David & Goliath

The Green Top Story.

A recent bestseller among non-fiction books is David And Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the hugely popular Blink and Outliers. It’s an inspirational collection of true stories in which the little guys prevail against seemingly undefeatable big guys. The history of Green Top Hunting and Fishing would have fit nicely as a chapter.

In 1947, brothers Cecil and Carroll Hopkins opened a tiny fireworks stand. Soon, they turned the small premises into a gas station, and augmented their income by selling used guns on the side. They knew their stuff, and customers flocked to them to buy firearms and related sporting equipment. They expanded into a larger, adjacent building. By the 1970s, they had 12,000 square feet of retail space so packed with merchandise — and customers — that there wasn’t even room for a shopping cart.

Cecil Hopkins sold the business to Charles Thalhimer in 1993. The new owner continued the business exactly as he found it, staying true to the course that had been so successful for the men who created it: focusing on customer service, with an emphasis on knowledgeable staff and depth of inventory. The new owner passed away in 2008, but his family remains heavily involved and well represented among the 32 local shareholders who now own Green Top.

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Community involvement is an essential part of Green Top’s operation. President Bill Prout
presented a check for $50,000 to Greater Richmond Friends of NRA in early 2014.

Enter The Goliaths

Before Charlie Thalhimer died, heavy competition was already moving in — the kind that has so often killed small family-owned gun shops. It took the form of a Gander Mountain, and a Bass Pro Shop just a couple of miles away. Shooters and hunters — whose families had bought their guns, gear and ammo at Green Top for generations — shook their heads sadly. They feared their favorite gun store would soon be no more.

They were wrong, and this was largely thanks to their loyalty. Gander Mountain moved into its facility in Ashland in 2007. And in 2012, Gander Mountain moved out; Green Top moved in and took over their vast facility.

Today, Green Top Hunting and Fishing occupies the 67,000-square-foot building that was once Gander Mountain. Green Top employs 125 people, 85 of them full-time.

“We have nine buyers, one each for handguns, long guns, ammunition, turkey and waterfowl lines, archery, gifts and fishing. We have a lot of inventory to keep stocked,” said Bob Strepka, Green Top marketing director.

The president and CFO of Green Top is Bill Prout, who has been with the company for 18 years.

“We’ve been running in the mid-$30 million range for the last few years, and we did $38 million in 2013,” he said. “We sell about 10,000 guns in an average year, and sold 13,000 firearms last year.”

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Formula For Success

Green Top’s dominant product area is the self-defense market. Defensive handguns are the single largest selling mainstay, led by Glocks, Smith & Wesson M&Ps and Springfield Armory XD-series pistols.

The gun guys and gals behind the counters tell me while rifle sales have softened a bit since the panic, they’re seeing a strong uptick in sales of optical sights and tactical accessories as customers upgrade the rifles they bought from Green Top earlier.

With such heavy sales, the layout of the store includes a separate island where gun buyers can sit with Green Top personnel dedicated solely to filling out Form 4473s and related paperwork. Every four weeks, when the monthly Richmond-area gun show is held, extra part-time staff is brought in to handle the overflow. In a business where gun shows are seen as competition to storefront gun shops, Green Top has found show attendees come in with stamps on their hands from the shows to check prices — and generally buy what they want from Green Top, because their prices are better than those at the show.

“A cornerstone of our success is knowledgeable personnel behind the counter,” explains Prout. “We recruit from people already knowledgeable about our products, and make sure they understand how to be friendly with customers and interact properly with the public.”

Prout recently hired Mike Leach, a retired career Human Resources specialist and long-time firearms instructor, as HR director for Green Top. “It’s critical we have gun people selling guns,” Prout said. “Their expertise is one of our strongest advantages over the big box chains.”

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Defensive handguns are top sellers at Green Top — with Glocks, S&W M&Ps
and Springfield Armory XD-series pistols proving most popular.

Impact Of Advertising

Green Top marketing director Bob Strepka told Shooting Industry, “Five times a year we produce an up-to-40-page flyer that goes to 50,000 households in our region, partially supported by vendors with co-op advertising. Our email ads every week go to about 60,000 people. We advertise in regional publications like Woods and Waters and Chesapeake Angler, and we’re a premier advertiser on local radio. About 162,000 drivers per day see our 10- by 30-foot electronic billboard on Interstate 95.”

Chas Thalhimer (yes, it’s still somewhat a family business) has been manager of Internet sales since 2009. He has brought Green Top more than 12,000 Facebook followers, and draws in many customers from Google Shopping. Internet sales now account for 2 percent of the business, and Thalhimer expects that to double in 2015.

Community support is a strong Green Top theme. Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the store. Customers buy raffle tickets for Friends of NRA in hopes of winning Green Top-donated guns, which resulted in Green Top presenting a check for $50,000 to the NRA.

Green Top offers affordable on-site training regularly, with CCW courses taught by On Target Virginia and hunter safety by the Virginia Dept. of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Understanding the market, and staffing with people who understand customers’ wants and needs, has allowed this David to literally take over the space of one Goliath and hold off another.

A Cabela’s is due to open soon in the area, but no one at Green Top is worried.
Visit www.greentophuntfish.com
By Massad Ayoob

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