Sunday, November 23, 2008

Looking Behind the Counter: Unicoi Outfitters

In a new feature here at we are bringing you a look "behind the counter" at successful fly shops. Jimmy Harris is the co-owner of Unicoi Outfitters, a successful fly shop with locations in Helen and Blue Ridge, Georgia. I met Jimmy while being crammed into an airport shuttle as we were leaving the retailer show in Denver a few years back. We managed to stay in touch and have found Jimmy and Unicoi Outfitters to be unique in their approach to running a group of fly shops that manage to compete and even thrive in direct competition with the big box sporting retailers. I jumped at the chance to ask some nosey direct questions about how he does this and Jimmy answered candidly on all counts. Here is my interview which I think gives a lot of insight into the world of folks who make a living through fly fishing:

Name: Jimmy Harris
Owner of: Uncoi Outfitters of Helen & Blue Ridge, GA
Number of years as a fly fisherman: 30+
Number of years as a fly shop owner: 11
Favorite species to fish for: Trout
Favorite place to fish: The Madison and Soda Butte

How did you get started in fly fishing?
I became enamored with the idea in the mid-70's, checked out a book at the library, bought a cheap fiberglass rod with Martin reel and taught myself how to cast. Became pretty decent at casting but not catching. I literally fished the Chattooga River for two years before landing a fish on my fly rod. Was just too hardheaded to quit.

How did you get into the fly shop business?
It was providential. My partner, David Dockery had started the shop in Helen in 1994 with another partner who was then moving to Houston, TX for a new job. David called me one evening to ask if I were interested in buying the shop since his regular day job prevented him from running the store except on weekends. I knew the shop was a hobby for David and his partner and didn't have much interest in a hobby business. However, within 12 hours of his call to me, I received a call from another friend whose company had just purchased 386 acres south of Helen and it had a mile and a half of the Chattahoochee River on it. I knew exactly where he was talking about since I had coveted this stretch of river since I had moved to north Georgia in the early 70's. He invited me to come fish it with him and I, of course accepted. It was goofy fishing! The previous landowners had not allowed anyone to fish on it since they bought it in 1910. Big, dumb fish; just what I like! At the end of our fishing trip, my friend, who had described what his company planned to do with the property (it later became Nacoochee Village with the grist mill, winery, restaurants, home furnishing stores and antique shops) asked me if I had any ideas as to how they could incorporate the river into their master plan. My response was that I thought they should lease it to someone who could manage it for trophy fly fishing and that I thought I knew someone who may be interested. The rest is history.

Your shops successfully compete, even coexist well, with the big box stores and their fly fishing departments. How do you do that?
First of all, when Unicoi Outfitters opened, there were no other shops outside of metro Atlanta in north Georgia. Honestly, if it were not for the good graces of Gary Merriman at the Fish Hawk in Buckhead, we would probably not be in business. As strong as they are in this market, we would have had a very tough time getting any quality lines in our shop if they had decided to oppose it. As it was, the shop opened with the best of tackle, Sage, Simms, T&T, Orvis, Ross, St. Croix, Abel and other top shelf products. Our mission statement has been to be the best small market fly shop in the country and every decision we make we try to make it to that end. Over the years, we've added Winston, Chota, Action Optics, Lamson, Scientific Anglers, Fishpond, Wm. Joseph, Renzetti, Tibor and others to our lines. But back to living among the giants, we acknowledged from the get go that we could not compete with them directly. Bass Pro's advertising budget for their fly shop alone is more than our entire annual revenue. What we did realize, however, was that, generally speaking, they do not typically have the expertise our staff has, nor are they in such close proximity to good fishing as we are that they can give up to the minute fishing advice. Orvis then opened two company stores in Atlanta and another private store that was, at the time, an exclusive Orvis dealer. So we made it a point to go down and meet everyone, invite them up to fish with us, help them out any way we could and, in general, take the first steps toward establishing a partnership with them rather than take an adversarial approach. Now, we get calls from customers who are standing in the Orvis shop or Bass Pro, using the store phones asking about current fishing conditions, which gear is appropriate, or do we have a specific piece of gear in stock, and will we hold it for them until they can drive up and get it. We also have them book guided trips with us from the stores in Atlanta. It has always been our philosophy that all the shops can benefit from working together much more than if we all take an adversarial position in regards to the small community of fly fishers. We have also done seminars in Bass Pro Shop and the Orvis stores for their special event days. Most of the time we do it without advertising ourselves but simply helping them to create more interest in the sport. If they create more fly anglers, we're confident that we'll see them in Unicoi Outfitters at some point.

Given the current economy, how important is price to the average fly fisher? Has this changed the way you do business?

The world of retail fly shops has been warped dramatically in the past few months. What we offer is something that is totally financed with disposable income and there's much less of that today than there was even three months ago. We'll still carry the top of the line gear, but we're also planning to zero in on more moderately priced equipment that we think is the best quality for the dollar. Unfortunately, fly fishing has already been hung with this image of being elitist long before the current economic situation. While we have never thought this argument held much water (those who argue this point haven't spent much time around Unicoi Outfitters!), it has been perpetuated by some television shows and magazines. When you consider that you can get into fly fishing with all the gear you need to step on-stream for less money than one high tech golf club will cost you, and it will last you a lifetime if taken care of, then it seems like a no-brainer to us. Now we've just got to convince the recreating public. And that task will be more important going forward than it has ever been in the past.

Why is selling flies so important to the local fly shop?
Profit margins and inventory turns. It's a simple as that. Those margins allow us to stock rods and reels that may take 12 - 18 months or more to sell. Without flies, we couldn't carry the slow moving inventory which customers expect to see when they come in our shop.

How many different flies do you carry and may we be so bold to ask how
many you sell in a year?

We carry about 1200 patterns/sizes in each shop and we sold about 100,000 flies in 2007.

How do you compete with the Internet discounters on flies? The big boxes?

We really can't compete on price on most of the Internet suppliers. They have no overhead, they're buying straight from the manufacturers so there's no middle man in there like Orvis, Umpqua or the other major wholesale suppliers. The advantage we do have is local knowledge, including which flies to use and where and we guarantee a quality fly tied on a quality hook. That isn't always the case with the online guys. The big box stores, in our experience, don't carry the top end flies so we again compete on quality and expertise. At $1.95, our trout flies are competitively priced with most other brick and mortar shops.

What is your top seller?
Y2K Bug. It has been our best seller for 5 years in a row now. Interestingly, a lot of anglers won't fish with it because they have this idea that it's only for dumb stockers. However, our guides have fished it all over the country and it's caught fish on spring creeks in Idaho, the Green River in Utah and numerous other wild trout fisheries. No one understands it but the thing sure catches fish. Our best selling "non-junk food fly is a Tungsten Rainbow Warrior.

How does the sale of flies impact the sale of big ticket (slower turning) items in your shop (Rod and reels etc).

As I mentioned earlier, it is the only way we can justify stocking tens of thousands of dollars worth of rods, reels, waders, etc.

What is your top seller?
On rods, Sage is number one but Winston made some serious inroads when they came out with the Boron series of rods. Our best selling reel by far is the Orvis Barstock Battenkill series. Great reels for the money.

Most shop owners say guided trips are a big part of their business. Would you agree? How big a part of your business are they?

I've always been of the opinion that I wouldn't want a shop without a guide service and wouldn't want a guide service without a shop. I can't see either option being sustainable. The guided trips generate about 50% of our revenue but a lot of that goes right back out to the guides and our landowners who have the private streams we provide access to.

How hard is it to find and keep quality guides?
We've been very fortunate in that we have always had a close group of folks around us that we've fished with long before we got into the fly fishing business. I would guess that the average number of years our guide staff has as fly fishermen is somewhere around twenty five, and that includes the young guys we've got on staff because most of them started fly fishing before they were ten years old. We've got, without a doubt, the most experienced guide staff in the region.

You mentioned access to private water?

We've got five different private pieces of water which total almost 9 miles here in north Georgia. We are very particular about how these streams are managed and how much fishing pressure we put on them. We will not fish a stream if water conditions are not good. We also will not try to book as many trips as possible just so we can pocket the revenue. We are more concerned that our guests have the trip of a lifetime than we are about ringing up a sale. There are no guarantees in the fishing business but we do our best to put the odds on the client's side.

How important (or unimportant) is access to private water to your success?

Private water has been integral to our success. Not only has it given us the opportunity to offer an experience not commonly found in the southeast but it has also given us unbelievable exposure on national television, national fly fishing periodicals and local Internet outlets. We've been fortunate to have been featured on ESPN, ESPN2, The Outdoor Channel, Outdoor Life Network, Turner South, Georgia Public Television and some local access cable shows. And we haven't spent any time going out and trying to get that exposure, it's all come to us because of what we have to offer.

Thanks for answering my questions so candidly. Do you ever have need of Internet magazine Editorial types to come and fish these private waters thoroughly and provide a report to you of the quality of your fishery? We don't charge for this.

You bet, if you know of anyone. I must warn you that most of those guys don't know how to fish.

Jimmy Harris and the knowledgeable staff at Unicoi Outfitters offer some excellent access to fine fly fishing and competitive prices on fly fishing gear. You won't go wrong if you contact him for your all your fly fishing needs or questions.

Manager: John Cross
Telephone 706-878-3083

Blue Ridge
Manager: David Hulsey
Telephone 706-632-1880

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great interview!! Very informative--Jimmy Harris and the Unicoi crew are top notch!!