Montana grown: Universal Athletics enters new markets

Eric Hanson, manager of the Universal Athletics retail store in Missoula and a regional sales rep in western Montana, said the Montana-born company has entered new markets across the West. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

It was back in 1971 when Dick Harte and Larry Aasheim acted on a hunch, turning an idea born in a business class into a uniquely Montana brand.

Nearly a half century later, Universal Athletics remains the largest independent team dealer the country. It survived the last recession, adjusted its vision, and has since pushed into new urban markets across the West with an eye on growth.

“As we’ve grown, we’ve encountered some things that are challenging, like learning the sales taxes in each state,” said Eric Hanson, manager of the Missoula retail store and a regional sales rep. “In Washington, they have a state tax and each county has its own individual tax as well. We’re not used to those kinds of challenges, but technology has changed the game for everyone.”

Universal Athletics first opened in Missoula in 1975 in a downtown storefront. When Southgate Mall was built in 1978, the retail store settled and stayed for the next 37 years.

But as the company grew, so did its need for space. In December 2015, the retail business moved to its current location in the Holiday Village Shopping Center, which had just undergone a major renovation.

“We looked at different spots, including South Crossing,” said Hanson. “We wanted to stay in the Midtown area, somewhat close to where we were at the mall. It’s taken over a year for our phones to slow down with people asking us where we are.”

The company’s six other retail outlets, from Billings to Great Falls, also moved into larger facilities. In Missoula, that shift brought advantages beyond additional room. Two fitness centers sit on either side of the business, and the storefront – emblazoned with the company logo – plays to passing motorists. The move resulted in a strong first year and Universal saw holiday season sales surpass early expectations.

But business wasn’t always so promising for the Montana company. When the recession hit in 2008, Universal Athletics saw retail sales decline. Schools faced with a shrinking budget also pulled back, cutting into Universal’s other strategies, including school sales and team commercial.

To adjust to the times, Hanson said, Universal joined a new buying group to trim costs. It also needed to grow if it planned to survive as a company. That meant entering new and larger markets – something they hadn’t done before.

“We realized that with these other team dealers that were smaller than us and selling out, that’s where we had opportunities to get into these other markets,” Hanson said. “Metro Athletics in Minneapolis decided to sell, and we saw it as an opportunity to get into a new market, and we took a chance.”

Universal did the same in Utah, then looked to forge its own way in Arizona and Southern California. Given the size of those markets, Hanson said, the company felt they were underserved, and that presented opportunities for growth.

“That’s when we took the opportunity to either go big or go home,” Hanson said. “Washington state, where we’re just now starting, we now have four salesmen, and it’s such a massive territory on its own. And the California market is enormous.”

As the company pushes into new territories and grows its sales force, Hanson said it will focus on school business and team commercial. The company claims to be the largest independent team dealer in the country, equipping a number of programs from Little League to college with gear and uniforms.

With a screen shop in Bozeman and an embroidery shop in Billings, Hanson said the company handles most of the lettering and logos in state. That includes jerseys and practice gear, along with ball caps and other athletic apparel.

Their strategy also includes a partnership with UM and Montana State University. While the two schools have inked different deals with Nike (UM) and Under Armor (MSU), Universal still provides much of the embroidery and screen work at home.

It also has contracts with other colleges and universities, including the University of North Dakota and Black Hills State, along with a number of NAIA programs, including the latest customer at Montana Tech in Butte.

“Our five-year plan is to continue that growth on the sales side in these markets we feel we can move into,” said Hanson. “We’ve stayed in the West, and that’s where we’ll continue to focus. Still having our roots in Montana, with our main warehouse and our support staff here, it’s a seamless transition for these guys that are working out of state, like Arizona and Southern Cal.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com