Bob Ward’s celebrates 98 years in the great outdoors.
Customers walking into Missoula’s Bob Ward’s Sports & Outdoors are greeted by a rack of t-shirts proclaiming “Life is Good.” You can say that again. This Montana-owned and family-run operation is celebrating its 98th anniversary in 2015, and in that time, it has become Montana’s largest and oldest sporting goods store and an essential part of Zoo Town’s outdoor community.
The story of Bob Ward’s began in 1900 when the original Bob Ward arrived in Missoula from his home in Minnesota at age 15. Ward was stricken with gold fever, and he was bound for Klondike riches. Unfortunately, his money ran out in Missoula and he accepted the goodwill of a family friend, John Roland, who offered him a job at his jewelry store where Ward hoped to make enough to continue on his journey. But like many folks who come to Missoula, Ward found himself still here years later and by 1917 he had married and opened his own watch shop.
The watch shop was a success but his love of the outdoors, especially hunting and fishing, led him to other ventures and he began offering his services as a gunsmith and manufacturer of fishing tackle, most notably his much sought-after “Ward Wobbler.”
Ward’s combination of jeweler and outfitter filled a need in Missoula and his enthusiasm for and service to his customers created a loyal following, especially among Missoula’s outdoor community.
Ryan Corwin, advertising manager for Bob Ward’s, is quick to express the pride current employees of the operation feel about the store’s founder despite the passage of time.
“Bob trained wire-haired griffons as hunting dogs, made jewelry, tied flies, was a gunsmith and, at the end of the day, was a father to eight children at home,” he says. “His energy and attitude that a man can and should be all he can be has carried on in the legacy that is the modern Bob Ward’s Sports & Outdoors.”
Robert C. Ward passed away in 1985 at the age of 100 but his sons had been working to keep the store a thriving operation long before that.
“From the beginning,” says Corwin, “there has always been a Ward at the helm of the good ship Bob Ward’s. Over the years several Ward children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins have worked at one store or another.”
Ward’s oldest son, Irvine, led the store into the world of sporting goods retail after returning from World War II. Not to be outdone, Irvine’s son, Keith, added four other stores and today Bob Ward’s can be found in Bozeman, Butte, Hamilton and Helena in addition to the flagship store in Missoula where Keith currently serves as chairman of the board. Keith’s son, Chad, Bob Ward’s great-grandson, is a buyer and company president.
It is safe to say the store’s namesake would be proud of what he and four generations of the Ward family have accomplished in 98 years.
Bob Ward’s has been voted “Best Hunting Department,” “Best Ski Department” and “Best Sporting Goods Store” by the residents of Missoula. They offer one of the largest footwear departments in the state and rival the “big box” stores in brand selection. The range of merchandise is staggering from kayaks to skis to tennis rackets and binoculars. Around 70 knowledgeable staff members guide customers to the perfect gear at each of the larger stores with upward of 40 employees at the smaller stores.
The Ward family takes great pride in the fact that the money spent at Bob Ward’s stays in Montana.
“Whenever possible we source Montana-made products in our stores and online,” Corwin says. The North Face and Oakley can be found under the same roof as Bozeman’s Oboz footwear and Missoula’s onXmaps.
Colin believes the dedication of the customers and the loyalty to a local company that Montanans feel are what separates Bob Ward’s from “big box” sporting goods stores.
Those dedicated customers keep returning to tap the knowledge of Bob Ward’s experts in firearms and fishing. Close ties have been developed with local gunsmiths and fishing tackle manufacturers that result in being able to provide customers with the exact product to fit their needs.
The pictures covering the “trophy walls” are the best evidence for this. There are no “the one that got away” stories among the photos lining the entrance to Bob Ward’s. They act as proof that the relationship between staff and customer is essential to assure victory along the rivers and in the mountains of Big Sky Country.
Bob Ward’s could have easily rested on its retail success but instead Chad has moved the store into the world of e-commerce with the launching of BobWards.com extending the company’s reach to a national, even global, level. Customers can buy camouflage golf bags, bouldering crash pads and fulfill their wildest paintball dreams with the click of a mouse and still get the personal customer service they would find if they were shaking the hand of an employee.
But Corwin is quick to point out that the strict attention to the Montana stores will never wane.
“We won’t ever forget our roots and that’s why our main focus is on our local stores,” he says. “We could have grown into a nationwide chain or sold out to a major retailer ,but Bob Ward’s has always been about serving the local community instead of following the national trend.”
The values that guarantee Bob Ward’s Sports & Outdoors’ success in 2015 look very similar to the values held dear to Robert C. Ward in 1917 — it’s the employees who long for the outdoors as much as their customers, the strong desire to serve the needs of each person who walks through the door, and the unfailing commitment to cater to the local outdoor community.
For the 98-year legacy of Bob Ward, life is most certainly good.