LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE, CA (BRAIN)—Norbert Olberz, founder of Sport Chalet, passed away from natural causes last Friday. He was 86.
Olberz founded the company in 1959, served as Sport Chalet's chief executive officer until 1999 and as Chairman of the Board until 2001. Over the course of five decades he not only built a successful, publicly traded sporting goods business but was widely recognized in the industry for his innovative thinking, his commitment to his employees and community and his relentless belief in the power of recreation to lift an individual's spirit.
Olberz is survived by his beloved wife of 52 years, Irene, his sister, Elizabeth Lepper, his son, Eric, and by his grandchildren Karl and Markus.
Trained as a pastry chef, Olberz immigrated from his native Germany to Canada prior to settling, permanently, in the United States. He learned to ski on Oregon's Mt. Hood and, captivated by the sport, sank his entire life savings— $10,000—into the 1959 opening of a ski shop in Southern California's La Cañada Flintridge. Together with his new bride, Irene, they—quite literally—lived their dream; sleeping on cots in the back of the store and cooking over a single burner propane stove, they grew the business from a niche store for winter sport enthusiasts into a leading retailer of sport specialty gear that, over the next decade, came to include scuba, mountain climbing and footwear.
Olberz' gift for listening to his customers was one of his biggest strengths and, through them, he moved into new areas of retail with their guidance. One of his favorite stories was of a woman who came into his store, mid-summer, wanting to buy her son a mitt and Olberz, thrilled at the idea of selling winter mittens off-season, was fascinated when she explained that she was looking for a baseball mitt. After asking her to explain what a baseball mitt was—followed by a request to explain what baseball was—Olberz moved into carrying team sports equipment and, in 1974, opened a 30,000-square foot store across the street from his original location. Always striving to offer something genuinely unique to his customers, he added an indoor "mountain" and ski ramp where customers could hone their skills prior to investing in new equipment.
In 1981, Olberz doubled the size of the company by opening a retail location in Huntington Beach, California, and expanding into ocean sports and, by 1992, the company went public, trading on NASDAQ under the symbol "SPCHA."
A consummate entrepreneur, Olberz opened and expanded a variety of businesses over the decades including a popular ski area motel, a travel company specializing in adventure activities and manufacturing companies that produced outdoor gear under the brand name Camp 7 and athletic apparel under the brand Pacific Mountain Sports.
Olberz was a loved employer who developed five key principles to guide Sport Chalet and Sport Chalet employees through fifty years of retail success:
* To see things through the eyes of the customer
* To create ease of shopping
* To do a thousand things a little bit better
* To not be the biggest, but the best
* To be the image of a sportsman
In 2006, at age 80, Olberz, with his son Eric, began work on a new multi-million dollar shopping center and corporate office in La Cañada Flintridge, directly over his first store. In 2009, Olberz was inducted into the National Sporting Goods Hall of Fame and, in 2011, was the recipient of the Far West Ski Association's "Snow Sports Builder Award."
As a result of Olberz' business acumen, unique ability to detect trends in the retail marketplace and his commitment to the outdoors and recreational sports, Sport Chalet now operates 55 retail locations throughout California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, as well as an online store, www.sportchalet.com.
A memorial service for Olberz is scheduled for noon, Friday, July 22, 2011 in the Van De Kamp Hall at Descanso Gardens, 1418 Descanso Drive, La Cañada Flintridge, California, 91011.