Ullery believes in keeping things simple
Company: MC Sports
“Very average,” Ullery concedes. His game is an economic one, navigating a profitable path for his company during a transitional period in the sporting goods industry.
Ullery’s first job was at a family-run campground near his childhood home in Hastings, peddling papers to the campers at age 10. He continued working for the family throughout high school at the campground general store, gas pumps and concession stand.
Upon graduating from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in hand, Ullery took a position at accounting firm Arthur Andersen as a CPA.
In retrospect, Ullery is not entirely surprised at where his chosen career path has taken him. Having always had an interest in the outdoors, Ullery at one point thought he would make an excellent forest ranger, but he scrapped the idea after his first botany class proved he was hopeless at remembering the names of plants.
From an early age, Ullery has had a great respect for business owners.
“I was blessed with a lot of mentors,” he said.
The position at Arthur Andersen gave him “the opportunity to learn from the management teams and owners of a wide variety of West Michigan businesses.”
Though now affiliated with a large retail chain that includes more than 70 stores, Ullery finds some similarities in the atmosphere at MC Sports to that of his first job at the campground.
“What I like about MC Sports is that it does have a family feel to it,” Ullery explained. “And we’ve worked hard to maintain that.”
When he first joined the company in 1989, it was still being run by the Finklestein family, who founded the company in 1946 under the name Michigan Clothiers — the “MC” in MC Sports — with a single store in Grand Rapids. After the family had grown the company to 21 stores, it became a subsidiary of Pacific Enterprises.
In the mid-90s, the landscape of the sporting goods industry was undergoing some drastic changes due to distribution by vendors, increased competition from online sales and a decline of participation in team sports.
“The organization had become too large,” said Ullery.
He explained that the sporting goods industry is very fragmented, with many levels of competition that range from small family-run operations and specialty shops to big box stores.
So in order to grow, the organization scaled down.
“We were focused on our culture of being a hometown store,” he said.
In 1996, former CEO Jim Minton led a fairly young management team, which included Ullery, in a leveraged buyout, returning ownership to local management and a few investors.
“As a privately owned company, we answer to ourselves,” said Ullery.
The change in ownership helped empower those in management to get back to their roots as a local operation, right-sizing their stores and re-evaluating their business model.
It’s also freed them to invest in initiatives about which they are passionate.
“We want to be a community-based retailer. To do that, we need our associates to get involved in their local areas,” said Ullery.
To encourage this, MC Sports provides grassroots funds to each store for the purpose of sponsoring local sports teams and other initiatives. For the past 16 years, MC Sports has helped support the Children’s Miracle Network, raising $1.4 million this past year through participation in Miracle May. Much of the funds raised are invested in hospitals in the communities where the stores are located, providing assistance to approximately 23 hospitals this past year.
MC Sports consisted of 72 stores in 32 markets in 1998. There are now 75 stores, but the company has expanded its reach to 68 markets, with a focus on communities with populations between 25,000 and 55,000.
Ullery notes that the perks of relocating from markets such as Cleveland, Kansas City and Chicago into “the Mount Pleasants of the world” are many. Variables such as lower rent, less competition and a better quality of labor allowed MC Sports to provide better value to its customers while improving the bottom line.
Another major transition within the company has been to expand stores in second- and third-tier markets to include specialty sections, such as hunting, fishing and pro shop merchandise for golf, tennis and youth apparel.
Besides enabling the company to compete against other full-line sporting goods stores, the new model fits well with societal trends that emphasize the importance of health and fitness.
“People are realizing that to stay healthy they need to stay active,” said Ullery. “Our expanded format allows us to keep up with the huge growth curve we’ve seen in outdoor recreational equipment, active wear and exercise accessories.”
When it comes to the employees of MC Sports, Ullery and the management team look at things from a sports-minded perspective. They invest in their team, promoting people from within and supplementing with outside talent when needed.
Most of the management team has been there for more than 20 years, and many are homegrown people from within the company.
“I think it helps maintain the culture,” Ullery said.
“They’ve been out in the field, they can relate to any issues a store manager is having and they’re going to be better at providing direction on how to implement a merchandise strategy to that individual.
“I think the corporate office and distribution center understand that we’re just a support system for the front line, and we need to help them in any way we can in responding to customer needs.”
Ullery and his wife of 33 years, Patti, have four grown children: Katie, Kari, Kyle and Kimi. The couple lives in the Gun Lake area after a long-time residence in Caledonia.
He recalls his former boss, Jim Minton, saying to him, “If you feel that you have arrived, that is the first step to your downfall.”
His personal philosophy, which echoes the team-sports mentality within his industry, is: “Never stop improving.”