Creativity and quality are calling cards of Fargo-based sporting goods giant Scheels

Fargoans new and old likely know Scheels as the enormous sporting goods emporium on 45th Street, so it may surprise many to learn the retail giant began life with the modest windfall of a year’s potato harvest.

It all started 116 years ago, when Frederick Scheel bought what his great-grandson Steve D. Scheel describes as half of the general store in Sabin, Minnesota. Frederick Scheel had been given three acres to farm potatoes on in 1902, and he invested the money he made into buying the store.

Steve D. Scheel, who is Scheels’ current Chairman of the Board, and Scheels CEO Steve M. Scheel (who is Steve D.’s son, and great-great-grandson of Frederick Scheel) will speak at 1 Million Cups Fargo on October 24 as part of “Living Legends Week” at the entrepreneurial meet-up.

Steve D. explained his great-grandfather was a seaman before he came over from Germany and settled in Sabin.

“He was 5′ 8”, he was bald, he was tattooed from his head to his tail,” Scheel said.

Gradually his business expanded, first by opening other farming community general stores. Sporting goods came into the picture in 1954 to accommodate evolving customer tastes, according to the company website. By 1971, there were 14 Scheels stores, per Steve D. Scheel. Eventually, the stores transitioned form selling a variety of merchandise to focusing fully on sporting goods.

In 2008, Scheels built the largest sporting goods store in the world in Sparks, Nevada, near Reno. The store brought the element of entertainment into the experience of shopping at Scheels; for example, it featured the first aquarium in a Scheels location.

“You always have things you’ve been dreaming about putting in the store,” Steve D. Scheel said.

However, the Reno store, built between 2006-2008, opened as the U.S economy entered a downturn. Although Steve D. pointed out the company has always been “just rock solid” financially, he characterized the period after opening the Sparks-Reno location as one of financial uncertainty, relatively speaking, in the company’s history.

But the company came out of it, of course. And the creative spark for new ventures and ideas has always been a driving force for the company.

“We haven’t been afraid to try new things,” Scheel said. “We’re not afraid of making mistakes.”

One of their other secrets: Hiring selectively. “We try to get the best people who want to work,” Steve M. Scheel said.

Both Steve D. and Steve M. Scheel have broadly positive views of Fargo’s present-day entrepreneurial boom. “We’re both pretty involved in the community here,” Steve M. Scheel noted.

Steve D. highlighted what businesses have given back to Fargo. He pointed out how different the landscape of the city would be if the structures funded in part by private donations were eliminated.

“Half of this town would be shut down,” Scheel said. “There are a lot of good people in this town that do a lot of good in this community.”

Scheels is an employee-owned company, and Steve D. Scheel, who noted he started working for his father at “a buck ninety-one an hour,” said one of his greatest joys is writing big checks to retiring cashiers or other loyal employees in seemingly humble positions who’ve been with the company long enough that their final payout basically sets them up for life.

“They buy the lake home of their dreams, they take vacations,” Scheel said.

For more information on Scheels, visit scheels.com. One Million Cups Fargo takes place at The Stage at Island Park each Wednesday from 9:15 to 10:15 a.m.