Grizzly Hackle owner leads a new generation of specialty fly shops.
By Greg Thomas
Brendan Bannigan wouldn’t say that owning a retail fly shop was a lifelong goal, but at the relatively tender age of 29, after 11 years in the fly-fishing industry, that’s exactly where he found himself on January 1 having taken the helm at Grizzly Hackle in Missoula, MT.
While the health of independent fly shops is a matter of grave concern among manufacturers and reps, Bannigan sees a bright future with a singular goal — to be the best fly shop in the fly-fishing saturated state of Montana. How’s he going to do that in the landscape of big-box stores and direct online sales? We sat down with Bannigan to find out.
How did you end up being a fly-shop owner in Missoula, MT? I started fishing as a kid in Georgia, mostly for bass. When we moved to Houston, I got into fly fishing for redfish and that’s when I discovered the opportunities for fly fishing in the western cities where I wanted to go to college. Missoula was a frontrunner and that’s where I ended up. I probably could have bought a shop just about anywhere and made it work, but I’m attached to this shop. I like our space. I like our name. I think I will be here for the rest of my life. I love the culture, the community, the people. It’s a fun place to be. So when the previous owner offered it to me I went for it.
With all the competition from big-box and direct-to-consumer sales, why were you willing to buy Grizzly Hackle when so many other people might have considered it too risky? I’m a firm believer that there’s a marketplace for specialty retailers. I’ve even seen some research that says where big-box stores go in, small retailers see growth in their businesses. I think it’s because Joe Blow walks into someplace like Cabela’s and the guys don’t really know what they’re talking about. They come to a specialty shop like Grizzly Hackle and they get all the information they need, on product, locations, river levels, access… But to do what we do best, and to offer that kind of support, we need to constantly critique what we do and modify it to become even more successful.
You’re 29 and hold degrees in environmental studies and history. And you’ve told me that these degrees have not helped you tremendously in this work. Where did you gain your business sense? A lot of this stuff is new, but a lot of it I’m already comfortable with having been in the industry so long. And I learned a lot from my father. He was an attorney and also in the pipeline industry. He was pretty hard-nosed as far as dealing with things right away and not letting them get away from you. I believe that you need to treat your employees and your customers really well, but if something comes up you have to deal with it right away.
So does that make you a hard-ass? I don’t think I’m a hard-ass, but I will confront people immediately if there’s an issue. If you don’t do that, it’s a slippery slope. People may resent things and it turns to shit if it’s not taken care of.
What plans do you have to expand the brand? Can you survive alone on retail sales and guided fly-fishing trips? Or do you need to do more? We’re focused on retail sales through the shop and online, and on our guided trips. But we’re also looking at local lodging options where we could handle the entire process for a client — we pick them up at the airport; we bring them to the shop for flies and gear; we set them up with lodging in downtown Missoula where they can walk to the bars and restaurants; and then we take them out on the water for few days. We’re also trying to paint a broader stroke than just Missoula fishing. When you come into our shop you see that we have spey rods and a great selection of steelhead gear. And we have most of what you might need for a saltwater trip. So whether you are going to the Seychelles for saltwater fish or to Idaho or British Columbia for steelhead we can get you set up.
The former owner had a travel business attached to Grizzly Hackle. Are you going to do full-service travel bookings, too? We might do a handful of book-and-sends for commission, but the bulk of what we may do is hosted travel where one or more of our guys can appeal to their clients and take a group to some cool place that they may not have been able to experience otherwise. It’s a good way to get them out of the shop and to have fun for a week. But overall, right now, I’m in a walk-before-I-run mentality. I want to ease into all of this and make sure it’s going smoothly.
What is your greatest fear about being a shop owner? It’s all very exciting, but it’s also terrifying to be in an industry like ours where it can be hit or miss seasonally for a variety of reasons outside our control, including weather and water conditions. We have to start off strong this first year under new management and make it the best year this shop has ever had. And then we can build off that.
So, is it fun? I pinch myself every day to say that I own a fly shop. To wake up and come to work here every day is great. I just want to know that the business is growing and that we are the best shop in Missoula and one of the best, or the best, in Montana. That is the goal.