The Johnny Morris EIA Interview

Eric Olson, SBJ EditorThere stood Johnny Morris shoulder to shoulder with Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store manager Mickey Black. On the store’s centerpiece staircase, they were reviewing a Fourth of July message going out to customers two days before America’s annual independence celebration. Swarms of people passed by and circled around, maybe even brushed against Morris, the man whose visions over four decades created today’s atmosphere.

A few people noticed whose presence they were in.

“He owns the place,” a gentleman says as he leans into his son.

It was deliberately spoken, though, and the other intended recipient heard it.

“Where are you from?” Morris interjects after making eye contact and flashing his classic humble grin.

Morris, JohnnyI wondered how many shoppers would recognize him while we were in the store lobby taking pictures for Springfield Business Journal’s Economic Impact Awards. I was there to interview Morris – a subject on my short list for nearly all 15 years I’ve worked for SBJ. (Read the Q&A here.) Although a household business name in retail and conservation sectors, Morris has been ultra guarded with the media, even local journalists.

This day was a longtime coming. Morris had accepted SBJ’s Lifetime Achievement in Business Award. The recognition was a longtime coming, too, considering the now-famous storyline of one fish bait counter to over 70 stores today, plus his Tracker Marine boat company and destination developments Big Cedar Lodge and Top of the Rock golf course.

The father and son are from Springdale, Ark., and had just visited Top of the Rock. Morris wishes them a happy Fourth.

Another passerby recognizes Morris and stops: “Man, you do a great job. Keep it up.”

Morris shakes his hand and gives the same exchange; this shopper is from Dallas. “Happy Fourth,” Morris says.

After the quick photo shoot, we walked the center aisle to a room Morris described as “the cabin” on an upper level. I didn’t know a doorway existed on this wall. Inside was a wooden conference table, refreshments and decor in Big Cedar style. If not for the experience prior, I could have thought we were at his Ridgedale resort.

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The interview recording is 53 minutes, 14 seconds. The value of that time of Morris’ is not lost on me. I don’t know what number to put on it, but I know his net worth is an estimated $4 billion.

As challenging as it might be, I approached it like any interview. I remember leaving the newsroom amid talk about nervousness, to which I replied, “He’s just a man. If I pinch him, he’ll feel it.”

I asked 45 questions during our conversation. Morris was methodical in answering some questions – about his exit plan (open to an IPO) and net worth (tied with Donald Trump) – and others clearly were much more comfortable – the last fish he caught (a cutthroat trout in Montana) and the sinkhole at Top of the Rock (the discovery takes precedence over the millions invested in the PGA-sanctioned golf course) –picture?. He thanked me for asking those, and his body language punctuated the sentiment.

Morris was gracious to me with his time and his answers.

One stands out: When I asked about his exit plan, the 67-year-old deflected it, saying those decisions are too far off and he joked he wouldn’t retire until catching a 1,500-pound tuna. Pressed on it, there was no talk of family but an emphasis on what’s best for the company and the brand. Today, that means privately held. What about tomorrow?

“To tell you today that no, it would always be best for us to be private, I don’t believe that,” Morris said. “I think we need to continually review the circumstances and evaluate.”

That door seems cracked open. It’s an opportunity that another Springfield-based company knows very well. Will Bass Pro follow in O’Reilly Automotive Inc.’s footsteps to Wall Street?

Time will tell, but Morris doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. And the plan is subject to change.

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