Dawson Wheeler, co-owner of Rock/Creek Outfitters in Chattanooga, TN, straddles the line between "the old guard" and "forefather of the modern outdoor industry." Wheeler started his professional life when computers were still a novelty. Now, Rock/Creek has a significant online presence as both an outdoor specialty retailer and a knowledge center. Only 55, he's not even close to slowing down.
Wheeler grew up in Etowah, TN, and spent summers in North Carolina. By the time he was 9 years old, his parents would drop him and a few friends at the trailhead, with directions to meet back there in 24 hours. "We’d have the scariest nights of our 10-year old lives,” recalls Wheeler. "But we trembled through it. It was just part of the way parents raised kids."
Arriving in Chattanooga as a 9th grade boarding school student at Baylor, Wheeler and his friend Marvin Webb would sit in the quad and speculate about their future. At the time, they hoped to be involved in the outdoor industry but had little idea about what that meant.
After graduating from UTK with a forestry degree, Wheeler followed a girl back to Chattanooga. With $100 in his pocket, no home, and no job, Wheeler bought a lawnmower and started knocking on doors, earning enough money to scrape by. A job as groundskeeper at the Chattanooga Nature Center soon followed. Still basically cutting grass, but it was an improvement.
Moving on, Wheeler and his wife organized a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail to raise money for the Chattanooga Nature Center. Along the way, they met a National Geographic team developing a coffee table book. Wheeler became a primary source of information for the National Geographic team. That connection would change his life.
At the time, Chattanooga's only real outdoor store was a no-frills shop called Canoeist Headquarters. The current owners were looking for a way out of the business. When the sellers saw Wheeler mentioned in their copy of National Geographic’s book, they approached him with an offer.
Wheeler recalls, “They were having trouble finding a sucker to buy this business." He had been performing “activity therapy,” using outdoor experiences to help people overcome obstacles. The work was rewarding, but the idea of something different was always on his mind.
After a little deliberation, Wheeler bought the Canoeist in 1987. His old friend Marvin Webb heard about the purchase and showed up at the store about a month later. Webb reminded Dawson of the long talks they had shared on the Baylor quad. Within two hours, the reunited friends became business partners.
They struggled through the early years of running a store. Without previous business experience, the partners didn't know how to place orders and couldn't use a computer. "But we showed up every day, ready to work," says Wheeler.
During the 1990's and early 2000's, Dawson, Marvin, and their growing team worked hard to build an authentic reputation for Rock/Creek. Simultaneously Chattanooga was rebranding the community as "the Boulder of the East.” In the early '90s, city managers and residents were starting to recognize the outdoors as a viable way to relax, get fit and have fun. The "outdoor lifestyle look" soon followed and Rock/Creek's customer base grew dramatically.
"About 13 years ago it became very important for Marvin and I to view this company as a legacy," says Wheeler. "We're really trying to do something more than just be the guy that sold the most North Face jackets. We have been fueled by a sense of community and bringing awareness to the outdoors and to the value nature played on our early families, our kids' development, and our own personal development."
He continues, "Our growth has been a byproduct of building that kind of legacy and a town-center environment where people can come in and get knowledge and expertise and get navigated to great, local spots .”
You'll be hard-pressed to find another retailer of equal size that gives away as much money as Rock/Creek and Wild Trails, a nonprofit the partners helped establish with founders Randy and Kris Whorton. They don't keep "one bloody nickel" of the money raised through races and events; it all goes to grants and trail-building initiatives. For Rock/Creek, "Our success is being able to walk out on trail systems and know we had a hand in getting that trail system built," says Wheeler.
Wheeler and Webb decided early that Rock/Creek's expansion would always be local. "We want to serve one market, and we want to serve it to the best of our ability," says Wheeler.
About fifteen years ago, Rock/Creek joined the budding Grassroots Outdoor Alliance -- a coalition of entrepreneurial, innovative, financially sound independent outdoor retailers. Marvin and Wheeler have surrounded themselves with the other brightest minds in the business, and the decision has been invaluable to their success. Wheeler has been on the board ever since. The lessons they learn from their colleagues help them stay on the cutting edge of the industry.
The outdoor industry has changed dramatically since Wheeler bought the store in 1987. Handheld GPS units have replaced traditional compasses and waterproof paper maps. Every piece of outdoor gear, equipment and technical apparel has changed.
"We're not in the business of quantifying adventure," says Wheeler. Translation: Do what's comfortable and safe, with the knowledge and resources at your disposal. Whether it's a walk on Stringer's Ridge or a 2-week hike on the AT, what's important is that you are outside, appreciating its beauty and power.”
Rock/Creek was built by people who appreciate what wilderness can do for others. The store started as a glorified hardware store with a half-empty, 2-drawer file cabinet. Now, it's an industry-leading destination and a model for how to run an independent retail store. Rock/Creek is building a legacy for generations to come.