Norm Thompson Outfitters, Inc. History
Hillsboro, Oregon 97124
Telephone: (503) 614-4600
Toll Free: 800-547-1160
Fax: (503) 614-4601
Sales: $200.0 million (2001 est.)
NAIC:454110 Electronic Shopping and Mail-Order Houses; 452990 All Other General Merchandise Stores
Norm Thompson is committed to having a positive impact on the environment. Our goal is to prove that sustainability is the right thing to do for the planet--and for commerce. We will, therefore, ensure that the choices we make in our day-to-day business take into account the environment around us, as well as our stakeholders and profitability. Specifically, we will strive to follow principles of sustainability to: Meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs; Secure a high quality of life within those means; Meet the criteria of The Natural Step.
- Norm Thompson begins selling his hand-tied fly-fishing ties.
- Peter Alport, Norm Thompson's son-in-law, takes control of the company.
- The first Norm Thompson catalogue is introduced.
- John Emrick joins the company.
- Peter Alport dies, passing stewardship to Emrick.
- Norm Thompson's new, "green" headquarters opens.
- The company's new web site debuts.
Norm Thompson Outfitters, Inc. is a specialty retailer of casual and outdoor clothing, unique gifts, and gourmet foods, which are sold primarily through mail-order catalogs. Norm Thompson also sells its merchandise on its web site and at a handful of retail and outlet locations in Oregon. The company publishes four catalogs under the titles Norm Thompson, Early Winters, Solutions, and Waterfront Living. Together, the catalogs offer approximately 2,600 items. Aside from its operations in Oregon, Norm Thompson also operates a distribution center in West Virginia.
In its original guise, Norm Thompson reflected the interests of its founder and namesake, Norm Thompson. An avid sportsman, Thompson retired shortly after the end of World War II and devoted his newly found free time to his greatest passion, fly-fishing. He started his company in 1949 more as a hobby than a business; an enterprise whose scope and aims were modest. Thompson ran two-inch advertisements in outdoor magazines, hawking his hand-tied fly-fishing ties. After a year, Thompson ended his involvement with the homespun enterprise and passed control of the company to his son-in-law, Peter Alport.
When Alport inherited control of the company in 1950, he made his living running an advertising agency in Portland, Oregon. Like his father-in-law, Alport treated the company primarily as a hobby. He operated the company alongside his advertising agency, dividing his attention between the two concerns. Although Norm Thompson's initial development may have suffered because of a lack of focused attention, meaningful strides were achieved during Alport's first years in control.
Debut of First Catalogue: 1951
In 1951, Alport produced the first Norm Thompson catalogue, introducing what would become the company's signature trait. The first catalogue showcased the company's narrow line of fly-fishing gear, but in later years the catalogues expanded, as Norm Thompson began to reflect the interests and personality of Alport. Alport and his friends immersed themselves in the lifestyle of 1950s adventurers, a lifestyle based on the African safari hunting trips made famous by Ernest Hemingway and Charles Ritz. By the late 1950s, Norm Thompson's product line had expanded beyond fly-fishing gear to include high-end outdoor gear and apparel.
The first major turning point in Norm Thompson's development occurred in 1965, when John Emrick joined the company. Emrick's first discovery was a discouraging one. For 16 years, the company had been treated as a sidelight venture, as a hobby rather than a business. Although unique, the company's high-end merchandise could never attract more than a small, albeit devoted, following. Largely because of its small target audience and its casual management, Norm Thompson was financially destitute when Emrick joined the firm, its prospects bleak unless sweeping change was implemented.
Emrick emerged as the company's savior shortly after his arrival. He convinced Alport to redefine and to broaden the company's focus, arguing that Norm Thompson was best suited as an outfitter of outdoor apparel, gear, and accessories. Emrick also persuaded Alport to lend his full attention to the company. In 1966, Alport dissolved his advertising accounts and began focusing exclusively on the management of Norm Thompson.
With the implementation of the new strategy proposed by Emrick, Norm Thompson began to take on the trappings of a genuine corporate concern. Alport's frequent trips to Europe and elsewhere gave the company access to goods rarely seen by U.S. consumers. Alport imported tweeds and natural fibers from England, which defined Norm Thompson's image as a "country gentleman" look. By the mid-1970s, Alport's constant purchasing trips abroad had helped the company to realize Emrick's vision. Norm Thompson had become an outfitter carrying a diverse collection of apparel, gear, and accessories targeted toward a much larger target audience.
Emrick's positive influence over the fortunes of Norm Thompson was rewarded in his selection as the company's president in 1971. His control over the company was strengthened four years later, when Alport, after a 25-year association with the company, passed away. Following Alport's death, Emrick continued operating the company under new ownership, first by a company called Parker Penn and later by a group of investors that included Emrick himself. During the period punctuated by Emrick's rise to the presidency, Alport's death, and the switches in ownership, Norm Thompson experienced significant change. It was during the 1970s when the company emerged as an innovator, a role that would describe it into the 21st century.
From its start, Norm Thompson catered to an exclusively male audience. As the company entered the mid-1970s, however, its catalogues began to carry gift and apparel items geared for female customers. Research, conducted under the increasingly influential Emrick, revealed that women were browsing through the company's catalogues and placing order calls to Norm Thompson operators. The company reacted to this discovery because of the emphasis Emrick placed on the needs and desires of Norm Thompson's customers, a perspective that represented a fundamental change in the corporate philosophy espoused by Alport. Alport focused on merchandise, believing that unique items would attract customers. Emrick, in contrast, focused on customer service, believing that listening to what the customer wanted should dictate the type of merchandise that appeared in company catalogues.
The adoption of Emrick's customer-oriented philosophy led to pioneering changes in the way Norm Thompson operated. In 1975, Emrick solicited the help of outside vendors to create a computer system that could facilitate the company's newly adopted customer-oriented approach. During the ensuing three years, the company developed its own software that was operated and maintained without outside assistance. Also in 1975, the company established online communications with customers, which allowed company operators to inform customers about product availability while the customers were on the telephone line. The utilization of computer systems to bridge the gap separating a catalogue company and its customers was novel at the time. Most direct response companies of Norm Thompson's ilk viewed computer systems as accounting or order-taking aids, but Emrick used the technology to create a marketing tool that enhanced the interactive relationship between company and customer. Said Emrick, in an April 1996 interview with Direct Marketing, "If you focus on great service and great products and stay connected to what's happening with technology, you will succeed in this business."
Against the backdrop of strategic change and growth, Norm Thompson began to flower into a robust enterprise. The policy of responding to the demands of customers expanded product lines and, by necessity, expanded the company's catalogue offerings. In 1965, the company mailed its first fall season catalogue. In 1967, a spring catalogue was added. By 1973, the company was producing four catalogues: spring, fall, winter, and Christmas.
Norm Thompson's innovative customer-service system was in place before the end of the 1970s. By blending its own sophisticated direct response system along with other developments of the era, such as credit cards and toll free telephone numbers, the company entered the 1980s as a vibrant mail-order firm, its customers and product selection growing steadily. Emrick, who would later couple his customer-service zeal with a passion for environmental concerns, had fashioned Norm Thompson into the type of company that later would be hailed by industry observers. As the company entered the 1980s, however, its diminutive stature and private-ownership status kept it from public awareness. Soon Norm Thompson's anonymity would be shed, and Emrick's achievements revealed, but before public scrutiny cast its eye toward the small company based in Hillsboro, Emrick was already making plans to pass control of the company to someone else.
According to Oregon Business, Emrick began making plans for a year's sabbatical as early as 1982. Emrick, according to reports, wanted to turn his company over to another individual by the time he reached 50 years old. Aside from a desire for more free time, Emrick believed that Norm Thompson's growth during the latter half of the 1970s and the early 1980s demanded a more professional managerial structure. In 1988, he met the individual he believed could spearhead the necessary transformation of the business.
Ron Decker joined Norm Thompson in 1989, as the mail-order retailer neared the $50 million-in-sales mark. The process of transferring power from Emrick to Decker took a surprisingly long time, as both executives moved methodically through the first change in Norm Thompson's leadership in a quarter century. By mid-1992, Emrick was ready to take his sabbatical, his only contact with the company reduced to one monthly telephone call with Decker and attendance at an occasional board meeting.
Growth in the 1990s
Decker's influence over Norm Thompson did not last long. Emrick returned to guide the company through much of the 1990s. During the latter half of the decade, Norm Thompson, long the innovator in terms of customer service, added a new dimension to its corporate personality, becoming a leader in progressive environmental practices. In 1996, the company unveiled its new, "green" headquarters near Portland, Oregon. The site, design, and materials were selected because of their minimal environmental impact, resulting in a state-of-the art facility that served as a model for other environmentally minded companies to follow. The building's heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system realized roughly 40 percent reductions in energy use by using the heat produced by the facility's occupants and equipment. Ceiling tiles were made from recycled telephone books and newspapers. Flooring in the lobby consisted of wood salvaged from railroad boxcars.
Under Emrick's direction, Norm Thompson pursued other progressive objectives that were hailed by the environmental movement. The company partnered with the Alliance for Environmental Innovation to study the feasibility of using recycled paper in its catalogs. Norm Thompson began using 10 percent recycled-content paper, which represented a pioneering move in an industry saddled with a woeful record of excessive paper consumption. Norm Thompson also pledged to offer only plastic products free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and 100 percent organic cotton in its products.
As the company neared its 50th anniversary, there was one area where the otherwise progressive and innovative Norm Thompson fell short of expectations. In 1998, sales surged past the $150 million mark, but the company had yet to establish a presence on the Internet commensurate with its stature. As other catalog companies threw themselves headlong into electronic commerce, Norm Thompson conspicuously refrained from establishing anything more than a token presence on the Internet. At the company's flagship store in Portland, customers could choose from roughly 1,300 different products. Through the company's catalogs, customers could select from 2,600 different products. On the Internet, however, Norm Thompson customers were limited to 75 items. Competitors such as L.L. Bean and J. Crew had long since established substantial web sites befitting the scope of their catalog offerings. In the business press, critics wondered why Norm Thompson had not yet followed suit.
In 1998, Emrick and his other top executives finally decided that the Internet represented a legitimate and vital method of shopping. Their decision led to the October 1999 debut of a web site that gave Norm Thompson customers full access to the company's myriad gifts, apparel items, and specialty foods. "I wish we'd started a year earlier than we did," Emrick confided to Business Journal--Portland in an October 8, 1999 interview. Emrick was confident, however, that his company had not fallen behind its competitors because of its belated foray into electronic commerce. The company, he argued, had spent the time valuably, revamping its image and its merchandise selection so that it remained attuned to the needs and desires of its customers in the 21st century.
Principal Competitors: Lands' End, Inc.; L.L. Bean, Inc.; Spiegel, Inc.
- Back, Brian J., "Norm Thompson's Love of Community," Business Journal--Portland, October 13, 2000, p. 18.
- Eisler, Gary, "The Mail Order Tax War," Oregon Business, October 1990, p. 109.
- Fundak, Lydia, "Norm Thompson: Looking Beyond the Bottom Line," Direct Marketing, April 1996, p. 14.
- Goldfield, Robert, "E-Commerce Convert," Business Journal--Portland, October 8, 1999, p. 21.
- Harding, Elizabeth U., "Hello? Your Order Has Arrived," Software Magazine, February 2001, p. 6.
- Hill, Robert L., "Letting Go of the Reins," Oregon Business, May 1992, p. 44.
- Hogue, Kendra, "Norm Thompson Adjusting to Postal Rate Hike, Cuts Staff," Business Journal--Portland, March 4, 1991, p. 1.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 47. St. James Press, 2002.