.