When we reached out to interview Western retail legend and longtime Vogt friend Tom Yoder, we knew trying to contain his wealth of wisdom and stories to just a few short questions would be cheating ourselves. Published author of Kemo Sabe Wisdom as well as a giant in the Western retail industry, a Vietnam veteran, an athlete, and much more, Tom Yoder was kind enough to share some secrets to his success in long-form. We know you'll enjoy as we did.
Chet Vogt and Tom Yoder
A Note From Chet:
In my 5 decades of working with retail dealers, I have met and worked with all kinds of people. Some were there because that is what the family did. Others because they had a dream. Very few truly had a vision.
Tom Yoder is a person with a vision. He began in the most simple retail setting possible with very limited resources – but he had a vision and the plan to make it happen.
In the 30 plus years that I worked with Yoder – as he is commonly called – he has never strayed from his vision, building relationships, and selling high quality merchandise.
I owe a lot to Yoder as he has set a high mark that if followed, will lead to success.
Kemo Sabe Wisdom with Tom Yoder
Earlier this spring, I found myself packing up an entire shelf of business books and putting them in storage …
I have acquired lots of books because I’m practically obsessed with observing and trying to figure out why selected businesses “make it”, some achieving mega-success, while others seem to never have a prayer. You can learn all kinds of critical stuff from studying business books … like the critical importance of having an ample amount of financial backing for a start-up, yet in my opinion, nothing is further from the actual truth, because it’s NOT about the money and having adequate funding. But what really counts, and are by far and away, THE MOST IMPORTANT elements: Determination, Dedication, Persistence and PASSION.
Following is THE best description and advice ever – and served as a compass for Nancy and me.
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On!' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”
Calvin Coolidge, President of The United States, 1923 -1929
On the day after I left the Army in the Spring of 1971, I got lucky when I applied for a job at the May Company department store in downtown Colorado Springs, because I learned almost immediately that I was cut out for retail. I actually enjoyed being the “assistant manager” of men’s underwear, socks and ties !! Go figure. Just three years later, after a climb up the junior executive training ladder, I started a miniscule shop in Snowmass at Aspen, which turned out to be the seed of the business love and passion of my life … Kemo Sabe.
Then in 1983, via meeting the “right” people in my Snowmass and Aspen stores, I was suddenly the Vice President of Sports at Hilton Head, South Carolina, flying around the country hob-knobbing with Big Shots in the golf and tennis world. And guess what ?? I absolutely hated it !! One day it occurred to me that I got a much bigger thrill and reward from designing and selling a coffee mug than meeting with Jack Nicklaus. So, it was back to small shop retail for me.
The truth is that when Nancy and I started Kemo Sabe in 1990 we weren’t very good. In fact, we wouldn’t have hit the water if we had fallen out of the boat. Now, some 33 years later, I realize that we were very good at two things – Making The Customer Feel Important and never wavering from Nancy’s sacred belief … “Failure Is Not An Option !!”
Nancy and I were relentless about Kemo Sabe being loyal to the iconic aura of the Cowboy. We made a pact to never waver from our standards of the Cowboy … the revered value of a person’s word and handshake, hard work, and integrity. I often tinkered with snippets to put on signs or notepads – stuff like “If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters” or “Wherever you go on this planet, they’ve heard of the Cowboy”.
Actually, this culture generated a terrific purpose for our Team and our Clients because we would often discuss “WHO and WHAT is a real Cowboy ?!?!” Well, of course Guys like Chet Vogt are poster boys for a True Cowboy. Yet, at Kemo Sabe we strongly believed that “Cowboy” was actually defined more by the qualities found deep within a person’s soul and character, rather than by wearing a Stetson or spending the day on the back of a horse. So, it was amazingly rewarding for us to consider most of our staff -- and many of our Customers, from the accountant in New York City to the Indiana housewife, as “Cowboys”. And, it’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a thrill and a massive source of pride for everyone who was associated with Kemo Sabe !!
Because of our passion for the West, we never cared at all about styles, or if Western was popular or the fashion. People would say “Hey Yode, you must be so happy that Western is hot” and I’d sort of give them a blank look, trying to get the point across that I simply didn’t care. I still break out in a smile remembering how I had to fight off practically every vendor in the Western industry, by saying “No, Kemo Sabe is NOT going to carry boot bracelets” when they were the rage. It also gives me a sense of pride to think back on how hard I had to fight – day after day, which became years -- about what kind of music we would play in Kemo Sabe. I was relentless in our standards and insisted that every song we played must have my approval. I’ll flat-out guarantee you, that despite lots of complaining from the staff, I was absolutely correct in knowing what was best for our Clients and our culture.
I often get asked about celebrities … over the years, Kemo Sabe became the Aspen Watering Hole for Big Shots in entertainment, sports, and the giants of American business. I’ll tell you one reason why: Nancy and I simply didn’t care more about a celebrity than about any other Customer, and this mindset filtered down to every person on our Team. It sure seems to me like our aversion to sucking up to celebs and treating them well, like every Kemo Sabe Customer, generated respect. Asking to take photos with celebrities would get you fired; and I once kicked an employee out of the store, right in front of Jerry Jones, because I overheard him asking Mr. Jones for tickets to an upcoming Dallas Cowboys game. You know what? My personal Friendship, and the relationship with Kemo Sabe and the extended Jones Family, has lasted for the past 25 years !!
But just because Nancy and I weren’t dialed into celebrities, our staff sure was … they were beyond sensational at welcoming and being hospitable. One of the epic moments involved Wendy (our president and now the owner) asking to speak privately with Mariah Carey. Just the two of them walked upstairs to the bar, where Wendy explained to Ms. Carey that she had a reputation for being difficult and demanding, and that Wendy would prefer she treat our staff with respect. Well, Wendy is an absolute genius at pulling off this kind of stuff, and this one certainly worked, because Mariah pretty much took up residence in Kemo Sabe for a couple of days while the paparazzi cooled their heels out on the street. Heck, we even gave her a corner in our bar – but keeping the joint open –where her make-up staff, along with their own lighting system, got her ready for a TV special she was doing from Aspen. I swear, I ain’t makin’ this up.
Once I was standing with Kevin Costner while a bevy of middle-age Iowa ladies were gawking at him. I will never forget Kevin doing one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen, walking over to the Ladies and saying “Let’s take some photos”. The next 5 minutes gave these Gals memories of a lifetime. Then, a few days later, with Kevin back in the store, the same situation came up, with an entirely different group of lookers. So, I asked Kevin if he would mind doing some photos … got the group assembled, handed Kevin one of the Ladies’ phones and had him take the pictures. I don’t believe this group thought it was nearly as hilarious as I did.
I find it remarkably flattering, and I take it as a big compliment, when I’m asked for advice.
So, back to the opening paragraphs, about business books … there are two which, for me, overshadow the others: The Go Getter (Peter B. Kyne, written in 1921 !!) and The Fred Factor (Mark Sanborn).
I give you my word and my promise, that if you are observant and challenge yourself to figure out WHY certain businesses thrive; and if you read a few books and articles on success, you will be rewarded far more than you expected or even thought possible.
M T C F I !!
Tom Yoder and his all time favorite horse - Woodrow.
Enjoyed reading his story very much. Love Vogt jewelry have been a long time customer before thru retail and now online
Tom is a fine man. i used to see him frequently when shopping at Kemo Sabe in Aspen. All the staff there is friendly and helpful. Tom first introduced me to Vogt buckles, and i now have several.
The most revalent comment—treat everyone the same! In our business, you often cannot tell the size of a bank account by the appearance of the customer.