Brian Ramakko, owner of Ramakko’s Source for Adventure, leans forward in his chair and holds his hand up with his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.
“I was that close to losing it all,” he said. “That close to having to get a second mortgage to keep my business open.”
The 1991 recession wreaked havoc on the Canadian economy, punishing unprepared business owners. Ramakko was in this boat and it was sinking. The situation forced Ramakko to completely change the way he ran his business. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have survived to open his biggest store yet in Sudbury this spring.
He opened his first fishing tackle store, Elgin Sports, in 1984 with $12,000 of his own money at the age of 23. Fishing was his passion from childhood. As a boy growing up, Ramakko would take the bus from the Four Corners area in
Sudbury’s South End to the downtown Canadian Tire, where he would spend hours in the tackle section. He would carefully pick out one or two fishing lures, usually Rapalas, with his paper route money, then go fishing for hours.
By 1985, Ramakko had moved his location to Paris Street and business was booming. Known as Ramakko’s Tackle World at that time, the business was enjoying a steady influx of cash and customers. Ramakko thought he could do no wrong since everything was seemingly going right for him. He even opened a second location on Barrydowne Road two years later.
Ramakko admitted he had no idea what he was doing, despite the fact he was bringing in product and selling it as fast as it hit his display shelves.
In the late ‘80s, the fishing industry was “rocking” and there was no shortage of innovations in tackle and equipment.
“I got into business at the right time,” Ramakko said. “I wasn’t scared of the new technology and that’s how I grew my business, with the younger people. I thought I was smart. I had been fishing since I was a kid. I loved it.”
When the recession hit and consumer incomes dried up, he soon found out you can’t run two stores on passion alone. Without a strong business foundation in how to manage the books, Ramakko took a beating.
“I had to go back and actually learn how to run a business. I realized I wasn’t smart at all.”
He learned the nitty-gritty of business and made sure he wasn’t going to set sail on a potentially sinking ship again.
“It was a steep learning curve, and it was tough,” he said. “If we didn’t come up with a plan and stick to it, we were gone. It was that simple. I had to learn about cash flow, managing money, inventory management — you name it, I had to learn about it.”
Once back on solid footings, Ramakko grew the business again, but soon realized it was pointless to have two locations selling the same merchandise.
Determined not to repeat his mistakes, he purchased a building in the city’s South End and folded the two outlets into one store on Loach’s Road in 1996. Ramakko diversified his inventory by adding more canoeing and camping gear, as well as buying the rights to a popular hometown athletic apparel, the Rocks clothing brand. “Our sales grew again,” he said.
It was a key move that laid the groundwork for an even bigger expansion this past April.
His Loach’s Road location was sardine-packed with goods, so Ramakko moved into a vacant automobile dealership nearby on Regent Street.
The new 18,000-square foot location provides plenty of room for his 30 full and part-time staff and features large screen televisions in each department, running specialty fishing and hunting programming.
“It’s nice to have more space and display the products properly,” store manager Paul Skuce, a 26-year employee, said. “The customers love it. We had people waiting for us to open it. We had people dropping off gift baskets and cards wishing us well. It’s awesome. We’re all excited about the new location and its potential.”
Ramakko points to his staff as a major reason why he’s prospered in such a competitive retail market.
“I am blessed to have the staff I do. We can’t fool our customers. We have to know our stuff. Having a consistent and knowledgeable staff is vital. We listen to our customers and stock quality, relevant product. We are also consistent in our performance. We are always doing what we say we’re going to be doing.”
His dedication to pleasing the customer was recognized with a 2010 Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce award for service excellence. “My ultimate boss is the customer,” Ramakko said. “If we didn’t do it right, then they will not be back. We have a lot of repeat customers.”
Skuce said caring about the product and knowing their customer is what has allowed them to stay in business.
“We are people who hunt and fish and go camping. We all love it. Our customers know this. We have customers who are very loyal. I know a tremendous amount of people by their first name. It makes a big difference.”
Ramakko’s passion for the outdoors isn’t limited to selling sporting goods. He participates in the stewardship and preservation of wildlife habitat.
He is co-chair of the Fisheries Management Zone 10, co-chair of the Manitoulin Area Stewardship Council and ticket chair for the Sudbury Elk Restoration Project. “I’ve had four days off since December. I’ve been working 14-hour days.
There hasn’t been one morning that I got up and said I hate this. I love it.”
This story originally appeared in the May edition of Northern Ontario Business, Northern Life’s sister publication.