James Cavender is 84 years old. He’s the kind of man his friends and family lovingly call a character. He’s rubbed shoulders with foreign heads of state, rodeo champions, captains of industry, and music stars. Though officially retired, he remains sharp-witted—a tough trader with a keen eye for commerce—and the patriarch of a family business that has carved out a serious niche in cowboy culture.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cavender’s Western stores. Started in 1965 in Pittsburg, Texas, by James and his wife, Pat, the company has grown to nearly 70 stores in eight states. But despite that growth, the company has stayed true to its roots. Those roots run deep and tap into traditions of hard work, treating folks right, business savvy, and, above all, family.
Today, James and Pat’s three sons—Joe, Mike, and Clay—run the business. But when James arrives in the Cavender’s home offices in Tyler, Texas, he still makes waves. First, he’s got a rodeo series he thinks the stores should sponsor. He seeks out the company’s marketing man, Terry Cooper, to discuss the idea. Next, he’s got a pair of gloves he came across while on a hunting trip and wants his youngest son, Clay, to look into carrying them in the store. He’s got a case of East Texas honey that needs to be distributed to the employees. But his eyes really twinkle the first chance he has to mention that he’s sold four pairs of boots this week and needs the orders fulfilled.
James and Pat moved to Pittsburg, Texas, in 1957 from Dallas (though they’re both natives of Idabel, Okla.) to open a Dairy Hart. James found out about a franchise opportunity, went to Pittsburg to check it out, and found the town’s streets full of people. He signed up for the franchise only to learn that the reason everyone was on the street was because the workers at the local steel mill, Lone Star Steel, were on strike.
After eight years of working evenings and weekends in food service and missing his growing family (in addition to the three boys, the couple has a daughter, Traci), he was growing restless. The local department store was going out of business and James tried to buy it. The deal fell through, so he opened his own store.
“After about a year, he bought three styles of Tony Lama boots and that got his start in the Western end of it,” his middle son, Mike, says. “He just added more and more. People came from all the towns around and he developed a clientele. It evolved into Western as the years went by.”
James, though, wasn’t built for keeping shop. He was still restless. His eyes began to wander and he thought he’d open another store.
“I went with little towns right next to me,” James explains. “Daingerfield and Gilmer. Somebody finally talked me into going to bigger towns, like Longview, and then I just kept going.”
There wasn’t an expansion plan or target market research. James simply put stores where they made sense. The Tyler store, which would eventually become the home office, has a particularly off-the-cuff genesis. In 1977, James got wind that the Hyer Boot Company in Olathe, Kan., had been sold and was liquidating its inventory. He hooked up the cattle trailer, drove to the factory, and bought some 15,000 pairs of boots. He split the haul with Sheplers, but 7,500 pairs of boots still require a fair amount of space and he needed a place to put them.
“He called the Levi Strauss & Co. rep in Tyler and said, ‘Find me a building,’” Mike relates. By the time James arrived, the rep had found him a place to unload. “It was a little bitty store. While he was selling those boots, it might have been one of the highest sales per square foot of any store in the nation.”
The Cavender’s expansion—while not planned—was not haphazard. Other than the initial investment, James never took a loan on the business.
“I guess my daddy and momma taught me right,” James says. “I can still remember the Depression. I’d go to town with my grandma and grandpa and they’d have chickens and eggs and butter and milk and they’d trade it for pepper and sugar and stuff like that.”
He didn’t quit learning lessons, either. In the 1970s, he created a liquidation business. Other clothing and Western wear stores would go under, and James would acquire their inventory and sell it, often taking over the location, as well. It was during that time he saw first-hand the pitfalls that could affect family-owned Western wear stores.
In 1980, John Travolta starred as Bud Davis in Urban Cowboy. Immediately, the boom in Western wear was on and stores were stocking up to meet demand. But it didn’t last.
“After Urban Cowboy, a lot of them went out of business,” James says of his Western wear competition. “But we didn’t even know Urban Cowboy was over, we just kept buying stores.”
All along, the boys were part of the work force.
“My dad had me selling in the fourth grade,” Mike says. “I could talk to people. He put me on straight commission. Here I am, 10 or 11 years old, and he saw me making all this money so he put me back on an hourly rate.”
A decade later, Mike’s younger brother, Clay, was ready to work and James assigned him to the warehouse—where he put him on straight commission. James is legendary for being frugal. One of his store managers said he’d jump over a dollar to save a dime.
Later, James sent 14-year-old Clay to prepare the site for the newest store in Paris, Texas, digging foundation footings by hand.
“We had about a 20-foot area to dig through and it was solid clay,” Clay says. “It was miserably hot, I was sunburned, and on day four, we tried to talk my dad into letting us go rent a trencher. It would have taken maybe two minutes to go those 20 feet, but he wouldn’t let us do it. It took us two days to dig that 20 feet. It was miserable.”
It may have been frugality, but James was also intentional about making his sons work. Both the older boys did stints at Lone Star Steel during summers. In fact, if business acumen was the first reason Cavender’s grew, work was the second.
Common sense and work ethic—that’s the magic formula. It works … and business keeps growing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, country music’s popularity took off with stars like George Strait and Garth Brooks. Once again, the company grew. In 1994, Joe became the president of the company and he began taking over the modernization of Cavender’s.
“We were fairly large without being on an information system,” he says “We had 34 stores. It was just a lot to keep up without being on computers. Having good information for that many stores was a valuable tool, so having that accelerated our growth tremendously.”
This is the part of the story where most family businesses cease to exist. The enterprise has grown to unplanned heights, popularity in their product is strong, and the economy is trending upward. The patriarch who created the empire through work, charisma, and good timing is ready to step aside. Often, the children are either ill-equipped to fill his shoes or the infighting is too intense. It’s at this juncture that Mom and Pop sell out to the corporate conglomerate to keep peace in the family and let the kids go their separate ways. With no debt and tremendous growth, there’s no question Cavender’s would have fetched a pretty penny.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, the brothers—each in his own time—stepped in to fill vital roles within the company.
“You gotta let somebody else do it and they can’t do it with me sitting up there,” James says. “They’ve got new ideas. ”
Joe modernized the company and led it into a new era as the president; today, he still buys most of the boots the stores will carry. Mike, vice president of operations/leasing found his niche in the real estate side, scouting, planning, and purchasing lots for future stores. Clay, as vice president of merchandising, oversees men’s soft goods and hats and develops all private-label apparel. But he still goes back to his old ditch digging days and is in charge of all new store construction and some remodels.
“Pretty much anything you see in our store has at least been seen by my eyes or touched by my hands, or both,” Clay says. “I’m a brick-and-mortar guy. I still like to see a store built from the ground up and love to see customers come through the doors for the first time and enjoy all the hard work our people put in to get a new store open.”
Pat Cavender, the matriarch of the family, is still involved in every store opening as well. She works with Clay on the décor and setup. They still argue over and sweat the details, and Clay revels in giving her a hard time. While all members of the family have their own areas of expertise, major changes aren’t made without complete buy-in.
“We cross our paths on big decisions and agree on everything, but we’re structured enough that everybody has their own part,” Clay says. “On big decisions, we all have to agree and it works out well.”
What could be the most admirable achievement of the company, though, is even as they’ve grown, they’ve maintained the culture of family and avoided a detached, corporate feel.
James and his sons don’t look at this as extraordinary or even intentional. Working for soulless, amalgamated bean counters with no regard for the human element is a foreign concept to the Cavenders. These are men who have charted their own course and live and work by a code based on the family unit. If they had to answer to a board of directors or venture capitalist group, they’d … well, they wouldn’t. But in searching for how they’ve made it work, the answer is simple: “We don’t ask anyone to do anything we wouldn’t do or haven’t done in the past,” Mike says. “We try to treat our associates like you treat your family.”
Many of the folks James and Joe first hired 20 and 25 years ago are still employed with the company. Terry Cooper, their Chief Marketing Officer, is among them.
“I’ve worked down the hall from Joe for 20 years. He gives us our area of responsibility, we create a plan and then we have the freedom to work. The environment creates a sense of ownership and the last thing I want to do is fail them,” Cooper says.
At the same time, each brother and James are accessible to all their employees—or associates, as they call them.
“We’re pretty easy to reach,” Joe says. “Especially for a company our size. It doesn’t take a lot of red tape to make decisions. You usually get a quick answer. For a company our size, we’re pretty quick decision makers.”
Of course, the family atmosphere at the home office—which, by the way, is simply a long hallway of offices alongside the Tyler store—extends to customers. Despite their pride and satisfaction of being a family-owned business, they’ve never seen reason to promote themselves as such; it’s simply how they operate. While James’s personality is larger than life, the sons tend to fly under the radar. For years, Cooper has encouraged them to tell their story to their customers. In a funny twist, it took a building code to do it.
In many of the new stores going in, cities are requiring a vestibule at the entrance to reduce energy loss. While many stores have sterile-feeling glass doors with shopping carts in that space, Clay took a different approach. The vestibules in the newer Cavender’s look like a comfortable ranch house, complete with rustic wood and family photos.
“In today’s world, there are so many venture capitalists and businesses that are owned by corporate structures and that’s not us,” Clay says. “We’re family owned and operated. I think people feel it in our stores. It’s a good story to tell and people like that. It seems like the right thing to do.”
Step into a newer Cavender’s and not only will you see pictures of James, Joe, Mike, Clay, and their families, you’ll also see grainy black and whites of their grandparents on the old ranches in Albany, Texas, and Idabel, Okla.
“A part of our heritage is we’re family owned and do have ranches,” Joe says. “We understand the Western lifestyle, as opposed to a more corporate type atmosphere. We know the Western wear business and the lifestyle.”
They’re not just hobby ranches, either. Within a 25-mile radius of Jacksonville, Texas, the family owns or leases five different properties where they raise registered Brangus and Charolais cattle. Cavender’s Ranches are part of the country’s eighth-largest purebred marketing outfit, GENETRUST, which sells 650 bulls annually. The Cavenders sell 800–1,000 commercial Brangus heifers every year.
But you’d never know it unless you asked.
The Cavender family is bullish on the future of Western wear and they’ve each got a different reason why their company will continue to be viable with its 50th anniversary in the rear-view mirror.
Joe, for one, defers credit to the manufacturers.
“There’s a lot more comfort and updated-looking merchandise that crosses over into fashion rather than just cowboys,” he says. “It’s a fashion statement. It may go up and down, but it’s a pretty staple deal now.”
Mike has noticed some of the same things, but adds that the customer service will continue to set the Cavender’s brand apart.
“Take care of your customer and your people,” he explains. “With good customer service, everything takes care of itself. We find people who like what we do. Our associates love the merchandise. They care about what they do and like to share their knowledge with our customers.”
Clay, perhaps the most philosophical of the three, goes deeper.
“If you look back through time, there’s a look that is always cool and that’s a pearl snap shirt and a pair of cowboy boots,” he says. “That’s always going to be something the people recognize and like. Everybody has a pair of cowboy boots in their wardrobe. The hat is iconic, but not everybody has one. Everybody has a pair of cowboy boots and a good pair of jeans and a pearl snap shirt.”
Really, that’s where the Cavender’s success lies. Whether they meant to or not, they’ve identified things in this world that are timeless and put them to work for them. Whether it’s maintaining a tight-knit family, being a good steward of their resources, treating their employees and customers right, or selling something that everyone wants, they stick with what works.
“We don’t vary too far from our formula,” Clay says. “And it’s always been in our blood to grow.”