Pittsburgh — It had been one month since 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and the grief in the room was palpable. Facing one another were the parents whose children died in the massacre and the head of a sporting goods store who had come to Parkland, Fla., after his company sold the shooter a shotgun.
Ed Stack, the chief executive and chairman of Dick’s Sporting Goods, had made the rounds through talk shows and news networks, announcing that his company would stop selling assault-style weapons and take other steps to limit firearms sales. The backlash was swift from gun-toting customers, pro-gun lawmakers and the National Rifle Association.
But on that day, Stack was focused only on the wrenching stories he was hearing. One father told him that his daughter was just one second away from escaping the gunman. A mother told Stack that every night, she went into her son’s bedroom and talked to him.
“It might have been the saddest day I ever went through,” Stack said in an interview. “It was just — it was a terrible day.”
The question was whether he — and his company — would do even more in the days to come.
'Keep this conversation going'
In the hours after the Parkland shooting, Stack considered doing something he has not revealed publicly: Getting Dick's out of the gun business altogether.
That would have been a dramatic act that could have drawn even fiercer condemnation from many customers, including those who buy guns at Dick's stores but also other merchandise, from sneakers to tents.
Ultimately, he and the company's president, Lauren Hobart, decided against going that far. Instead, Stack announced that Dick's was pulling all assault-style weapons from its stores and banning high-capacity magazines and "bump stocks" that could effectively convert semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. He also announced that Dick's would not sell firearms to people under 21. (The Parkland shooter did not use the shotgun he bought from Dick's in the rampage.)
“A number of people have said to me that this had to be a really hard decision,” Stack said. “It was not.”
Stack, 64, has a long history with guns. He grew up around guns and has owned them for much of his life, and he says he supports the Second Amendment. But that support is not absolute.
“Some people think there should be no limitations,” Stack said in an interview. “It’s okay to disagree.”
Dick’s, which has seen a national expansion under Stack’s leadership, is one of the biggest players in the nearly $70 billion sporting goods market. In 2013, Dick’s launched its Field & Stream franchise, which specializes in fishing, outdoor and hunting gear.
But guns have been a uniquely complicated issue for Dick’s. At a Goldman Sachs Global Retailing Conference in 2014, Stack said gun sales at Dick’s picked up after President Barack Obama’s election and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He described a wave of “panic buying” and said the sales “didn’t bring hunters in,” but rather “brought shooters into the industry.”
Plus, Dick’s has not always had consistent firearms policies. The company pulled assault-style weapons after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., in 2012, then put them back in Field & Stream stores when that franchise opened less than a year later. Decades before, Dick’s stopped selling handguns, but eventually put them back in some stores.
The company’s most recent firearms policies have come at a cost. For the fiscal year ending Feb. 2, same-store sales fell 3.1 percent, according to company earnings. Stack has blamed much of the slump on gun issues. More than 60 employees quit after the Parkland announcement. And after Dick’s hired lobbyists on gun legislation, one of the company’s gun suppliers said it would no longer sell to the company directly.
Still, analysts say Dick’s’ gun policies aren’t the sole root of its challenges. Sporting goods stores may still be a go-to for athletic apparel or footwear. But competition for hunting and outdoor gear has only ramped up from players like Cabela’s, Bass Pro Shops or Gander Outdoors. Plus, Dick’s is saddled with hundreds of large, physical stores and bulky equipment needed to fill them.
“I give Dick’s a lot of credit for the steps they’ve made,” said Brian Nagel, an analyst at Oppenheimer. “But I think they’ll struggle for a while.”
Stack has also taken his campaign to Capitol Hill. In meetings with Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate, Stack has drilled down on what he sees as holes in nationwide gun laws, such as the fact that if a person is on the no-fly list, “you are deemed to be too dangerous to sit on an airplane, but you can buy a gun.” He’s urged legislators to require universal background checks that include relevant mental-health information and previous run-ins with the law. And he’s pushed for closing the private sale and gun show loophole that waives the necessity of background checks.
But none of those efforts has yielded much momentum. Stack said Democrats were eager to enact tighter gun laws. (Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in March 2018 took to Twitter to say that Stack "knew it was risky to stop selling assault rifles & high-capacity magazines. But he still did it!") But from meetings with Republicans, Stack said, "you could tell that nothing was going to happen."
“People were taking meetings as a polite formality,” Hobart said.
Some Republicans may have met with Stack, but others attacked his decision to pull back on gun sales. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) lambasted Dick’s at the annual NRA convention in April, saying that by taking guns off shelves, “the company is really appropriately named.”
The backlash went beyond Washington. The gunmaker O.F. Mossberg & Sons stopped selling products to Dick’s “in response to their hiring of gun control lobbyists.”
“Make no mistake, Mossberg is a staunch supporter of the U.S. Constitution and our Second Amendment rights,” the company’s chief executive, Iver Mossberg, wrote in May 2018. “We fully disagree with Dick’s Sporting Goods’ recent anti-Second Amendment actions.”
Stack called Mossberg’s decision a “PR move.” Mossberg won’t sell to Dick’s directly — but it didn’t ban its distributors from doing so, Stack said.
“I thought it was a cowardly statement,” Stack told The Washington Post.
Mossberg did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Despite the criticism and the initial hit to the company’s overall business, Stack has continued to look for ways to reduce its role in the gun business.
Last year, Dick’s took all guns out of 10 stores and filled the empty space with products targeted for those markets, such as sports team merchandise. Those 10 stores outperformed the rest of the chain, Stack said. In March, Dick’s said it was taking guns out of 125 stores out of its total fleet of roughly 730. (Dick’s would not specifically say where those stores are located.)
Stack said his company is considering whether to add more locations to that roster, and how else he can be a voice on gun issues.
“What I promised the families in Parkland when I left is that we would keep this conversation going,” Stack said. “And that’s what I’ve done.”
From family business to national brand
Stack grew up in the bait-and-tackle shop run by his father, Dick, in Binghamton, N.Y. In a 2010 Fortune article, he described family dinner conversations as rooted in three topics: the Yankees in the summer, the Giants in the winter and the family business any time of the year. Ed eventually became chief executive of the company in 1984.
The first change Dick’s made around gun sales came well before Parkland or Sandy Hook. In the early 1990s, a group of teenagers stole some handguns from a Dick’s store. Some of those kids were later killed by others who wanted the weapons, Stack told The Post.
The company, which was a much smaller outfit at the time, debated how it could better secure its handguns. It ultimately stopped selling them altogether.
But handguns eventually went back into Field & Stream stores when they opened in 2013, and in some Dick’s stores shortly after. (Forty-eight Dick’s stores now sell handguns, along with 35 Field & Stream stores, the company said.)
As Dick’s grew from a regional brand to a national one, the business almost went under. The company more than doubled in size soon after moving its headquarters to Pittsburgh, and it was too much too fast.
“We had to go to the banks on bended knee,” Stack told Fortune in 2010. “It was a near-death experience that we never forgot.”
Dick’s recovered. And it has since outlasted a slew of sports retailers that have declared bankruptcy in the past few years. The company went public in 2002.
'Part of the story'
As chief executive, Stack is changing only so many policies. But then there is Stack’s work as an individual.
He’s joined the council of business leaders of the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. Along with other executives — including those from Levi Strauss, Toms and RXR Realty — Stack signed a letter urging Congress to pass a bill that would require background checks on all gun sales, including unlicensed sales arranged at gun shows or online. The measure passed the newly Democratic House earlier this year.
With Congress stalled on gun issues, some business leaders say the responsibility falls to them. Moreover, companies that depend on customer support are a telling barometer of public opinion, said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. He said Parkland was “a tipping point” for a slew of corporations, including many that cut ties with the NRA.
Feinblatt credited Dick’s with “understanding the entire issue” — not just focusing on the products it sells. “I think that they wanted to base their decision on a deep understanding of how to solve this problem,” Feinblatt said, “not just Dick’s’ role in solving this problem.”
Mark Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna from 2010 to 2018, gives Stack credit for his moves to curtail gun sales, especially given how exposed his business is to the issue.
Bertolini became particularly vocal about gun reform when two Aetna employees were killed in the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. After Parkland, Bertolini, who is a gun owner, urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to take action on gun control. Aetna also stopped donating to politicians that received a B or higher rating from the NRA.
But Bertolini said that, unlike at Dick’s, Aetna did not face a backlash from its customers. Some people may have disagreed. But that did not affect Aetna’s financial stability.
“Here’s a guy who square in the center of his existence was hunting, and he’s decided he’s going to pull guns out of stores?” Bertolini said. “I didn’t see a direct hit to the top line. I got a lot of nasty emails.”
Even when mass shootings are out of the news, the issue of Stack’s responsibility on guns has stayed on his mind. Lawrence Schorr, a longtime friend of Stack’s and the chief executive of Simona America Group, has served on the Dick’s board since 1985. He recalled a board meeting from a few years back when Stack got a text saying that a customer had committed suicide with a gun bought from Dick’s.
“Ed has said many times that he’s always concerned that when one of these incidents occurs, that Dick’s may be part of the story,” Schorr said. “We don’t want to be part of the story.”