Turning customers into lifelong friends

Jim Hunt celebrates retirement after 37 years with Cabela’s

For Jim Hunt, working at Cabela’s has never been about serving “customers.”

Once Jim gave a hand with a product recommendation, answered a question, or even provided an on-the-money fishing or hunting tip, there were no “customers” involved.

They were instantly lifelong friends.

“Jim has never met a stranger, whether at work or enjoying the outdoors,” said Sean Streff, General Merchandise Manager at Base Camp who was trained by Jim at the Sidney, Neb., store years ago. “He has always been willing to spend time helping new or less-experienced Outfitters learn about the products or techniques and what products to suggest.

“Generally, after one encounter with Jim, customers new and old would ask for Jim by name when returning to our stores.”

Jim recently celebrated his retirement after 37 years with the company, a journey that started in the early days of Cabela’s, ended in Prairie du Chien, Wis., and left an impact felt by thousands of guests and fellow Outfitters.

Passionate about the outdoors and the brand

“He wakes, sleeps and thinks Cabela’s, the outdoors and the brand, and has a great deal of loyalty,” said Pat Connaughty, GM of Cabela’s at Prairie du Chien.

Jim’s co-workers and friends from throughout the years celebrated his tenure with a reception at the Prairie du Chien store before his retirement. The day included phone calls from former co-workers who he left a lasting impact on, and from Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris.

A prominent theme of the reception was the passion shown by Jim throughout the years, from standing shoulder to shoulder with Jim Cabela’s at the opening of the first Cabela’s retail location in 1987.

“Jim (Hunt) is very loyal to our great company,” Sean said. “Jim spent an amazing 37 years at one company. This is very rare and shows the type of person Jim is.”

From speaking to Jim, a 63-year-old, no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth individual who pulls no punches and tells it like it is, you can tell quickly it isn’t just lip service. It’s his way of life, taught early and emboldened by his early days with the company.

“We all had a passion for the outdoors, and we all brought that to the table, doing whatever it took to get the right product to the customers and keep them happy,” Jim said. “If it took Saturdays and Sundays, and overtime, then that’s what was done.”

Of course, having a passion for hunting and fishing didn’t hurt, either.

A rich history with the company

When Jim helped open Cabela’s in Dundee, Mich., the parking lot was full and the interstate was closed for 10 miles in each direction, full of sportsmen and women trying to get to the store.

On the second day of the opening, he was called to the front of the store to give a tour, and found himself shaking hands with Bill Ford, one of the top executives with the Ford Motor Company.

Bill was curious to see what was keeping things moving slowly at the auto plant.

“He said, ‘Jim, you need to understand, this is the second day that we haven’t built cars, because you people are open and we can’t fill the assembly line,” he remembers. “‘Us and Chrysler aren’t building cars today.’

“They didn’t build cars for several days, because everybody was at our location. I think there was 5,000 people an hour coming in the front door.”

There were brushes with celebrities, also.

He remembers President George W. Bush making a visit to the store, where he and Jim shook hands and talked fishing. He was part of a team that built a fly rod for his father, George H.W. Bush, and did a few favors for Bud Grant, Pro Football Hall of Famer and former legendary coach of the Minnesota Vikings.

Helping lay the foundation in Prairie du Chien

Jim had spent time in northeast Iowa, hunting and fishing, so when plans were being made to open a Cabela’s in Prairie du Chien, Wis., in 1998, he tossed his hat in the ring to join that team and has been there up until his retirement.

Those connections obviously left a lasting impact on those who worked with him – or customers who were helped by him.

“I don’t think I ever heard a customer ask Jim a question that he was unable to answer based on his extensive knowledge,” said Ed Larson, who worked with Jim in Prairie du Chien and currently is a Merchandise Manager at Base Camp. ” Having the knowledge is one thing – being able to use that knowledge to make a sale and truly outfit a customer is the secret sauce that Jim had.”

As for the future, Jim is looking forward to spending more time in the outdoors.

“I think I’m going to hunt for a month straight,” he said with a laugh. “My whole life has been geared toward this. If you’re not working, you’re doing something else outside. It will just be more of what I do.”