CA: Bass Pro’s heir apparent saw potential in Pyramid, Memphis
“Dad, you have to see this.”
John Paul Morris remembered saying those words.
He was then enrolled at the University of Mississippi, majoring in business, and liked to drive up to Memphis, buy supplies at the eastside Bass Pro Shops, see Beale Street, take in concerts.
Morris had grown up in Missouri, not Memphis, though he liked the city. And when he heard a civic committee might repurpose the vacant Pyramid, and one idea was to attract a sporting goods retailer, he naturally dialed his father, Johnny Morris, who owns Bass Pro.
One humid summer day they arrived at the foot of the empty, uncooled 32-story sports arena. Someone let them in. The father and son, both avid hunters and anglers, laboriously climbed the staircases all the way to the 30th floor.
They gazed out, saw the tall city buildings, the river, the farmland stretching to the horizon, and as John Paul Morris recalled, the magnificent view helped reinforce the idea that, yes, maybe you could do something in this building.
It is too soon to say whether John Paul Morris, now age 28, will take control of the retail empire established by his father.
He is one of four children in the family, the only son, and is becoming, after his 68-year-old father, a public face of Bass Pro, a chain of sporting goods department stores that runs up nearly $3 billion in annual sales. A sister, Megan, also works in the company, in conservation and community affairs.
Few companies in the city are now as critical to the redevelopment of Downtown as Bass Pro.
So it seems favorable for Memphis that when Johnny Morris retires, his son most likely will sit among the decision-making executives within the company, perhaps sit at the head of the boardroom. The son can give voice to why Johnny went into the Pyramid, perhaps the nation’s most unusual retail building, and what he intended to accomplish.
One day, Bass Pro will have to decide whether to put more money into its store, or amplify marketing or do something else to assure two million visitors per year to keep streaming in amid an era of growing online shopping. In its hometown of Springfield, Missouri, the company is putting up a new tourist attraction, a museum meant to show the relationship between land and water conservation and hunters and anglers. Memphis someday might need a similar push.
Memphis and Bass Pro today have a superior relationship. The city did what city officials pledged they would do to ready the sports arena for a retailer. And the company did more than most anyone expected. With its cypress swamp, 30th-floor observation deck, luxury hotel and tons of décor and artifacts, the store within 14 months of opening has become one of the key attractions in a city filled with big attractions. In all they bring five million visitors a year to Memphis.
While the bonds between the city and the company are strong now, they need to remain strong, regardless of whether Johnny Morris is running his company or fully retires. Memphis is relying on Bass Pro to keep the tourist dollars coming in. The city issued more than $105 million in public bonds to renovate The Pyramid for Bass Pro, plus another $100 million for other Downtown projects.
Sales taxes paid Downtown for decades are designated to pay off the bonds. More projects could hinge on Bass Pro. Johnny Morris has expressed interest in redeveloping Mud Island, the urban park next to The Pyramid, and supporting the city’s Pinch District redevelopment with a possible hotel linked to Bass Pro.
On Thursday morning, John Paul Morris looked like a Bass Pro customer. He was dressed in blue jeans, a fishing shirt and a red Bass Pro ball cap. He stood on the deck of a small fishing boat, rigged with bow lights for hunting carp at night. He held a piece of archery equipment, an Oneida bow. He looked at home.
His father was a professional angler when he started Bass Pro. Fishing and hunting similarly fascinate the son. A crew member on the boat tells the story of John Paul putting a target on the ground next to The Pyramid, grabbing a bow and arrow, going up to the observation deck, and sending the first and only arrow directly into the target 30 floors below. “Somehow whenever you’re with John Paul he manages to get the biggest deer or the biggest fish or whatever it is you’re going after,” he said.
Morris, who was graduated from the university in 2010, now heads electronic commerce for Bass Pro. Other retailers like Macy’s fear e-commerce could pull shoppers from its stores, although Bass Pro has been cultivating the shopping experience. Developments such as The Pyramid — the interior is designed to resemble a fishing camp in an Arkansas cypress swamp — are meant to look like the environment the tackle, guns and apparel are to be used in.
Johnny Morris dreamed up the Pyramid interior for the company, which is run by him and a small group of executives in Springfield. They make key decisions and regularly converse with the more than five dozen store managers on the continent in conference calls. Managers routinely discuss marketing and what is and isn’t selling.
On Thursday, John Paul Morris wasn’t in Springfield for a meeting. He was on the bow of a boat motoring into the Wolf River between Mud Island and The Pyramid.
He held his bow, attached an arrow tied to braided line running to a spool mounted on the Oneida. Targets were placed in the water. His first arrow pierced the target 50 feet away.
He said he loves archery, has bought Oneida Eagle Bows, moved the plant to Springfield from Michigan. And now he loves bowfishing, using the bow and arrow to hunt carp. Last Wednesday night, he was on the Mississippi River, checking the water off Memphis for Asian carp, which have bred prolificly in the river.
He’s the reason Bass Pro launched the U.S. Open Bowfishing Championship four years ago and moved it this summer from Missouri to Memphis. More than 200 teams from throughout the nation registered for the tournament, held this past Friday and Saturday at the Pyramid.
Johnny Morris turned Bass Pro into a mega-business built on bass fishing. Maybe his son can expand it around the bow and arrow.