When you make a purchase at or through Carlson Sports, you receive a letter welcoming you to the family. What you need to know is this: the Carlson’s are serious. They’re a family business originating in 1971, but employees and customers are also part of the family. Over the years, Carlson Sports—like any family—has been through a lot of change. They’ve seen the power sports industry change, they’ve seen the economy change, they’ve seen North Bay change; they’ve seen their family, business, customer base, and store expand and grow.
Picture this: you’re out riding in breathtaking North Bay. You’re out on a solo adventure, maybe taking in the changing fall colours, or its your first ride after winter thaws. You know the type of ride. You’ve been to remote areas on these types of rides before, and you’ve found yourself stuck when you’ve needed (or, let’s be honest, wanted) a part, or needed something checked on or fixed up, advice or directions. In the ideal situation, there’s someone around who knows the area as well as they know the gear. Carlson Sports exists to make that ideal a reality. And, with that, to make riding in Northern Ontario accessible to adventurous riders, wherever they hail from.
What makes North Bay the ideal location for Carlson Sports? That’s easy. “We use everything we sell in the area: boats, camping trailers, dirt bikes, snowmobiles, ATVs, everything.” And there’s no reason they wouldn’t—take, for example, the options available to motorcycle enthusiasts: three of the best motorcycle routes in Northeastern Ontario start in North Bay, The Great Legends Tour, The Lake Nipissing Tour, and The Lake Temiskaming Tour. It should go without saying that Carlson Sports is a good place to stop in before heading out on any of these routes, to make sure you’ve got everything you need and your gear in order. If the play aspect of North Bay living wasn’t enough, “It’s also a beautiful place to live. You can get anywhere you need to be in town in 10 minutes, and live on a lake or at least close to it. People think it’s far, but it’s not actually—you can be at the Rogers Centre [in Toronto] in three-and-a-half hours.” Carlson Sports has a local following for sure, and is popular with people coming up from the GTA for some nature and adventure—but their reach goes much further than that. “People will come up from Windsor, sometimes for a particular product, sometimes it’s for a specific price we’re offering.” Often people make the trip because they want to use to use whatever they’re purchasing right away, and North Bay is the perfect place to do it.
When we spoke to Dan Carlson, CEO of the company, he told us that what makes Carlson Sports unique is the family dynamic and what each person brings to the table. “Different people have different skills and experience,” he told us, “and that variety of expertise is what brings everything together and makes things work, and makes us able to grow and expand.” For example, his brother is a mechanic, trained to work with Arctic Cat and Yamaha products; his father—Carlson Sports’ founder, Dave—is into heavy equipment. Dan himself leads the company, overseeing things on a large-scale level. He’s responsible for the company’s vision, in his words: “making sure things are sustainable today, tomorrow, ten years from now, and indefinitely into the future.”
With 25 employees, Dan tells us things are constantly changing and evolving, for them, their competitors, and really the industry across North America. “Customers now, with the Internet, are global consumers,” Dan explains. Clearly business in the 70s and 80s didn’t involve people doing their own online research, coming in with set ideas on what they wanted, bringing up lists of price comparisons on their phones. The change may be more recent than you’d even think. “In 2002, when we moved into the building, people would still come in and walk around, look at what we had, and listen to presentations, instead of coming in with ideas based on online research.” The danger in this shift, he explains, is that there’s no room for creativity, and staff want to able to look out for what’s best for the individual customer.
If you ask Dan, he’s got the best job out there. “I live to ride, no question about it, and work isn't work. I get to look at the most beautiful products every single day, and use them, and enjoy them. You have to buy a car; you don't have to buy a 250cc snowmobile, but you want to. That 1000cc motorcycle? You don't need, but do need it. There’s a reason our saying is ‘selling fun since ’71.’”
Not only have the folks at Carlson shared in the fun, they’ve shared in the headaches too. But, that’s actually good news for customers. “Nothing that can happen to a customer’s snowmobile that hasn't happened to us. If it's acting up for you, we've experienced it too.”
It’s well-known that Carlson Sports is part of a family, but it’s also a big part of the local community. “When it comes to community involvement, we've been actively participating since the beginning,” Dan tells me, “we support those who support us.” Recently, Carlson Sports raised $5,000 for the Heart & Stroke Foundation through their annual Ride for a Cause event, and that number grows every year. In May of this year, they were part of Bikers Battling Cancer’s first annual event in Powassan, behind the scenes, donating trailers, putting up displays. They provided office trailers for this year’s Summer in the Park Festival, and they’ve supported of Big Brothers. “It’s the right thing to do,” Dan says matter-of-factly.
For Dan, the company truly is his life’s work. “I was put to work right away at the dealership, handed a broom out of the womb,” Dan laughs. Through the years, he’s done everything from welding to accounting, selling to sweeping, repairs to human resources. At the end of the day, he’s confident that the business is not all about prices. “People deal with people, and if you hire quality people and treat them right, they'll treat your customers well, and those customers will come back.” Key to this success, he’s certain, is being able to pay people well and retain quality employees. “You basically become your own competition because of manufacturer discounts—and there are companies that are all about discounts and overstock because they go for deals.” It says a lot that currently Carlson Sports is the only store of its kind left in North Bay.
Dan says that they know that they have to be ready to adapt and change and deal with anything that comes their way. “What we do today might not be what we do tomorrow, but what’s for sure is that we'll be here tomorrow.” If customers are looking to form a relationship with a dealership, that’s quite a promise.
Back to that letter that welcomes customers to the family—“they're our brothers and sisters; they share the same passion for the sport that we do, ” Dan says. Above all else, t’s that passion that keeps Carlson Sports going strong.