Steve Smith would be the first to say that operating a mom-and-pop business isn’t for the meek or the weak. After all, he and wife, Janice, haven’t taken a day off in nearly 100 days at Archery Connection in Phenix City, and don’t expect to until the first of November.
But the former sporting goods sales representative who started hunting at age 6 — adding bows and arrows a few years later — isn’t complaining one bit. That’s because he loves what he does, which is literally connecting people not only with top-notch equipment, but with the sport of archery, which can hone physical and mental skills. And most of those who try it, he says, tend to stay hooked on it.
While he’s been connected in some way to archery since 1975, when he started a backyard business, Smith, 59, has hit full stride with the 30,000-square-foot Archery Connection at 3022 Lakewood Drive. He and wife, Janice, opened the retail store with its shooting ranges in 2011, with their son, Mason, a professional bow shooter, helping out when he’s not competing elsewhere.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Smith recently to discuss his job and the successful business it has become. This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
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Q. You’ve been doing this how long?
A. I started in 1975 in the backyard in (his hometown of) Marianna, Fla.
Q. How did you arrive at in Phenix City?
A. We were looking for a spot here in this area. I was a sales rep and traveled anyway, so I knew a lot about shops and areas and highs and lows. There’s been (archery) shops come and go here, but I knew that there had never been a real good shop put in.
Q. Why was Phenix City your ultimate choice?
A. I knew because of traveling in 10 states in the Southeast as being a sales rep calling on accounts. So I knew this area just really hadn’t ever had anybody in it. I knew it carried a lot of population, and there’s a lot of hunting in the area. You’ve got the Georgia-Alabama line right here, so you’ve got two seasons versus one season. You’ve got the military base here and a lot of industry. A lot of people are always moving into this area, it looks like.
Q. This place is 30,000 square feet?
A. It’s 30,000. We’re the largest archery shop in the country. A guy in Colorado is the closest thing you’ll find to us. People come from all over the country, literally, to this shop. I have entrepreneurs, money people, investors saying: Hey, we want to do what you’re doing. I had one that wanted to do an archery shop in Mississippi, down in Biloxi. Another guy in Pennsylvania did one, but didn’t make it. One from south Florida came up to take a look. I have them all the time; they call and come and say: Man, how in the world (did you come up with this)? This is a mom-and-pop business, and it’s a big business. But if me and Janice and Mason weren’t behind this counter, I could sell it tomorrow and it would probably gone within a year.
Q. Your success is because of the people running it?
A. The knowledge of the people. This stuff is high tech. People don’t believe that. They think, oh, you give somebody a few lessons and they’re good … Most people in our industry are hobbyists. They’ve either got a great business head, or they’re a pretty good archer, but they don’t have both. The next thing they don’t have is the willingness to work seven days a week. Because on the weekend, guess what? They’re off. In the evenings, when everybody’s wanting to go home at 4 and 5 o’clock, guess where we’ve got to be? When hunting season opens, guess where we are?
Q. Is the time consuming nature of it one of the challenges of your job?
A. Yeah, you get a little tired. But my customer won’t experience that. Offseason, we’ll get a day or two or three (away from the store). But when people that say: Oh, we went on a week or two of vacation ... no, we don’t do that. We can’t.
Q. Where does Archery Connection draw people from?
A. We draw consistently out of four states — Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi. They come in to buy, to shoot, get their equipment serviced. That’s consistent business. But I’ve got other people that come from South Carolina, and out of Tennessee.
Q. You also sell guns?
A. We sell a little bit of guns and ammo. I do it because I have regular customers that ask me and say: If you’ll trade guns, we’d like to get ’em from you. But archery has always been our mainstay and everybody knows us for that. That’s what we’re good at it and we stay at it … When you walk in here, you’re going to see 300 or 400 bows at a time, and you’re going to see all of the new products.
Q. Outside of classic sportsmen, what types of people come here?
A. It’s wild the number of women, youth and people in general who come in that don’t even want to hunt; they just want to do the sport of archery. There has been more exposure, like with the movies and the TV programs with the bows. You’ve seen a lot of archery the last four or five years on television. It’s also something you can do in the backyard. You don’t have to repurpose arrows every time you shoot them like you do bullets. So it’s not a money pit. And it’s not noisy. You can do it in your neighborhood — in the backyard or even the garage.
Q. It’s a family recreation and bonding experience?
A. Yep. I have tons of people come in, to give you an example, saying I can’t get little Johnny off the couch. All he wants to do is play video games. They say I’m not sure I want to put money into this because he’s done stuff before and never stuck with it. I’m like, you’ll never know unless you try. It tell them: If you’ve got a problem with him sitting on the couch, I’ll do my very best to teach him the best I know and get him shooting a bow. But you’ll just have to try it, and we’ll give you free lessons for life, free tune-ups and free adjustments as he grows. We don’t charge a penny for that if you buy your bow here. And all of our products, like our bows, have a lifetime warranty. We’ll do all the repairs. All of the service work is done right here.
Q. How many items do you have in here?
A. Probably between 3,000 and 4,000 items (stock keeping units or SKUs). It ranges, however, depending on what time of year it is and what products we carry — the tournament archery stuff versus hunting archery stuff. But our peak time’s is from July to Christmas. It is amazing the amount of product that we carry.
Q. Do you and Janice have your specific jobs or roles?
A. We do it all, it doesn’t matter. We do everything. She’s sold bows and shot bows as good as anybody in the world, the same way I have. Mason, our son, is the same way, and we hunt. So we know what we’re doing with it and we work hard. The last thing we want is to have a customer come in and sell them something and we don’t know what to do with it.
Q. What do you enjoy the most about your job?
A. Dealing with the hunters, the sportsmen, the ladies and the kids. You can see them light up when they shoot that bow. It’s just awesome when someone has never shot it before, especially little kids. You wouldn’t believe how many kids come through our doors, literally thousands. They’re out here shooting on Friday shoot nights. I sell tons of products to people who come in here with a little boy that wants to shoot a bow because he went and spent the night with a next-door neighbor that’s got a bow and brought him up here to shoot an archery tournament. Then he goes home to mommy and daddy and says: I want one. Billy’s got one, why can’t I get one?
Q. The kids bring their parents?
A. Yep. The parents don’t hunt, they’ve never shot a gun, never shot a bow, and know nothing about it. Then the little boy gets started in it and the next thing you know, dad, mom, little sister, older sister, little brother, the whole family is shooting. I see it every day.
Q. Looking at the future, are there any changes ahead for you here?
A. We’ve never done it before, but we’ve got a new online shopping store coming out for the Archery Connection. It’s fixing to hit the market and it’s going to be real, real neat because the products that we offer now, people ask us everyday: Do you have a store we can go to (online) and look at? But no we don’t.
Q. When will the retail website go live?
A. They’re working on it right now and I’m hoping it will be up in the next 30 days.
Q. Any idea how many folks pass through your physical ‘brick-and-mortar’ doors each year?
A. We did take a count. It’s in the neighborhood of 30,000 people a year that roll through our store. For a mom-and-pop, that’s a lot of people.
Q. People are hungry for good products and expertise?
A. One thing we pride ourselves on is we don’t sell junk. I don’t care what industry you’re in — whether you’re selling tires or selling bass boats — there’s always junk in those industries. It’s like the mousetrap that they’re selling cheap. But I don’t sell the junk.
Hometown: Marianna, Fla.
Current residence: Phenix City
Education: Graduate of Marianna High School
Previous jobs: Sales representative in the archery manufacturing industry; and has worked in the construction industry
Family: Wife, Janice, and son, Mason, both who work with him at The Archery Connection on Lakewood Drive in Phenix City
Leisure time: Enjoys shooting in archery tournaments, and also likes to play a round of golf and just be outdoors when he can