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 Rick Bauman (Play It Again Sports)
By Nesha Ruther
Thirty-two years ago, Rick Bauman and his brother Greg, leased a 2,000-square-foot store, purchased as much used inventory as they could find, and opened a Play It Again Sports in Lynnwood, Washington. “When we first started out, we had no employees, it was just my brother and I at that time,” Rick says. “Humble beginnings are the best way to describe it!”
Prior to opening the store, Rick had been working as a CPA, but he didn’t feel it was his future. When Rick’s brother approached him about buying a Play it Again Sports, he jumped at the opportunity. “I decided [being a CPA] wasn’t the life that I wanted for myself, I wanted something a little more interesting,” Rick says. At the time, Play It Again was still a fairly small franchise, with only a few other stores around the country. Rick thought the business concept was solid, liked the idea of working for himself. At 28 years of age and single, he decided to take the risk.
While Rick liked the idea of selling sports equipment, what he really wanted was an opportunity to be an entrepreneur. “I come from an entrepreneurial family. My dad had a restaurant, and my grandfather had a grocery store. I had looked at other businesses, but [Play it Again] was the most interesting and intriguing of the bunch.”
Rick was heavily influenced by his family’s entrepreneurship. For 35 years, Rick’s father owned an all-around restaurant, deli, and bakery. Rick worked there from the ages of 13 to 17. “It seems like [I worked there for] so much longer,” Rick says. “I guess those were my formative years.” Rick paid close attention to his father’s business and learned the value of hard work, as well as the importance of treating employees like family.
Every generation hopes the next will have more advantages in their journey to success. When Rick went into business, he possessed valuable financial insights from his time as a CPA, he also had the support of a nationally established franchise.
This did not mean however that Rick and Greg were experts or unphased by challenges. “In the early years, we knew nothing [about running a sporting goods business]. In today’s environment, knowing as little as we knew, we probably wouldn’t have made it,” Rick says. “We made so many mistakes, but we had that support behind us.” The backing of the Play It Again franchise allowed Rick and Greg time to grow into their leadership and get acclimated.
For young entrepreneurs with little knowledge of the industry, Rick recommends purchasing an established business or joining an existing franchise. “Unless you have a lot of expertise in the field, the best way by far is to buy an established business with an owner and staff who can teach you. Next would be a franchise, since they have some expertise they can share with you. Opening a new business on your own is very risky and you will certainly make a lot of costly mistakes.”
Over time, as Rick grew more confident in his ability to run the business, he was able to rely less on the franchisor. “I became pretty independent,” he says. “I didn’t ask a whole lot of them after a while. They also learned to work with me too. They let me do my thing because the results were good. We had an understanding of ‘I won’t tell you what to do if you keep putting up the numbers.’”
The basic business model for Play it Again Sports was a simple one: buying and selling new and used sports equipment, along with performing bike and ski services and rentals. From baseball fields to ski slopes, team players to lone wolves, Play it Again was a one-stop-shop for all sporting needs.
What separated the franchise from big box sporting goods businesses was their willingness to buy and sell used gear. “Buying used gear has always been a popular, cost-effective option for customers. Our customers could trade in or sell their old gear,” Rick says. While sports gear can become quite expensive, Play it Again broadened their market and made the experience more inclusive to those with tighter budgets.
Over the years, Rick’s store slowly increased the amount of used gear they sold, beginning at 40% and moving upward. “Being 100% used would be nice since the margins are better and used [gear] is very popular with customers. However, in order to have everything that customers need, we did supplement our inventory with new gear. Something for everyone!”
While some franchises demand complete symmetry in their stores, Play it Again allowed for a little more flexibility. Rather than seeing the differences of each store as a flaw, they understood it to be a positive embodiment of each store’s unique personality. One way this manifested was through the ratio of used to new equipment each store sold, another was through the particular sports equipment itself. “[Play It Again] allowed for the personality of the franchisee to expand into the sports that they’re more interested in,” Rick says.
The owners of the franchise were originally from Minnesota, so there was a strong leaning towards cold weather sports. Rick and his brother had both grown up in Florida and knew nothing about hockey. But the location of their first store in Lynnwood had two nearby hockey rinks. Rick spoke to local residents who convinced him that the area was in need of a local hockey store. “We took a leap and opened our store close to the rinks, and quickly became the biggest hockey store in the state.
With the rapid success of the Lynnwood store, the two brothers decided to expand and opened a second location in Woodinville less than two years after opening Lynnwood.
Both stores proved to be successful although they each had their own character.
An important addition to the business model that Rick and Greg made was the introduction of ski rentals. “We do more rental business than any other store in the franchise. This also helps raise our margins: new, used, rentals, and service. We are a one-stop shop. No need to go anywhere else!”
Now that is how you create loyal customers!
As with all businesses, maintaining a quality staff is vital. Rick cites communication as one of the most important aspects of retaining his staff. “Taking the time to listen to your staff and addressing any issues head-on makes for a happier staff and a positive store culture,” Rick says. “My approach has been to be available and willing to talk to everyone on our staff as an individual and to make sure they understand that they have a voice.”
Rather than instituting performance reviews, Rick prefers regular one-on-one meetings. This allows him and his employees to touch base and ensure they are on the same page, without stressful punitive measures that can end up distracting employees from their work rather than helping them improve.
“I believe in individual staff development meetings,” he says. “Where do we go from here? What areas do you want to work on? What areas are you interested in? How can we develop you in this role? Everything is about going forward and the next step, not what you did two months ago.”
In addition to his leadership style, Rick spends much of his time working the floor with his employees, doing the same jobs they do. “I always try to give it 100% effort, so they feel like, ‘When I work with Rick, he’s going to carry his share of the load.’ I think having an owner who’s down there working with them seems to help a lot in our industry.”
In addition to working the floor, Rick managed all of the business’ accounting, ordering, and administrative tasks, usually in under 10 hours a week. “I tried to be pretty efficient so that I had time to work on the sales floor,” he says. “I really feel it’s important to be out there with your employees and customers. It helps you understand the business more.”
This commitment to being a present and active business owner allowed Rick to gain insights about his staff that he would not have had access to otherwise. “You can identify if there are any weaknesses and take corrective action,” he says. In addition to learning more about his team, he also learned about his customers, their needs, concerns, and buying patterns. “It helps you learn what the customers want and allows you to get to know them better. It also helps from a sales perspective. Customers feel good knowing they can talk to the owner, the face of the business.
Despite never focusing much time on marketing the stores, Rick and Greg’s Play it Again Sports became some of the highest performing in the franchise. Through good customer service, hard work, and grit, they developed a loyal base of customers. When asked what set their stores apart, Rick says, “We have a great location in a very supportive community. My approach was to develop a positive store culture that I believe the customers could sense. It was important to have a fun and welcoming environment for our customers and a great place for my staff to work.”
Because so much of the business’ success relied on its salespeople, and customer service was a huge part of the store’s appeal, Rick took great pains to hire the best people possible. “We obviously look for people who have knowledge in sports,” he says.
“But more important than that are their personality traits. I’ve made the mistake of hiring people who had a lot of knowledge of different sports but were not as customer focused as I would like. A positive, welcoming attitude goes a long way in a sales business.
Rick also tried to make it as easy as possible for his staff to succeed at the business. “There’s no reason anybody should not have a good time working at our store,” he says. “People leave because they have career opportunities and they grow, and that’s totally acceptable and encouraged. I like to see my guys and ladies do better for themselves, but there is no reason why they can’t enjoy their time spent with us and be a valued employee.”
Rick tried to see his business through the eyes of his employees and identify areas that were important to them. When his staff would ask for days off, he did everything in his power to make it happen, even if it meant changing his own schedule. Remembering the lessons Rick learned from his father, he says, “I always tried to think of my team as my family, because that’s what they were.”
After 25 years, the brothers decided to downsize and sold the Lynnwood location to a longtime manager of the store. Two years later, Greg decided it was time for him to retire and sold his remaining interest in the business to Rick.
After over three decades of owning and operating Play It Again Sports, Rick began thinking about retiring. Rick met with Seth Rudin, a broker from IBA, and got the business valued. “I was just trying to understand what my options were, but they came up with the valuation and it was higher than I thought it would be, so that was pretty intriguing. We had just had our best year ever, the year before was our second best. The business was solid and was in a good position for someone new to take over”.
Rick told IBA that he wanted to keep the business for one more winter, their most profitable season. The following Fall, they listed the business. “It was just the right time,” Rick says, “If there was going to be a transition, I wanted to make sure I was at my best when it happened. As you get older, ailments keep popping up and I don’t want to wait for a tragedy to happen and then try to sell the store. I need it to be done on my own terms.”
Rick sold the business relatively quickly. He had been working contractually for three months with the new owner to ease the transition, and since completing his obligation, he has chosen to stay on part-time to help out. “It’s been great being able to continue contributing without having all of the responsibilities and time commitment of owning the store. Now, someday, when I feel it’s time to leave, I can just walk away,” Rick says.
As a former CPA, Rick was impressed with how thorough IBA was throughout the entire process. “I’m a fairly detailed person, I know my financial numbers pretty well, and I could tell they did as well. They weren’t just salespeople, they understood financial documents, balance sheets, and all the ratios. I could tell their valuation was based on good analysis. I felt very confident [in IBA].”
Another factor Rick appreciated was that IBA was a local business. He recommends any entrepreneurs looking to sell seek out local brokers. “It just felt like they had a better understanding of the business and the area. Having [IBA] there physically meant it wasn’t just phone calls, [Seth] could come down to the store and talk about things.”
Rick also emphasizes how important it is to feel comfortable with your broker. “For that period of time, it’s like a marriage. You talk to the person a lot, and if you don’t get along well or you don’t feel like the person is communicating well with you, it might not be a good fit. I felt that Seth and I hit it off right up front. Everything he said he was going to do, he did. If he promised something, he made sure it was done. He just communicated every step of the way, and it made me feel more secure.”
Being a salesperson himself, Rick is highly attuned to when he feels someone is just trying to close a deal. IBA supported Rick through the months he held off selling the business and respected his timeline. He never felt pressured or that they had any motivators other than wanting what was best for the business.
For Rick, having his own business was especially meaningful because he was able to run it with his brother. “It was nice having Greg there to share the experience.”
For Rick, the embodiment of the American dream has been being able to do something he loves and make money along the way. “No business is without its occasional stress, but I never dreaded going to work. I loved the business, my staff and my customers. I knew we would be successful, but I never imagined that the business would achieve the level of financial success that it did. I absolutely feel like I have achieved the American dream!”
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.