James Cavender always had vision. From the time he left the Air Force after World War II, he’s been looking for the next smart way to make a profit. And hard work has never been a deterrent.
James and his young wife, Pat, moved to Pittsburg, Texas, in 1957 from Dallas (though both natives of Idabel, Okla.) to open a Dairy Mart. James found out about a franchise opportunity, went to Pittsburg to check it out, and found the town’s streets full of people. He figured he’d stumbled upon a great opportunity. He signed up for the franchise only to find out 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 missing his growing family (in addition to the three boys, the couple has a daughter, Traci), he was growing restless. Then he heard the local department store was going out of business. He bought it.
“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 wear store as the years went by.”
James, though, wasn’t built for keeping shop. He remained a big-thinking visionary. He had found his calling in the Western wear market—but one store in Pittsburg wasn’t going to be enough.
“I went with little towns right next to ours,” James says. “Dangerfield and Gilmer. Somebody finally talked me into going to bigger towns like Longview and Tyler. Then I just kept going.”
There wasn’t an expansion plan or target market research. James just put stores where it 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 Company in Olathe, Kan., had been sold and was liquidating its inventory. He hooked on to the cattle trailer, drove to the factory, and bought something like 15,000 pairs of boots. He split the haul with Sheplers (guess who got the better half), 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 rep in Tyler and said, ‘Find me a store,’” Mike relates. By the time James arrived, his friend 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.”
Today, Cavender’s Western Wear has expanded from the department store in Pittsburg—James still keeps an office at the old Dairy Mart building, by the way—to more than 76 stores in 9 states. And there are no signs of slowing down.
Heading to the Stockyards
Each of James and Pat’s three sons, Joe, Mike, and Clay, have inherited the same vision and work ethic as their parents. As the company has grown, it has provided a very natural division of responsibilities among the three. Joe, as the president, modernized the company and led it into a new era. Today he still buys most of the boots the stores will carry. Mike found his niche in the real estate side, scouting, planning, and purchasing lots for future stores. Clay helps buy the soft goods, was instrumental in developing their name brand, Rafter C, and designs and decorates each new store with the help of his mother, Pat.
The most significant new store—and the one that shows the new heights the brand is reaching—opened in December of 2016 in Fort Worth’s historic Stockyards district.
The Fort Worth Stockyards might be the most visited cowboy-themed, authentic tourist destination in the world. Not only is the city dubbed “Cow Town,” the district features twice-daily cattle drives, Wild West shows, rodeos, one of the world’s most famous dance halls (Billy Bob’s Texas), and a plethora of shopping.
In 1919, Windy Ryon opened a dry goods store in Fort Worth, but soon changed the store’s offerings when he noticed that cowboys buying and selling cattle in the Stockyards often shopped for boots, hats, and clothing. In 1982, Luskey’s took over Ryon’s and the store became known as Luskey’s/Ryon’s, which remained the name until this past October.
Last year, cousins Alan and Mike Luskey were ready for a change. They contacted the Cavenders and a deal was struck that would keep the Luskeys as managers of the new store.
“They wanted to partner with a family-owned business like us,” Clay Cavender says. “Their name has meant something in the state of Texas for years. We’re really happy to have Mike and Alan Luskey on board running the store for us.”
Talking with Clay, it’s easy to get the sense that he looks at the new Stockyards store as his best work yet. They launched into an immediate and total remodel, stripping the walls of the 1896 building (they uncovered historical aspects of the architecture that they incorporated into the store), putting down new floors, and re-arranging the layout.
“I feel like it’s the coolest Western store in the nation,” Clay says. “Fort Worth and the Stockyards is just cowboy heaven. There’s no better cowboy town in the world. We’ve always wanted to be there, there just wasn’t much opportunity. There are several Western stores in that area and there just wasn’t room for another one. But when Alan and Mike approached us, it seemed like the perfect marriage.”
As such, the Cavender’s team—while certainly putting their stamp on the design of the place—has also kept key elements of the Luskey’s/Ryon’s brand.
“We paid tribute to the Luskey’s/Ryon’s tradition throughout the store with old family photos and signs.” Clay says. “And we’re still carrying their custom boot line as well.”
Clay added that the grand opening in December was the best one the company has ever enjoyed. Between the Luskey family on hand and the eclectic customer mix, it felt new and fresh, yet traditional and old school.
“The day we opened the door, people walked in and had no idea it was our grand opening, followed by someone who had been shopping there for 40 years,” he says. “It was the most unique customer mix I’ve ever seen. In a two day time period I waited on people from Ireland, Scotland, New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Oklahoma, one of the Eastern European countries, California, and Kentucky.”
In a way, it became a new legendary Texas family taking the reins from an old one.
That theme in the Cavender’s growth, by the way, isn’t limited to Texas. For 116 years, Sheplers was the name in Western wear stores. Headquartered in Wichita, the company sold out last year to Boot Barn—and all of its stores were rebranded as such—bringing their total store number to around 200.
One of the new locations Cavender’s opened this year was in Wichita—on the big guy’s turf, so to speak.
“There’s a lot of business out there, and we just want to get our little share,” Mike Cavender says. “Wichita is a good community. I’ve had friends up there for years. We want to get up there and never found the right location until now and it’s done pretty good.”
And while the brothers downplay the meaning of opening a store in Wichita, there seems to be some symbolism.
A Family with Vision
The Cavender’s brand and family are rising in national prominence. To wit, when the Super Bowl was in Houston this past February, Joe and Mike participated in a horseback parade preceding a national television spot on Fox News’ morning show, Fox & Friends.
After presenting hosts Steve Doocy, Ainsley Earhardt, and Brian Kilmeade with boots and hats, they delved into Texas cowboy culture, fashion, and the challenges of building a small business. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to politics, and both Joe and Mike were ready and willing to share their thoughts.
“We’re optimistic that for the next four years we’re going to see a business-friendly environment,” Joe says. “He’s a businessman surrounded by a smart group of people and they’re going to run it like a business.”
The conversation ranged from healthcare to immigration to trade, and both men had measured, thoughtful responses. It’s no wonder, really, as Joe found himself in the middle of the GOP fundraising effort for 2016 election.
“They hit me up and asked me to be on the fundraising committee for Jeb Bush,” Joe says. “I’ve never ever liked fundraising and hated to ask people for money, so my first instinct was to say I wasn’t interested.”
With all of the Cavender’s business contacts in East Texas, as well as his expansive network in the cattle business, the East Texas fundraising guru Gaylord Hughey wouldn’t let Joe off the hook.
“The reason they wanted me was because of all the business contacts we’ve got and as big as we are in the cattle business, I could bring in more people and get money from our contacts,” he says.
“I didn’t want Hillary in there, so I thought I might as well try this out and it actually was pretty fun in a way—especially when you start collecting money and it adds up.”
Once Bush dropped out, that fundraising team backed the party nominee.
“We got a little bit here and there and made a showing in East Texas,” Joe says.
To celebrate, the brothers commissioned custom-made inaugural boots and attended the festivities with their pants tucked in.
That visual—two East Texas boys in Washington D.C. with their pants tucked in—sums up the present state of the Cavender family pretty well. Through the vision and hard work of James, Joe, Mike, and Clay, they’re a true American success story. They’re finding themselves in situations and places they never imagined, rubbing elbows with the upper crust. Yet they refuse to abandon their roots and the values, practices, and philosophies that got them there.
Back home at the corporate headquarters (a long hallway of offices adjacent to the store) in Tyler, the business is inevitably changing. With 76 stores—and no slowing down in sight—the company is experiencing needs they’ve never encountered before.
Despite many of their store and regional managers being with the company for a quarter-century or more, roles for more specialized corporate positions are arising. As such, they’ve created new job positions and hired folks from outside the company with experience in other family-run chain stores to help them in this stage of growth.
One of them, Monica Rattay, the new vice president of store operations, is tasked with increasing the efficiencies of a 76-store chain without abandoning the family-first ethos that has guided the company for 50-plus years.
“We’re a small company that blew up really quick in a good way, and a lot of the systems and processes we’re running are designed for a 20-store chain,” Rattay says. “So, having me come in to help in those processes is one of the major focuses.
“We’ve been the leader in the industry—whether it’s been the quality of our boots or the depth and breadth of selection in our products—and I think we’d be remiss to not say that’s still one of our biggest priorities. We have great people, and we maintain the standard of great products, visuals of our buildings, and focusing first and foremost on customer service. The customer service experience is what we stand on. The community needs to know that we’re there for them and participate in a lot of local events in the communities where our stores are.”
The brothers get it. They know that in the Western enthusiast culture, the family-owned story is especially well received and noticed by the consumer. While they dip their toes in an occasional bit of Super Bowl publicity or political fundraising, they can’t hide who they really are. As their motto states, they don’t just wear who they are, they live it. And nothing is more appropriate for a family of Western wear retailers than to see their personalities borne out in their choice in garb.
Joe, the eldest, the steady influence, wears basic starched jeans and shirts. Always sharp, nothing fancy. He could easily drive to the Neches River Ranch, where his side hobby of raising purebred Brangus cows is housed, step out of the truck, and get to work without a wardrobe change.
Mike, on the other hand, loves nothing more than a flashy pair of custom-made boots. As a man looking to make land deals across the country, he strikes a memorable figure with hipster eyeglasses and rockabilly sport coats. When you meet him, you don’t forget him, and that’s one of the first things a dealmaker’s got to have.
Making it all cool is Clay’s job, and his look oozes modern cowboy. From the custom clothing line to the store designs, his eye for the latest fashion trends keeps both the stores and their goods on the industry’s cutting edge.
What’s remarkable about the brothers, though, is despite their variety of looks and personalities, they all funnel back to the same basic value system. Hard work, great products, customer service, loyalty, and family are all held in high regard. They’re never content to let opportunity pass them by, but they won’t force a deal if it’s not there. The fact that they’ve grown so large really isn’t nearly so amazing as the fact that they get along, almost always agree, and truly value and trust one another.