Bill has made a great career for himself in both the Outdoor and Fly Fishing Spaces. He tells us about his work with REI getting their Adventure Travel Program off the ground, his transition into fly fishing with Sage, how he parlayed his entrepreneurial spirit into a successful repping business on the East Coast.
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First Exposure to the Outdoors
My Dad started us off early and so I grew up hunting and fishing and camping with him and actually went to the Orvis fly fishing school in 1969. And that’s when you stayed in the motor coach in across the street from the bamboo factory and went out in the pond factory and learned how to cast and whatnot.
So we did that, got a little fishing in and interestingly enough I did that with a cast on my leg so I didn’t get to wade in any of the streams and do that portion of the school.
But then I got into skiing. That was back in the early days in Pennsylvania and I can still remember to this day my dad coming back from a European business trip and handing me a brand new pair of leather buckle boots. And up to that point you had tie boots and you had a little tool that you could pull tight on the laces and get them tight enough.
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Highland High School Lacrosse
I’ve certainly heard it on your podcast numerous times and, and I’m a product of that, but you know, following that passion. Like I mentioned, you know, trying to join your application with your vocation. I do believe that and it certainly came to fruition with me and I’ve heard it from many others on your podcast, so it is something to make sure and tuck in your pocket and understand that over the long haul, if you have a passion for it, you’re probably going to be successful at it in some way, shape or form.
Some other things I would pass on, and these from my coaching days and I would be remiss in not mentioning. My son will laugh because I always told the kids that it’s a game of inches. Every little inch counts. You miss a goal by an inch. You missed the ground ball by an inch. So it truly is a game of inches. I think that plays into the game of life and the game of career as well. You really do have to pay attention to the details there and make sure that you’re not missing any of those inches along the way. And finally I always told them that we’re not going to use the phrase practice makes perfect because I have no aspirations of being perfect. But practice does make permanent. So practice, practice, practice.
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Bill Dawson- A Life And Career Dedicated To The Outdoor Biz
It was great to catch up with my good bud, Bill Dawson. Bill has made a great career for himself in both the outdoor and fly fishing spaces. He tells us about his work with REI, getting their adventure travel program off the ground. He’s transitioning to fly fishing with Sage and how he parlayed his entrepreneurial spirit into a successful repping business on the East Coast. We share a few tales of shenanigans along the way. Enjoy.
Bill Dawson, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Rick. Congratulations on over 100 episodes. I read episode 100 to get a little background on you as well.
You have a lot of dirt on me. I hope you don’t plan on sharing anything sketchy.
No, not at all. I’m afraid there’s too much that could come back the other direction.
Let’s start with your passion for the outdoors. Where’s that come from? You have been in all kinds of outdoor adventure travel activities over your career in life. How did you get involved in that?
That is family. My dad started us off early. I grew up hunting, fishing and camping with him. I went to the Orvis fly fishing school in 1969 with him. We stayed in the Motor Coach Inn across the street from the bamboo factory and went out in the pond behind the factory and learned how to cast and whatnot.
Is that up in Vermont?
Absolutely. We did that, got a little fishing. Interestingly enough, I did that with a cast on my leg, so I didn’t get to wade in any of the screams and do that portion of the school.
What did you do?
The guy that hit me in a lacrosse game was a leftover from the football team. That was a good portion of it. I also got into skiing, interestingly enough. That was back in the early days in Pennsylvania. I can still remember my dad coming back from a European business trip and handing me a brand new pair of leather buckle boots. Up to that point, you had tie boots and you had a little tool that you could pull tight on the laces and get them tight enough.
Were they still wooden skis or were they fiberglass skis at that point?
Those were wooden. It was a very short course into the fiberglass world.
I didn’t know you were a skier. Do you still ski?
At the end of the day, retailers must prioritize building relationships with their customers.
I do, but I don’t ski anymore. My knees aren’t qualified for that activity anymore.
I had one of mine drained.
I’m looking at a new injection to make them new again.
I can talk to you offline about that. Those are amazing. It is as advertised as WD-40. Go get it done. I’ve been doing those for years. It’s fabulous. What was your first outdoor job then after all that young outdoor activity as a kid?
I moved to Breckenridge in 1972. I always tease my kids that I was on the World Pro Fun Tour. I lived in Breckenridge for about sixteen years. You could say my first outdoor job was, concrete forming and pounding nails so that in the wintertime, I could teach skiing. I taught skiing at Breckenridge and started the first children’s ski school. I had a sundry of other jobs in all that time at Breckenridge.
Working at rec sports, we started a company called Pioneer Sports, a ski rental company shop at the base of Peak 9. Eventually, I had a store of my own called Blue River Dredge Company or Outdoor Specialist. That was hunting, fishing and guiding outfitting business. That’s where I’ve got probably firmly planted in the outdoor business and the ski shop days started me at SIA shows in Las Vegas and things like that.
How did you migrate up to REI? You were the Adventure Travel Manager at REI. That was after all the Breckenridge time you somehow migrated to Seattle.
After I wore out my welcome in Breckenridge after all those years, I started looking around for other opportunities. At that time, my sister was in Seattle and I went after this REI adventure Travel Manager job and got it. I was hired to manage the new travel program at REI.
Did you have any adventure travel trips by that time in your background or anything?
I did. It was on the hunting side. I actually had worked with my father in his business and that was developing African hunting safaris. I went over there and did a boat hunting safari in South Africa and we ended up turning that into a trip offered to DUNS Hunter Services. I had that in my background, along with all the other outdoor experiences. At that time, it was a joint venture with Mountain Travel. That was before the Sobek joining. I worked with Leo Labon and Dick McGowan with Mountain Travel. Probably a year or so into it, though, we transitioned it into a full in-house adventure travel company within REI and severed the relationship with Mountain Travel.
We did some work when I was at Eagle Creek with you too around that time. It might have even been before Eagle Creek at A16. My buddy, Tim, who interviewed me on episode 100, set up the adventure Travel Kiosks that all the A16 stores because they were headed down in that mode and REI was a pretty big partner in that.
That might have been after my time but I remember some of that and some of the folks you have had on the show or talked about back in the startup days of adventure travel.
You actually ran trips. Did you get to go fan those trips and make sure they are all copacetic for REI? What was the program like?
We did. I worked with some great folks at REI that developed a lot of the trips and a lot of the programs going forward. Especially Frith Maier who headed up our Russia trips and our Kamchatka trips and things like that, where she was the pioneer in all of that. Rusty Brennan, who headed up the Nepal travel and of things. They were some key ingredients to making that successful early on.
Did you go to Sage after you left Adventure Travel and you are already up there in Seattle?
I did. It was some of those trips to the Kamchatka Peninsula that led to the Sage thing because of the Kamchatka Peninsula program, I pioneered the fishing aspect of that way back in the beginning. Towards the end of it, we had a lot of domestic programs and one of those was a fly fishing school that I worked with some folks at Sage. That’s where my introduction to Sage came, and then I ended up getting hired on at Sage as a Customer Service Manager that turned into customer service and warehouse. Shortly thereafter, marketing and merchandising manager, where I did a lot of product that was in a fly rod or a fly reel.
Those early days in Kamchatka must have been wild.
That is truly an unbelievable place. At that time, the first trip we went over there wasn’t a fishing trip. It was designed as adventure travel, obviously, for REI. However, I had every intention of squirreling away some fishing equipment, one rod and a little box of flies and everything else. It was phenomenal fishing because they just dumped us on the Zhupanova River in orange military rafts and a wooden paddle. They sent us down the stream and we stayed in hunting huts along the way.
How did you get to the stream? Was it in one of those big military helicopter transport things?
That’s how we traveled into the Kamchatka Peninsula. It was very rustic and it was a far cry from what you see nowadays but truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure for me.
What was the river like? Was it a class four hairball river or was it pretty mellow?
It was pretty mellow. I suspect it could have been worse during a runoff time. They weren’t putting us in harm’s way, except for the brown bears that could be at any turn.
You are in the middle of nowhere.
Nowhere and nobody is coming to get you.
The way wilderness should be, in my mind. Was it a week-long trip? How many days?
That was about a week-long. You fly into Petropavlovsk and then you transfer out from there. We were truly, if not the first, American citizens out there. The story I always tell is we are at a camp at the Valley of Geysers. One of the Russian helicopters comes pulling in to pick us up and drop other people off. The people that got off the helicopter were from Nassau or something like that. They looked at us and said, “How did you get in here? We have been trying to get in here for decades. Unbelievable.” They were miffed.
They weren’t first.
They thought they were but here’s a couple of adventure travelers from REI jumping on the helicopter to leave. They were flabbergasted for sure. That was Frith’s doing. Frith was so good at it. In those days, she could travel in the USSR with rubles and that’s how good she was with her Russian and everything else. She literally could do that and obviously, they wouldn’t let a foreigner do that. They wanted US dollars.
If you have a passion for something, you’re probably going to be successful at it in some way, shape, or form.
Was the group mostly REI people or were they paying customers?
That first trip was just Frith and me. That was truly pioneering and that was to negotiate and set up what would become the adventure travel trips to the contract of Peninsula.
What other trips did you guys set up at the time? You mentioned Nepal. That was an interesting place back then as well.
We had a lot of climbing trips. We had Mount Rainier and trips all over Nepal. We did Aconcagua and things like that, some of which were still a connection with Mountain Travel, and then some of our own that we designed and developed.
You had some fun times at Sage, too. You’ve got to fish all over the place.
That was a great time. While fishing is some of it, it was a unique time in the company’s development and the company stages, that was before Reddington or Rio was purchased. It was Sage by itself. I did a trip to the Dean River for Steelhead and Christmas Island. You had to go to the keys and chase the tarpon all under the guise of work.
You have always been an entrepreneurial guy because you had your stores and various businesses at Breckenridge. After Sage, is that when you started your rep agency?
What took place there is I have been working at Sage for five years and they were looking for a new rep in the mid-Atlantic territory. At that time, I just looked at it and had limited upward mobility at Sage. My son, Will, was off to college and they were not finding somebody and I had lived out East, growing up for a while. I finally raised my hand and said, “I will go.” It’s a new adventure. I packed everything up. Will and I drove out to Maryland with a U-Haul truck, trailer, car and a boat. That was it with Will shaking his head saying, “You are moving out East? Why does anybody move out East?”
How did you pick Maryland?
It was more or less the center of the wheel if you look at the territory. I couldn’t see myself saying I lived in New Jersey, so I just ended up in Maryland. I was in Havre de Grace and that was on the water. All things fell into place that way and that’s where I ended up starting WDawsons Inc. rep agency.
Over the years, you have had a lot of key fishing brands, and then you also broke into the outdoor space a bit.
You almost took up with me at one time. We had great aspirations, though. Mid-Atlantic and New England in some way, shape or form. I have been in and out of the Outside or the OR side of things, along with the fly fishing industry. At one point in time, I did Patagonia and then CloudVeil. We had a broader offering with Reddington at one point in time. I still am a member of Umpqua, which is now transformed into combined rep groups.
How has that business, the repping side of the world change? You have been doing that for a long time. What are your thoughts on how it’s changed over the years? Has it gotten easier or harder?
It has gotten harder but that’s because there isn’t a retailer out there that will tell you it has gotten harder for them, so the trickle-down effect takes place. It seems like you work harder for fewer dollars. I was fortunate enough to carry through part of the river runs through its years. We used to kid that the retailer had to figure out was what time to open the door and turn the lights on. There was a constant flow of traffic and It was a lifestyle everybody wanted to be a part of.
They wanted that experience. They wanted to be out there in the middle of nowhere catching huge fish and going through a little bit of excitement but what they didn’t realize was there were a lot of things that went on before he got there.
At that time, you worked a lot with the retailers and the employees on technical support. We didn’t have the internet supporting all of that and educating folks is at a level like they are now. Tech support was a big part of it and sales training, and things of that sort.
Have you lost a fair amount of fly shops? This whole omnichannel Amazon thing has blown up. Have you seen that decline in retail stores in your area as well?
Absolutely. Some of that was some needed attrition. The better stores got bigger and some of the smaller stores went away. It always amazed me that it seems like there’s another soul out there that wants to combine their advocation with their vocation and they are willing to open up another retail shop somewhere. Under the guise that it’s an area that’s not being supported. The first thing I ask them is, “Are you going to have a casting pond on the roof of your building?” I want to see how serious they are.
That attrition comment is very accurate. I talked to a lot of people where these retailers have gone out of business. That’s people that are typically out of the industry but when you press them where and when they shop, you say, “Some of these places that you shop in, you’ve got to look around. The place was going out of business before Amazon ever showed up.” It’s not all due to Amazon. There are some things that retailers could and should do these days must do to stay alive.
They have to put their arms around the omnichannel approach and make sure they are covering every one of those and covering them well. Those shops are doing their best.
Those shops, too, are embracing the consumer, though, when they walk in the door. They are loving them to death. If you are not loving that guy to death when he walks in the door, he’s not going to come back.
Maybe just as important is that you need to have the inventory there. They need to be able to hold it and look at it. I know it’s a very difficult mix and a difficult commitment to dollars but at the end of the day, that’s what they are in the store for, is to touch it. They can go online and look at it all they want but they’ve got to come in and touch it. Will they all buy from you? Maybe. Probably not but at least you can initiate that relationship and hopefully bring them back.
It is a big commitment to dollars but if you have an opinion, some choices and you tightly curate your assortment, when the guy walks in, you tell him why you have those choices. He’s likely to come back. If you are just trying to carry everything from everybody, he can get that online. He doesn’t need to come back. It’s tough. It’s not easy. That’s for sure. Over your long career of outdoor fishing, adventure, travel, what are a couple of accomplishments you are most proud of?
Probably the pioneering of those fly-fishing trips to come to Kamchatka is something that I look back on with great memories.
Have you been back there since?
We went back and filmed the movie there with a friend of mine. He’s a filmmaker out of Chicago, Rich Christiano. Those were with the intent of trying to do more on the fly fishing side of things. We went back to actually set up fly fishing trips as well because I had come back and I had done a slide show in Seattle at one of the Sportsmen’s shows.
That group was very interested in those rainbows, the anadromous steelhead or did we know exactly what they are? We went back and we are tagging fish, taking scales, and doing all kinds of fun stuff like that in the early days of developing some of those. The fly fishing trip side of it ended up in some different hands but they’ve got pioneered over there early on. The other one I would give you probably is coaching my son, Will, to his fifth straight state lacrosse championship at Bay Ridge Highland High School.
How about some of the mentors along the way that have helped you in these various industries? Probably your dad is one of the biggest ones that got you into the whole thing.
Every little inch counts. You miss a goal by an inch by not paying attention to details, and you will be missing a lot in life.
He is. I made a lot of trips with Tim over the years. A memorable one is Will and I took him to the Bighorn fly fishing. That was a great time. Three generations together on the Bighorn River and I had fished a lot of that from the Colorado days. That was a great trip, a fun trip with him. Bob Korbel was a Vice President from REI. He’s who I worked for at the REI Adventures. Bob’s a great friend and was one of those great bosses you hope to have somewhere along in your career.
Bruce Kirschner from Sage was one of the great ones and a great person to work for. Mark Bale from Sage, who I still work with. I’ve got to throw out there the final one, Dave Ferrie from Columbia Sportswear and I still tarpon fish with Dave and everything else. He’s just a wealth of information in that outdoor industry and over the years, I have looked to him for insight and advice. Since I worked for you, I’m supposed to say, Rick Saez, too.
I’ve got more from you than you’ve got from me, I’m sure. I had not been in the fly fishing business when Jeff hired me there. He hired me for my outdoor sales experience, whatever qualifications those entailed. I learned a lot from you guys. That was a great experience for me getting indoctrinated into fly fishing and how that whole small business works. Fortunately, I’ve got to fish in some great places. I learned more from you than you did from me. That was fun.
You told us he was hiring you to whip us into shape. Do you think that ever happened?
It happened in some cases. Some of you were unwhippable but I made some progress there. I know you have also been a strong conservationist. What are some of the nonprofit groups you work with?
I’ve got a number of them and they are not any of them that I work with regularly. Do you remember I would come and go from some of these when the time would allow? My rep agency is one person now. My nonprofit work is pretty limited but over the years, Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing was on their Board of Trustees and worked with them for sure. Fishermen’s Conservation Association, that’s the folks that do the Manhattan Cup. I worked with them. Do you remember the Jim Range National Casting Call, and Family and Youth Casting Call? Both of those I worked and chaired for ten years or something
Are those still going on?
No, they are not. That was all in Washington, DC. Other ones that I stay involved with and help out where I can are Delta Waterfowl, National Wild Turkey Federation, and Trout Unlimited, those things over the years and I stayed attached to.
What outdoor activities do you participate in? I know you are a big hunter and fisherman.
The turkeys currently are 18 and I’m 0. I try to get out there and sit in the wild whenever I can. I do enjoy waterfowl hunting, gear hunting and that thing. I love the good out, chase the tarpon and try to get in a Bahamas Bonefishing trip yearly when possible. Some biking here and there. I do motorcycle ride these days. That’s probably the majority of it.
Do you have any advice or suggestions for folks wanting to get in the biz or maybe if they are already in the biz, how do they grow their career?
Following that passion and that is trying to join your avocation with your vocation. I do believe that and it came to fruition with me and I have heard it from many others on your show. It is something to make sure, tuck in your pocket and understand that over the long haul. If you have a passion for it, you are probably going to be successful at it in some way, shape or form.
That’s how you and I got here. We were both passionate about the outdoors, sports or whatever. Our families got us into it. We connected with it and figured out, “This is too much fun. How can I make a living at this?” Here we are, many years later.
I have also heard, “A student of many trades master of none.” The keyword being a student of many trades. Some other things I would pass along and these are from my coaching days. I would be remiss and not mentioning and my son will laugh because I always told the kids that it’s a game of inches. Every little inch counts. You miss a goal by an inch. You miss the ground ball by an inch. It truly is a game of inches.
That plays into the game of life and career as well. You do have to pay attention to the details there and make sure that you are not missing any of those inches along the way. Finally, I always told them that we are not going to use the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” because I have no aspirations of being perfect but practice does make permanent, so practice. That’s what I’m still doing with my casting to make sure someday it becomes permanent.
Do you have a daily routine or any daily things you do to keep your sanity? Do you meditate? I’m sure you play with your dogs. You still have dogs, I would assume.
We are down to two dogs. They are much more than my two wonderful cups of coffee in the morning. The two dogs think they know what’s the best time to get up. I don’t have anything that I do regularly as far as keeping my sanity.
All of the things that I’m trying to do aren’t helping, so maybe I will go back to my old routine.
Mine is under the KISS plan. Walk the dogs, get my coffee and I’m off to roll.
How about books? Do you have any favorite books or do you give books as gifts very often?
I have never been a book gifter of any kind. I do like books. Most of mine, if not all of them were really around an escape. Mine are all like Michael Connelly and the Bosh series, Lee Child and the Reacher series, James Patterson and Alex Cross and Grisham, those types of books. I’ve got bookshelves full of those that, at this day and age, I can probably go back and read them all again. I won’t know, which ones I read and which ones I did. I have shifted over to podcasts, though. That’s what I do more of regularly. Traveling or whatever else, I do enjoy listening to those.
What are some of your favorites there?
You can’t go by a week without a little car talk or something like that. I do the news ones and some fly fishing ones as well that are pretty simple.
Are they fly fishing business or fly fishing stories, adventures?
How about a favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?
The number one thing has got to be a Buff. I do rep them but I can honestly say that I was wearing a Buff long before I started repping them. I don’t care, whether it’s fishing the flats in The Bahamas or sitting in a tree stand freezing your butt off. I’ve got a Buff with me. In some cases, it is sun protection and in other cases, it’s just great to have around your neck and stay a little warmer or camouflage.
One more I will give you. This is for your hunting and fishing in the cold scenario. Maybe this has something to do with blood circulation but a ThermaCELL Hand Warmer. Those things are unbelievable. They are a plugin, so you don’t have to deal with batteries. Keep them charged up and throw them in your pockets and go.
Pass on your legacy to the next generation. Without some new faces around, you will be facing a big challenge ahead.
As we wrap up here, do you have any other thing you would like to say or ask of our readers?
No, ask unless the idea of passing on our outdoor fishing and hunting legacy is an ask. I would say that has to be top of mind for us all these days on all levels to continue the conservation side of it, as well as the health of the industry side of it and public lands, and access side of it. Without some new faces amongst us, we’ve got a big challenge ahead of us, so I say pass on the legacy.
It’s nice to see a bunch of young folks there starting up new brands and joining old brands and it’s moving. Maybe not fast enough but it’s moving. If people want to find you, what’s the best way for them to reach out, and if they have any follow-up questions or anything?
Thanks, Bill. It has been great catching up. We will have to do this on the water again sometime soon.
It’s great catching up with you. Congratulations on your whole podcasting and a new job I heard of somewhere in there.
Down in Southern California with AquaTech, selling the best underwater camera housings in the business. I have used them for years and I love them. It’s very cool stuff. When I get back to the East Coast, if you find your way out this way, let’s get together, for sure. It has been too long since we have seen each other.
You bet. Thank you.
I hope you enjoyed that conversation with Bill Dawson. You can catch up with Bill by email at Bill@WDawsons.com. Thanks for reading.
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- ThermaCELL Hand Warmer