Ed Stack didn’t set out to be an activist.
The chief executive of Dick’s Sporting Goods, Mr. Stack spent his career selling fishing rods, camping gear and athletic equipment at big-box stores around the country.
Dick’s was founded by Mr. Stack’s father in upstate New York. As a young man, Mr. Stack worked for the family business. But he didn’t enjoy the experience. His father was a divisive boss who couldn’t manage a supply chain, and was especially hard on his son.
Hoping to chart his own course, Mr. Stack went to work at a law firm. But when his father fell ill, Mr. Stack came back to help run the company. He soon grew to love the retail business and eventually bought the company from his father in 1984.
Mr. Stack set about expanding across the country, at times moving too aggressively. Overextended, the company flirted with bankruptcy. But Mr. Stack stabilized the business, and in 2002, took Dick’s public. Since then, he has managed to keep the company competitive in the age of Walmart, Amazon and e-commerce.
With all of that accomplished and retirement in sight, Mr. Stack wasn’t looking for attention. Then in February 2018, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., killing 17 people. As Mr. Stack watched the news, he decided to drastically curtail Dick’s gun sales.
Days after the shooting, Dick’s said that it would immediately stop selling all assault-style rifles, no longer sell high-capacity magazines and require any gun buyer to be at least 21, regardless of local laws.
Dick’s was not alone. Walmart also tightened its gun sales policies after the shooting in Parkland, and companies including Delta Air Lines and MetLife moved to distance themselves from the National Rifle Association.
But for gun rights activists, Mr. Stack’s deeply personal engagement with the issue struck a nerve. The N.R.A. came after Dick’s, and calls for a boycott sprung up on social media.
Mr. Stack was unbowed. He announced that Dick’s would destroy the assault-style rifles and accessories on its shelves instead of returning them to manufacturers.
More than a year and a half after the Parkland shooting, Mr. Stack continues his campaign for stricter gun control, calling on lawmakers to introduce legislation and detailing his journey from businessman to activist in a new book, “It’s How We Play the Game.” He is reportedly exploring a run for president.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity and occurred before any presidential musings, was conducted in New York.
Had you confronted the guns issue before Parkland?
Our journey with guns has been a long one. Around 1999, some kids broke into our store in Rochester, N.Y., and stole a bunch of handguns. A few days later, the cops found these kids, and a couple of them were dead.
I said, “I don’t want to be in this business.” So we stopped selling handguns. We were small at the time, with just six stores, and nobody noticed. We took a little bit of guff from it, but nobody knew who Dick’s Sporting Goods was really at the time.
Who did you take guff from? The National Rifle Association?
No, it was customers asking, “Why aren’t you selling handguns anymore?” Then we opened in Texas and put some handguns back because it just felt that was what the customer wanted. With the assault weapons ban from 1994, we hadn’t been selling assault rifles. But then, probably a year before Sandy Hook, merchants came and said, “To be competitive in the gun business, you got to have assault rifles. This is what’s selling.” So we put them back in.
Then Parkland happened, and you decided to significantly curtail your gun sales.
When Parkland happened — watching those kids, listening to those parents — it had a profound effect on me. It was at that point I said, “I just don’t want to sell these guns, period.”
I’m a pretty stoic guy. But I sat there hearing about the kids who were killed, and I hadn’t cried that much since my mother passed away. We need to do something. This has got to stop.
I came to our management team on that Monday, and started to read a statement I had written. I got emotional, and I couldn’t get through it. Our chief of staff had to actually take the piece of paper from my hand and finish reading it.
You’ve done more than just take guns out of the stores though.
We called on Congress to come together with the intent to actually solve this problem. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Washington, and it was pretty clear that nothing was going to get done, and nothing has gotten done.
I don’t know how, at least, we can’t get universal background checks done. For the life of me, I cannot understand how people can see that having universal background checks or red-flag laws really violates anybody’s Second Amendment rights.
You also went down to Florida.
The families from Parkland asked me to come down and talk to them. So I went down and sat with many of the families who lost somebody in Parkland. It was probably the hardest day of my life, to listen to those parents talk about their kids and what happened to them.
One woman said it had been a month since her son was killed. She said, “I go into his room every night, I sit on his bed and I talk to him.” As a parent, you can’t imagine putting yourself in that position. This whole thing still gets to me.
But what I found surprising of those families, not one of them said we need to ban all guns, that guns have to go away. What they said was we need to find common-sense changes to our gun laws so what happened to our family doesn’t happen anyplace else. If those families feel that way, I have no idea how the guys in Washington can’t come together and find a solution to this problem.
How do you respond to your critics?
People have said, “You know Stack, if we do what you want and ban assault-style rifles, ban high-capacity magazines and don’t sell a gun to anyone under 21 years old, it won’t eliminate mass shootings.” You know what, they’re probably right. But there will be less loss of life if an assault-style rifle isn’t used. And if we do all those things and we save one life, in my mind it’s all worth it.
Image“I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Washington, and it was pretty clear that nothing was going to get done, and nothing has gotten done,” Mr. Stack said.Credit…Guerin Blask for The New York Times
What do you say to other business leaders who don’t want to get political?
If you have ideas about how to solve certain problems, I think it’s your responsibility as business leaders to speak up. This country is craving for leadership today, and the leadership is not coming out of Washington. So the leadership has to come from someplace else. Right now, the private sector is the place that it’s going to have to come from.
We have an expertise from a gun standpoint. We see the holes in the system. We found out that a couple months before the shooter in Parkland did what he did, we sold that kid a shotgun. The background system should have flagged this kid. He should not have been able to buy a gun.
Tell me about your dad, who started the company.
He was a complicated guy. He had a great heart, but he always had a bit of an inferiority complex. He always had something to prove. I think his fear of failure is what really drove him. He was a really tough, old-school guy. This was a time that you just never told your kids you love them. His view was, “We’ll make a man out of you.”
I didn’t want to work for my dad. I wanted to go out and do my own thing. But when I was 13, I went to work. We’re this really small, family, little corner sporting goods store. The family went and worked and tried to help out.
What did your dad do wrong as a businessman?
My dad never had a plan. He ran the business by the seat of his pants. His idea around buying was, “You got a hunch, you buy a bunch.” We were always close to going out of business. He always owed the bank money. He always owed the vendors money. He always paid them, but he was always in debt. Our garage would be filled with excess merchandise: Coleman coolers, propane fuel, white gas.
His management style was as haphazard as his buying habits. He played people one off the other. You can’t do that. You have to have specific roles and functions. And if you pick somebody who’s going to be your right-hand guy, then that’s the guy.
How did you take control of Dick’s?
I fell in love with the business, but my father still owned the company. He was a tough taskmaster, and at times unfair. It was just his way of kind of making a man out of you. I didn’t particularly like working for my father.
We got into a spirited conversation one day, and he stuck his finger in my face and said, “If you think you’re such a smart goddamn son of a bitch, go down to the bank, get your own line of credit and buy me out.” So that’s what I did. I went down to the bank, got it put together, came back and said, “We’re ready to go.”
What don’t people understand about growing a business?
It’s not a straight line. You’re going to have ups and downs. You’re going to have those quiet introspective moments where you go, “What am I doing?” You’re going to have those days of self-doubt. And you’ve got to just power through them. But we almost went out of business.
How did you go from being a local retailer to a big-box store?
We built a bigger store. The first store my father built was 5,000 square feet. The second store was 2,800 square feet. Then we went to Syracuse and did a 20,000-square-foot store. That was a huge, huge difference. We were just shocked at how much business we did. The guys from Nike said, “Hey Dick, you’ve got to be really proud of these kids. They’re doing a lot of business.”
My father, who could never really quite give you a compliment, looked at them and said, “You’re right, they did a lot of business. They did 25 percent more business than they thought they would the first month. So they’re not really as smart as they think they are.” That was him to a tee.
So we built this store, did really well, and then we just started opening these 20,000- and 25,000-square-foot stores.
How did you almost go out of business?
The business outstripped our management’s ability, including my own, to run the business. We finally talked to G.E. Capital in New York, which was the lender of last resort before you called Tony Soprano. And I didn’t want to call Tony Soprano.
I’d never been in a building like G.E. Capital’s: big conference room, 10 people firing questions at us, saying, “Why did you do this? How did this happen?” This is like our last resort. If this doesn’t work, there’s talk about filing for bankruptcy or selling the company.
They fired questions at us left and right, and we answered them, and I finally said, “Let me tell you something. This is what happened, this is why it happened, this is what we’ve done about it and this is why it’s never going to happen again.”
There was a guy sitting over in the corner, and I didn’t pay any attention to him. He never asked a question, was never involved in the meeting. After the meeting, he came over and sat down, looked at me and said, “What’s it going to take for you to shake my hand right now that we’ll agent your loan?”
The lesson I learned is the guy in the room who’s not saying anything, he’s the decision maker. Beware of the guy in the room who sits in the corner and doesn’t say anything. I told him how much money we needed and when we needed it by. He looked at me and shook my hand and said, “We’ll make this happen.” That saved the company.
What did you learn from that experience?
You look into the halls of hell, and near-death experience changes you. We slowed the growth down. We said, “We’re not going to open any stores for the next couple of years.” We got our inventory under control, we got our expenses under control and we learned from our mistakes.
The experience is on the list of mistakes I made. I wouldn’t say it’s a regret, because we learned a lot from it. One of the reasons we’re in the position we’re in right now is because of it. One of the things I learned from that is I don’t want to have debt; I don’t want to owe anybody any money.
What’s the difference between a mistake and a regret?
A regret is something that you wish you could take back. You go, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t do it because it didn’t turn out very well.” A mistake is something that you did that you learned from, that at the end of the day it helped make you who you are today.
I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I don’t have a lot of regrets.