Forty-four years ago, Rod Johnson was a chemistry student at the University of Minnesota. When academia wasn’t doing much to motivate him, he joined the University’s Rovers outdoor club. Johnson recalls, “The outdoors lit my fire; that’s my passion. Selling outdoor equipment to your friends was just an outgrowth of that.”
In early 1971 Johnson embarked on a shoestring budget trip around the world. Sitting on a hammock on a freighter commuter boat floating down the Amazon River in South America, Johnson realized he was bored. “I decided I should do something with my life. I abandoned my quest and flew home and started looking for a place to open a storefront,” recalls Johnson. “I wanted to do something with my life. I didn’t want to become a businessman, I just wanted to help customers.”
Johnson started Midwest Mountaineering on his kitchen table. In June 1971, he rented a storefront and began building a reputation as the Twin Cities most influential resource for outdoor technical apparel and equipment.
For the first four years, Johnson lived in the back of the store and bought groceries out of the store’s cash flow. Midwest Mountaineering turned its first profit at the end of the fifth year. “That was the turning point when I thought that this could be a real business,” says Johnson.”
The store moved to its current location on Cedar Avenue near the University of Minnesota in 1976. Moving brought challenges. The ceiling leaked and one section of the building was damaged by a fire. Undaunted, Johnson and his staff worked long hours to build the store’s culture and reputation. Interest in camping, climbing, paddling and hiking brought customers to the store looking for the latest equipment and expert “ask us, we’ve been there” advice. Business boomed.
In 1981 Johnson opened Thrifty Outftters, a store within Midwest Mountaineering, as a place to sell closeout gear and manufacturer’s rep samples. Thrifty Outfitters also offered offered gear repair services. “The manager I had running Thrifty was excellent at sewing,” says Johnson. “We installed an industrial sewing machine in a basement office a few doors down from Midwest Mountaineering. At first, when a customer called to check on a repair the staff had leave the store walk down the block and go down a flight of basement stairs to find out.” A few years later, Thrifty Outfitters relocated to the second floor of Midwest Mountaineering. Still featuring seasonal closeouts and samples from leading brands, Thrifty Outfitters is a favorite of University of Minnesota students on limited budgets.
In the 90’s competition increased significantly. Galyan’s entered the Twin Cities market and Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI) opened a flagship store in a first tier suburb of Minneapolis.“They arrived at a time when the industry was starting to plateau and flatten out. All the outdoor companies had to start running a more efficient business in order to survive. It’s a big adjustment to make from managing growth to fine-tuning a business,” says Johnson.
Success against national competition has come from building long term customer loyalty. Sales tracking shows that 80 percent of the people visiting Midwest Mountaineering are repeat purchasers. “Customers can see we have an incredible desire to help people have a great time outdoors. It’s not just a business. We are really excited about getting them outfitted so they can have fun outdoors. Then we can give them information they need,” says Johnson. “A lot of people don’t know about where to go camping, hiking or paddling and we can help them. It gives us a really good feeling to help people enjoy the outdoors.”
Johnson has been a strong supporter of local non-profit initiatives designed to get kids involved in outdoor recreation. “If you share the love of the outdoors with younger people they can use that information for the rest of their lives. The effort goes further if you do it with younger people,” says Johnson.
For the last 20 years, Midwest Mountaineering has hosted a summer and winter expo. Over time, the expos have become the transition point from one season to the next for Twin Cities outdoor enthusiasts. Spilling out of the retail space into large circus-like tents erected adjacent to the building, the expos are a mix of clinics, seminars, product demonstrations, vendor booths and promotional sales. Typically, attendance at the expos tops 10,000 people over a three-day weekend event. This year’s spring Outdoor Adventure Expo is scheduled April 25 – 27.
Johnson often makes presentations about his own outdoor adventures around the world. Last November, Johnson and his wife Sharon visited several National Parks in the Southwest and plan to deliver a seminar at the Expo. He just returned from a 56-mile backpacking hike in the Grand Canyon that will also be shared this spring. The seminars always include printed handouts so people can take the trip themselves. “I like sharing my experiences and knowledge to help people experience that same thing,” says Johnson. “The information gets people excited about going on more trips. I really enjoy when people who come back from a trip and thank us. A lot of people wouldn’t have gotten the idea to go there in the first place without hearing one of our seminars.”
An early advocate of an ultra-light camping ethos, Johnson includes that philosophy in his presentations. “I did my first ultra-light hike in Alaska back in 1986 with a daypack, jacket, quart of water and a few energy bars. One thing that I’ve found is that a lot of our customers want to lighten up their packs, but don’t go much farther with the light concept. They aren’t into it as much as I am, ”says Johnson.
Closer to home, Johnson enjoys exploring miles of interconnected trails that parallel the Mississippi River. “When I’m hiking there I’m surrounded by green forest and water and can’t see any manmade buidlings. It’s like I’m out in the woods in the middle of the Twin Cities.”