In his book “It’s How We Play The Game: Build a Business. Take a Stand. Make a Difference,” Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Ed Stack describes taking over the family business and why the company took a public stance on gun sales. The following is an excerpt from the introduction of the book. You can hear Stack’s full interview with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal on the Corner Office podcast.
It was midafternoon on Valentine’s Day when I heard an early news report about the school shooting. The particulars drifted in as I hurried my way through a pile of work that needed attention before I left for a long Florida weekend with my wife: students and teachers killed, number unknown. Panic in the halls. A gunman armed with an assault rifle. My first reaction was: Not again.
I’d found myself thinking that too many times lately. Hadn’t we all? Four months before, a lunatic had barricaded himself in a high-rise Las Vegas hotel, busted out his room’s window, and opened fire on a crowd of thousands gathered below for a country music festival. He’d snuck fourteen AR-15s, a type of assault style rifle, into the hotel. Twelve were fitted with hundred-round magazines. It took him just ten minutes to kill fifty-eight people. Another eight hundred fifty-one — an almost inconceivable number — were wounded by his bullets or in the panic he created.
A month later, a twenty-six-year-old misfit walked into the Sunday service at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and let loose with an assault rifle, killing twenty-six people and injuring another twenty.
In the few years before those shootings, there’d been so many others: A June 2016 terrorist attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando that killed forty-nine and wounded fifty-three; the shooter there had used an assault-style rifle, too. A December 2015 attack by husband-and-wife terrorists on a San Bernardino County public health training event and Christmas party, which left fourteen dead and twenty-two injured. A July 2012 massacre in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. That same year, the brutal massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School that claimed twenty-six children and faculty.
Mass shootings had become an all-too-familiar part of life in America. Their frequency seemed to be increasing. The number of dead seemed to ratchet upward with each new incident. And there seemed no end to it. No safe place left. And maybe worse, no one trying to deal with it—our political leaders seemed to lack the will for meaningful action. Their response to these tragedies had become depressingly predictable. One side would decry the availability of guns and call for a clampdown. The other would trumpet its broad interpretation of the Second Amendment—in which any regulation, any safeguard, was seen as a constitutional breach—and would drag out that old cliché that guns don’t kill people, people do.
As I listened to the news on February 14, 2018, more details emerged from Parkland, Florida. The gunman was a former student at the school. Thanks to the weapon he’d chosen, a derivative of a rifle originally developed for military use, he’d performed his slaughter with grim efficiency, killing seventeen people in little more than six minutes. I left the office in a deep state of melancholy, not only at the day’s news but, perhaps even more, at the realization that it would happen again — that this tragedy was a link in a chain that seemed without end. Somebody has to do something, I thought. This has to stop.
My wife shared my despair. On our way to Florida, Donna was as preoccupied with the shooting as I was, and we talked about little else. She was near tears. Somebody has to do something, we told each other. Somebody. Has. To. do. Something.
Halfway through the flight, forty-two thousand feet over the Carolinas, I realized that somebody had to be me.
Because few people were better positioned for the mission. As the chairman and chief executive officer of Dick’s Sporting Goods, America’s largest sporting goods retailer, I led a team whose annual sales of firearms were among the nation’s largest. We sold thousands of rifles, shotguns, and handguns from our nearly eight hundred big-box stores in forty-seven states. And in our thirty-five outdoors-oriented Field & Stream stores, we sold the very style of rifle used in Parkland, Florida, that Valentine’s Day, and in so many other mass shootings.
That made us part of the problem. But maybe, I thought, it could make us part of a solution, too.
What followed that epiphany would thrust me and the company into an emotional and, at times, even threatening national debate. My team and I did something that few retailers had dared to: we followed our consciences, even if that steered our company into short-term hardship. We took a stand that earned both applause and condemnation, and in the months since, my life — and the lives of many Dick’s employees — hasn’t been the same.
The mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School wasn’t the first occasion on which we encountered such a moment. Looking back, one can see that this tendency of Dick’s to go beyond the traditional role of retailer and get involved with the communities of which it’s a part —sometimes in a way that alters people’s lives for decades—is pretty ingrained. It all harks back to the store’s embryonic days as a small family business in upstate New York. The company’s founder, and the man for whom it is named — my father, Richard John Stack — recognized that he couldn’t prosper unless and until the city around him, and thus his customers, did too.
Dick Stack wasn’t always a lovable man. There was nothing cuddly about him. He could be spiteful, prickly, and willfully hard to deal with. But in that belief about a company’s relationship with its surrounding community, he was right.
This is the story of that company my dad started, which my team and I grew from two stores to hundreds — a story that shows Dick’s evolution from the humblest of beginnings to a classic American success story. The sporting goods industry is littered with roadkill, and its victims include giants. That we at Dick’s have survived, let alone thrived enough to become the only national player left in the game, is a pretty remarkable tale on its own.
But alongside that story of Darwinian struggle, I’ll also describe the rise of a corporate culture that has sought to do the right thing, time and again. You’ll see that we’re no angels: in business, we’re in the game to win. We love street fights, and we’re good at fighting them. Even as we’ve sought to defeat our rivals, however, we’ve striven to build a legacy of good corporate citizenship — to measure our success not only by how much we’ve made, but by what we’ve created.
Importantly, the account that follows isn’t all about me. As the founder’s son and, also, the company’s leader for thirty-five years, I’ve been a key player in Dick’s story, but only one player.Thousands of men and women have had a hand in the company’s success. Even so, I’ve worked in the company since I turned thirteen, when it consisted of a single small store selling hunting and fishing gear, and most of my life has been indivisible from the business. Its DNA is bound up in mine, and mine in its.
Has this journey that my team and I have taken together been a great adventure with hard-to-experience lows and exhilarating highs? Most definitely. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed living it.
Excerpted from “It’s How We Play the Game: Build a Business. Take a Stand. Make a Difference.” by Ed Stack. Copyright © 2019 by Edward W. Stack. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.