Retail

Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack took a controversial stance on gun control. Then he wrote this book.

Key Points
  • Dick's Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack's new book, "It's How We Play The Game: Build a Business. Take a Stand. Make a Difference," is set to hit shelves on Oct. 8.
  • CNBC spoke to Stack about the three reasons he decided to write the book.
  • The retailer was alone when it took a controversial stance on gun sales, but other retailers are now speaking out, urging lawmakers to make common-sense reform.
VIDEO8:4808:48
Dick's Sporting Goods CEO: The consumer is in good shape

CORAOPOLIS, PA — It was the summer of 1968, and Ed Stack, 13 years old at the time, hated working for his dad, Richard Stack, the founder of Dick's Sporting Goods.

Back then, the business was just a single bait and tackle shop in Binghamton, New York. And during that miserable summer, as he explains in his new book, Ed couldn't have predicted that he would go on to scale his father's business, much against his father's will, to a chain of more than 700 stores. Ed would go on to take over the company from his dad in 1984, when he was then 29 years old. He would take the company public in 2002.

And — again something Ed and his father both couldn't have ever predicted — Ed would spark a national debate when he took a bold stance on assault-style firearms in February of 2018, following a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Shortly after that shooting, Dick's Sporting Goods pulled high-capacity magazines from stores and halted the sale of firearms to anyone under 21 years old. Then, eight months later, as a test, the company pulled all guns from 10 stores. That went over so well, Stack said, that for roughly the past two months it's had guns removed from another 125 stores. Now, the entire hunting category, including Dick's Sporting Goods' Field & Stream business, is under "strategic review."

If we had a chance to it all over again, we wouldn't change a thing. Meeting the families in Parkland ... the one thing I promised them when I left was we would keep the conversation going.
Ed Stack
Dick's Sporting Goods CEO

Stack's tumultuous upbringing including plenty of bickering with his father, the highs and lows of scaling the business, and his background as an athlete were enough to convince the CEO to write "It's How We Play The Game: Build a Business. Take a Stand. Make a Difference," which is set to hit shelves on Oct. 8.

"I have thought about writing a book for a while," Stack said in an interview from Dick's Sporting Goods' headquarters, right outside of Pittsburgh, earlier this month. "A little more than a year ago, I [finally] said, 'I am just going to do this.'"

The CEO, now 64, listed three primary reasons for wanting to share his thoughts with the world.

One is, he wanted to help entrepreneurs, Stack explained, "to be able to understand if you do this, your business is not always going to go in a straight line. There will be ups and downs. Good days and bad days. If you really believe in it, you've got to stick with it."

He cites one example detailed in his book where, in 1996, Dick's Sporting Goods was out of cash. The situation was so dire, there were talks the company could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Until GE Capital swooped in at the 11th hour and loaned Stack enough to keep the business up and running.

"The day we met with GE Capital ranks among our best days, in retrospect," Stack writes in his book.

Second, Stack explained he wanted to use the book to highlight what's going on in youth sports nationwide, as Dick's Sporting Goods has its own program called "Sports Matter," where it's pledged millions of dollars toward helping more kids participate in sports. More and more public schools' after-school sports programs are evaporating as funding dries up, the CEO said. "Kids need a place to go. Kids need to find their self esteem. ... A number of kids won't find [self esteem] in the classroom. They find their self esteem because they can shoot a basketball or sing in the school play."

Lastly, and perhaps what really pushed Stack to finish his book, is the recent stance the CEO has taken on gun control, following a wave of deadly shootings in the U.S.

"If we had a chance to it all over again, we wouldn't change a thing," he said. "Meeting the families in Parkland ... the one thing I promised them when I left was we would keep the conversation going."

Stepping back, Stack's new book also details how the sporting goods business has managed to stay afloat all these years, as Sports Authority and others have gone out of business, and as Amazon's ascent hasn't slowed.

Stack uses the book to discuss how Dick's Sporting Goods has maintained key brand partnerships, like with Nike and Under Armour, how it's bucked the trend of store closures and grown out key categories, like baseball.

'I think we will eventually get there'

When Dick's Sporting Goods pulled large-capacity magazines and rifles from stores in 2018, Stack knew the company would take a hit. In his book, he said about 65 employees "quit right away in protest, and more followed in later weeks." Sales also dropped in the quarters thereafter, as the company predicted. It actually destroyed about $5 million worth of rifles in inventory to make sure they didn't get back on the market.

No other major corporation had been so vocal on the topic, nor taken such a bold stance. Dick's Sporting Goods was a lone wolf. But eventually wolf became a leader of the pack, because there has since been a ripple effect after Stack's actions.

Kroger and Walmart followed Dick's Sporting Goods back in 2018, raising the minimum age for gun buyers to 21.

Then, after two deadly shootings this summer in Walmart stores, Walmart earlier this month said it will be discontinuing sales of short-barrel rifle ammunition, such as the .223 caliber and 5.56 caliber, and getting out of the handgun business entirely. It's also asking shoppers to no longer openly carry firearms in stores. A slew of companies including CVS, Walgreens, Kroger and Albertsons have since also started asking shoppers not to openly carry guns in stores.

Shortly after, leaders of 145 companies wrote a letter addressed to the Senate, asking it to pass background checks and a strong red flag law, which can allow family members or law enforcement to petition a court to prevent someone temporarily from obtaining firearms. In addition to Stack, CEOs of Levi Strauss and Gap pledged their support.

"Every business has to do what is right," Stack said when asked about this wave of recent announcements. "I applaud Doug [McMillon] for what he did. ... Hopefully we can find legislative bodies to do something."

"We all know our legislative process is slow," he went on. "I think we will eventually get there. There will be some common-sense reform. Maybe [just] not as fast as some of us would like."

VIDEO5:4205:42
Dick's Sporting Goods CEO on banning assault rifle sales