By Jordyn Grzelewski
When Rick Blase opened Rick’s Ranchwear across from the Southern Park Mall in 1978, the store had some Western apparel, 72 pairs of boots and 500 empty boxes on the shelves.
Blase, originally from Willoughby, moved to the area to manage a shoe store in the mall in 1977 and had saved the empty box from every pair of shoes he sold.
“The 500 boxes were to make it look like I had something,” said Blase, who was 23 when he started the business. “It was an optical illusion.”
Now, as Rick’s Ranchwear celebrates its 40th anniversary and rebrands as Rick’s Boot Factory Outlet, the store is a far cry from the one-man operation it was when it opened.
The store survived the advent of internet retail sales and re-emerged with a business model that’s allowed Blase to maintain eight stores around the country, including one at 7336 Market St., and a manufacturing operation in Mexico.
It all started with the small store he opened in 1978, opting to locate in the Mahoning Valley because he liked the people here. The company’s corporate headquarters remain here.
Blase was thrilled when he did $300 in sales his first day – only to not have a single customer the next four days.
For the first year and a half, he was the store’s only employee, doing everything from washing the windows to stocking the shelves. Over the years, the business grew, but hit a bump in the road in the late 1990s and early 2000s when online shopping became popular.
“It really hurt us,” Blase said. “I had to basically start over.”
Blase retooled the business and started manufacturing some of his own boots. Now, he owns the company’s top three brands.
Blase attributes much of the company’s success to his business model, which prioritizes customer service and quality products at what he says are unbeatable prices.
Rick’s offers customers two free pairs of boots with every pair they purchase.
“That’s what keeps us in business,” Blase said. “We couldn’t stay in business if they could find it cheaper online.”
Over the years, the business has expanded to two locations in Florida and five in Tennessee, including three in Nashville, and built a distribution center. The company now employs about 230 people and has an inventory of hundreds of thousands of boots.
Blase also points to his employees, particularly vice president Helen Slack, as being integral to the company’s success.
“I think the key to our business is, I have really, really good people,” he said. “I never say ‘I’ in this company. It’s always ‘we.’”
Willingness to change is another lesson Blase has learned over the years.
“We never sit on what happened yesterday. We’re constantly looking ahead,” he said.
That’s why he decided to re-brand to better reflect what today’s store really is. Rick’s has less of a focus on Western apparel and has branched out to selling a variety of boots, including western, work, fashion, motorcycle and hunting.
While the company no doubt will evolve in the years to come, Blase doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
“I’m never going to retire 100 percent,” he said. “The great thing about this business, and I know this sounds corny, but I love it. I will never sell out. I will never sell the company.
“It’s in my blood,” he said.