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South Dakota’s Retailer of the Year finds right fit with family-owned shoe business

Posted in ,   |  June 30, 2022

To find a 28,000-square-foot shoe store in a community of about 22,000 people tells you this isn’t a typical shoe store.

Actually, Trav’s Outfitter is the South Dakota Retailer of the Year, honored in 2022 by the state retailers association, and with good reason.

It has all the classic ingredients of an entrepreneurial success story: a founder who got into the industry as a teenager and then went on to start his own business in his garage and grow it to impressive levels.

That’s Travas Uthe, who grew up in Watertown and got a job as at age 15 at a local shoe store. He stayed there until he was 33.

“And they came to me in July of 2003 and said they were going to close their stores up,” said Uthe, then a new single dad who wanted to make sure whatever he did next allowed enough time to spend with his sons.

“I looked at a lot of opportunities – working as a regional salesperson for a national footwear manufacturer and other things – but being a good dad was really important to me, so I thought I’ll just start this thing on my own,” he said.

He started selling shoes from the garage of his home in late 2003 and moved into a 3,000-square-foot store in Watertown five months later.

He grew Trav’s Outfitter from there for about 15 years until moving into his current space.

The business is one of the region’s top sources for work and western wear and clothing, carrying leading footwear and apparel brands and drawing customers from a broad area.

“We pull from 100, 150 miles to the west, and we pull easily from Aberdeen, Huron and south of Brookings,” he said. “We pull from west-central Minnesota really well.”

And to make it more convenient, Trav’s often goes directly to its customers. It uses mobile safety-shoe trucks to stop at workplaces regionwide where employees can buy safety footwear on-site.

“We help them satisfy that need for work, and then when that customer from Highmore or Onida or Groton comes to Watertown for a tournament or to shop, they seek us out and want to shop with us,” Uthe said.

Sales have nearly doubled since moving into the larger store, he added.

But he doesn’t take a lot of credit for that.

“I believe that everything goes back to faith, and what this has enabled us to do is be a larger part of the community and give back in many ways,” he said.

That includes hiring staff for his 40-person team who might have struggled to find work elsewhere because of their history.

“My faith tells me they are here for a reason, and we have some miraculous stories of employees whose lives were broken when they came to Trav’s, and we embraced them and showed them love, and it’s really cool to watch their lives be changed because of their job.”

His own recipe for success is one he learned growing up in the industry and is “simple but really hard to carry out,” he said.

“We have to achieve a certain margin, or we won’t stay in business. And it’s tempting to look at market conditions, including now, and say you’re going to eat a price increase or take less margin, but if you really love your customers and want to be there for them, you have to find a way to maintain your margin,” Uthe said.

“I’m not saying overcharge, but our core value is to deliver value. It’s a fair price but also what our team brings to the table. When someone comes in, I want staff who can explain the product and why they should or shouldn’t buy something, and that’s a big part of what we offer, along with compassion. I think that’s a big reason why we’ve seen growth and success.”

Next generation

Trav’s Outfitters also is a family business. His wife, Sherri, serves as controller helping manage the finances.

His older son, Tate, is in management training at Trav’s, and his younger son, Sheldon, runs one of the company’s mobile boot trucks and eventually will enter management training.

“I have confidence they’re going to want to carry it on, and I’m 52, so I have a few years of working left,” he said. “But I’m also not one of those guys who wants to do a 90-day crash course on how to run a business and walk away, so we’re putting the manager training program together, and we’re working on the steps we need to take to eventually transition.”

That includes membership in the Prairie Family Business Association, which the Uthe family joined a couple of years ago.

“My wife is in a peer group, and that’s been really, really good for her to spend time with other family business leaders,” he said. “Being a spouse and working with your spouse poses some unique challenges, so that group has been really good.”

His sons will attend this fall’s Prairie Family Business Association next-generation retreat in Deadwood.

“I’m excited for them with that,” Uthe said. “It’s important for them to build relationships with other next-generation family business members so they have someone else they can visit with who is in similar shoes.”

At the same time, he’s excited to give back to other family businesses.

“We believe Trav’s has approaches and experiences that might benefit other businesspeople, so if we can help others, we definitely want to do that,” he said.

While Uthe and his leadership team are growth focused, it’s with strong consideration for the established brand, he said.

“We’ve identified multiple cities we think could support a store like ours, but we need to find the human resources to replicate what we’re doing here,” he said. “When people come to Trav’s, they know what to expect, and we deliver it. When we get the 100 percent right people elsewhere, we’ll be ready to grow.”

To learn more and get connected to the Next Gen Retreat, click here.