The Story of Gordon Lacey (Winners Sportswear)

Jan 4, 2024

American Dream Achieved

IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability.  In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories.  It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.

The Story of Gordon Lacey (Winners Sportswear)

By Nesha Ruther

Gordon Lacey was born to a working-class family in Picture Butte, Alberta, Canada. For most of his childhood, Gordon lived on his grandfather’s farm without running water or electricity. When he was a teenager, his parents purchased a grocery store in town and moved into the basement, which had electricity but no running water. While his mom ran the store, his father worked at the local sugar factory.

From a very young age, Gordon developed a love for sports. “Sports were my life,” he says, “I played little league and pony league baseball and became quite efficient at the sport of curling.” As he got older, Gordon began to think about his future, “I did not want to become a farmer and I did not want to work in a grocery store. I wanted to play sports,” he says. Gordon knew he wanted to be an athlete in college and looked to his southern neighbor for opportunities in higher education.

Gordon moved to Bozeman, Montana, and enrolled at Montana State University but transferred to Coalinga Junior College for its excellent baseball team. In California, he worked at a hotel for room and board, and got a job at a coffee shop in the evening to pay for his schooling, somehow still making time to attend classes and play on the baseball team.

“After a few games I realized I wasn’t good enough,” Gordon says of his brief career as a baseball player. “So, I said, if I can’t play the sport then I definitely want to coach.” After graduating from Coalinga, Gordon enrolled at San Jose State College, where he got a degree in Physical Education.

Gordon graduated from San Jose State College in 1966. Faced with the choice of staying in California or going back to Canada, he chose the warmer option. “I got my first full-time job at St. Joseph-St. Patrick high school and College as a PE teacher. The pay at that time was $6,000 a year.”

At St. Joseph-St. Patrick Gordon not only got kids to fall in love with sports the way he had but was able to help design an extensive intramural program. “I really fell in love with that program,” he says. “We started with baseball, soccer, basketball, cross country, and tennis.” The program allowed for different sports to compete at varying levels given the student’s abilities. “Gifted students needed to be able to compete against a higher grade of athlete. So, at soccer, we would compete at the varsity level whereas other sports competed at a junior varsity level.”

Under Gordon’s careful instruction, St. Joseph-St. Patrick became known for its stellar soccer team. Despite a much smaller body of students than the schools they were competing against, Gordon found success through building enthusiasm and nurturing the skill amongst his athletes. “When we’re playing schools that have 1000 [students] and we only have 100 to 150 kids, and we win, there must be something besides the Catholic church on our side.”

In addition to coaching, Gordon contributed significantly to the school’s athletic resources. He was able to convince the Archbishop of San Francisco to give the school the money for a new gymnasium. “I showed him that just because you’re training to become a priest doesn’t mean you don’t need to have athletic ability,” he says. When Gordon started at St. Joseph-St. Patrick’s, the only athletic amenities were an old barn with a leaky roof and a small gym shared with the drama department. By the time he left in 1975, they had two grass fields for softball and baseball, a regulation-size soccer field, a new gym with locker room facilities, and four new tennis courts.

Gordon also got school transportation by purchasing a used bus from the War Surplus Store and, after passing his school bus driving test, expanded his duties to become a bus driver. “It was a job made from heaven,” Gordon says. “It was just super. The students were great, the staff was great, and I have a lot of great memories from that school.”

In 1974 Gordon’s friend Fred approached him with a new athletic opportunity, a sports equipment business importing soccer gear from Europe and Asia. Gordon said yes. In 1975 they opened West Coast Soccer Supply which imported gear, and Fred’s Soccer Shop which sold it to the public. They were one of the earliest athletic stores in the nation selling exclusively soccer gear.

Despite his life-long love for baseball, Gordon’s time at St. Joseph-St. Patrick’s had given him a great appreciation for soccer. It was also an easier industry to break into; while baseball has always been the national sport of choice, in the 70s, soccer was still gaining popularity in the US. “Baseball was more competitive, and soccer was still a developing sport in America, so I was in on the ground level. I also knew soccer inside and out, so it made things a lot easier for me in the business world,” Gordon says.

Gordon approached this new venture with much of the same attitude as his old one. “I ran the business the way I would coach,” he says. “When I say select your players, it’s also selecting your products. When I say train your players, it’s training yourself in the knowledge of your products, competitors, and market trends.”

Gordon was also unafraid to take risks and think outside the box. He noticed that the soccer uniforms they were importing were limited and began designing his own. “We didn’t have access to a lot of things that we have access to today,” Gordon says. “Today, you can go to the computer and punch in soccer jerseys and probably get 1,000 different styles, but back in the mid-70s, you had to be a little bit creative. It was a challenge to come up with new designs.”

Gordon drew inspiration from companies like Adidas, Nike, and Puma, as well as the English Premier leagues, and implemented elements of their designs that he felt were effective. He also had the idea of making Jerseys reversible, so that if one side got dirty during a game, the player could simply turn them inside out. Gordon designed them imagining a mesh fabric that was both cost-effective and light enough to be worn for 90 minutes of consistent running.

When the design was done, they were so popular that an order for 5,000 immediately came in from the San Jose Police soccer league. “Big problem, because now, we needed to find the fabric and then find someone to cut and sew them,” Gordon says. Thankfully, he found both and was able to complete the order.

In 1976, Gordon and Fred decided to part ways. While they remain good friends to this day, Gordon thrived under the creative challenge of designing jerseys and had little interest in working in the retail side of a business.

Gordon sold his shares in the business and moved to Bellevue, Washington with his now-wife. Using the $30,000 from the sale and a loan from the bank, he purchased a warehouse space and opened Victory Soccer Supply. Victory was Gordon’s chance to fully invest in his passion for Jersey design. “[The Warehouse] had a showroom with sample garments on display and a sewing factory in the back warehouse. I hired a floor supervisor and 4-6 sewing machine operators,” he says. “I completely ran the sewing factory from laying the fabric, cutting the fabric, and giving the cut pieces to the operators for sewing. It was fascinating.”

Before long, Victory landed a major contract, and began making jerseys for the largest soccer club in the Seattle area, Lake Washington YSA. “Getting customers has never been hard for me,” Gordon says. “I don’t want to say that to be cocky, but if you have a good product at a good price, you give a good presentation and you sell yourself, that’s the best you can do. We marketed our product by being honest, giving on-time delivery, and when a person calls, making sure we call them back. I often tease people nowadays that I’m so old fashioned I still answer my telephone.”

Gordon realized early on as a coach that his players performed the best when he was completely transparent with them, and he carried this practice into his business. While many people may believe customer service means always saying yes, Gordon knew it was better to say no than to over-promise and underdeliver. “You have to answer questions as best and honestly as you can. Don’t be afraid to say ‘No, we can’t do that’ or ‘No you will not have it on such and such date’. It’s better to be honest, let people know, and do the best you can.”

When Gordon started Victory Soccer Supply, it was just him and a handful of sewing machine operators. Over time, however, he began making unforms for national distributors such as General Sportscraft and Reebok. The business had scaled to such a point where it was no longer feasible for Gordon to be involved in the retail aspect of it. “My whole goal was to design and manufacture soccer clothing and to sell my garments to national distributors,” he said. He sold Victory, the retail end of the business, and started Design Sportswear to continue manufacturing.

In order to operate on such a large scale, Gordon had to diversify his offerings. He began to manufacture not only sports gear, but garments for Nordstrom, UNIONBAY, and Eddie Bauer. He even took over the Eddie Bauer garment factory. “They didn’t want to have to own and operate a factory, so I bought their facility, all the machines, and employees, and they gave me all their work,” he says.

Despite the variety of products he was manufacturing, Gordon never lost sight of his roots. “It’s okay to venture into other things, to leave sports as a sidebar and not the main focus, but I didn’t want to get deluded. I know soccer products, I know how to sell soccer and I know the customers, so I always stuck with what I knew best,” he says.

In 1988, Gordon sold Design Sportswear to BSN Sports. He continued to start other sports gear and garment manufacturing businesses such as Redwood Outdoors, High 5 Sportswear, Protime Sports, and in 2006, Winners Sportswear.

After selling Protime in 2011, Gordon had no intention of opening another business. But when an injustice of the highest order hit close to home, he knew he had to do something. “I found out my grandson had to pay $80 for his recreational soccer kit which should have only cost around $30. I spoke with his coach and said, ‘This is just a rec program, they only play 10 games, that’s too expensive.’ He said, ‘Well if you think it’s too expensive go ahead and give us something more affordable,’ I couldn’t resist the temptation,” Gordon says with a laugh.

One year later, Gordon’s grandson and his entire team were proudly wearing Winners Sportswear uniforms.

Winners Sportswear was still going strong a decade years later when the COVID-19 Pandemic began. “I didn’t want to lay anyone off,” Gordon says, “so we had to make adjustments.” With Seattle being one of the first regions to be hit by the virus, Gordon jumped into action and switched from making sports gear to making masks. “With the sewing background I had, I was able to design them and put on a logo. We sold thousands of masks,” he says.

Despite the drastic change in product, Gordon knew this was a way he could help in a moment of national crisis and continue to provide for his employees. “It was a matter of necessity. If you manage to swim out into the middle of a lake, and you did the crawl stroke to get there, but now you’re too tired to do the crawl to get back, you better flip over and do the backstroke. It was just a matter of making adjustments.”

After nearly 50 years in the industry, Gordon decided it was time to retire for good. “To run a business or coach a sport, you need to have a ton of energy. I was getting to the point where I would go to work, but I didn’t have the energy level necessary to run a business. I’m my own worst critic. If I can’t give it 100%, it’s time to step aside and let someone else take over,” he says.

“Running a business is a lot like being an athlete. I love to run, and I would run 40, to 50 miles a week. I was running these marathons with the goal of getting under three hours. When I got under three hours I realized, that’s enough, I’m not going to put my body through that anymore.” Gordon had achieved all his professional goals and more, it was time to enjoy some much-deserved rest.

Gordon began looking into business brokers and was introduced to Gregory Kovsky by his accountant who had used IBA to sell Redwood Outdoors, which he had purchased from Gordon’s buyer. At IBA, Gordon was paired with broker Seth Rudin. Where other brokers might have pushed for immediate sale, Seth advised Gordon to wait until the end of the year when he would have a new financial statement. The patience paid off. “We patiently waited, and I couldn’t have done it without them,” Gordon says. “I had complete confidence in [IBA] and I had complete confidence in Seth.”

Gordon successfully transitioned Winners Sportswear in December of 2022.

“I’ve been retired three times,” Gordon says. “This will be my fourth.” When asked if this retirement will be the one that finally sticks, he laughs. “No. It’s not going to stick.”

Gordon is continuing to stay on at Winners Sportswear to help ease the transition, and then get involved in sales. He also serves on the board of the Washington State Legends of Soccer, which strives to preserve the history of the sport in Washington State.

Gordon Lacey came from humble origins. Growing up on a farm in Alberta to a working-class family, his career choices were limited. To buy and sell multiple businesses was less of a dream and more of an impossibility. Yet for Gordon, the American Dream was never about the money, but about the community, he was able to cultivate around the love of sports.

“My American Dream is the fact that I get to talk to you about it,” he says. “I get to meet new people and hear from them. I’ve heard nice things from my players over the years. The other day one of my employees gave me the nicest card anyone could ask for. My American Dream is to do what I can to make tomorrow a better day not only for myself but for everyone I am connected with.” As any good coach will tell you, there is no I in team.

Nesha Ruther

Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.