For Rod Johnson, building and running Midwest Mountaineering was the job of a lifetime. Now, he'd like it to be that for someone else.
At 72, Johnson is looking for someone to be the general manager and eventual owner of the store that's been a landmark near the University of Minnesota's West Bank campus for nearly five decades.
"I believe that we're all better people when we spend time outdoors, and I want to find a successor that embodies this idea," Johnson said.
Johnson wants to train the person himself. He doesn't want to sell to a faceless corporation, and he doesn't want to close the the doors and liquidate the inventory for a quick profit.
He's been looking for quite a while already. Last month, he hired a publicist to help put the word out. He's seeking a general manager with five years of experience who can withstand stiff competition from the likes of REI while putting customers ahead of profits.
"It's a really difficult job," Johnson said. "You have to achieve an equal balance between customers, employees, yourself and the business."
The successful candidate will eventually have the opportunity to take over Midwest Mountaineering. Compensation: $85,000 a year starting salary, paid vacation plus profit-sharing and other bonuses.
He's confronting more than a labor shortage. He's looking to preserve a business. Other founder-led retailers that became successful in the Twin Cities over the same period have also undertaken visible transitions.
Bill Ribnick closed the landmark Ribnick Luxury Outerwear in the North Loop in December and sold the building, saying he was 65 and "now it's time to just enjoy life away from work."
Larry Frattallone opened his first hardware store in 1975, growing to 22 Frattallone's Ace Hardware & Garden locations that last year were sold to Tennessee's Central Network Retail Group, which is maintaining the stores as well as positions for Frattallone's sons, Tom and Mike.
Colorado's Vail Resorts purchased Hoigaard's in St. Louis Park in 2013, retaining the family name and many of the employees associated with the longtime outdoors store.
Johnson himself is an accidental retailer. His passion for the business goes back to his lifelong love of hiking, climbing, kayaking and cross-country skiing. Johnson left the University of Minnesota's Institute of Technology after two years in 1969 and, in his kitchen, began buying climbing gear at wholesale prices for himself.
In 1976, he opened Midwest Mountaineering in a Cedar-Riverside storefront that has expanded to 23,000 square feet. It includes a thrift store upstairs, a museum in the basement and a free climbing cave for customers. His dog Teton follows him around the store as he assists customers.
Ben Bumsted, the store's camping department coordinator, was drawn to Midwest Mountaineering to be around people who shared his interests in backpacking and hiking.
"I think he's looking for someone who's pretty like-minded," Bumsted said. "They're going to be doing a lot more of the stuff he does day to day."
Johnson has found the business to be more demanding in recent years. He worked to raise his profits to be able to afford to pay the city's $15 minimum wage. During the unrest after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, vandals broke into Midwest Mountaineering. After the windows were boarded up, Johnson camped inside his store during the unrest to make sure it wasn't breached again.
About the same time, the pandemic turned into a positive, sparking a greater interest in the outdoors. Customer traffic at Midwest Mountaineering has boomed.
But Johnson said, when he turned 70 and started noticing the effects of aging, he knew he needed to start working on a succession plan.
"I'm not able to climb vertical granite walls anymore. When I go out hiking, I can only hike half as far as I used to," said Johnson, who has hiked as many as 30 miles a day traversing the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail that runs through California, Oregon and Washington.
While he believes his eye for promotions would be helpful, Johnson promises that he could eventually hand off many day-to-day demands. "I'm no more hands-on than I feel I need to be."