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An outdoor store that started as a tiny operation blending nature and sport is growing into a version of itself run by a new generation of leaders who plan to take it beyond the Chattanooga area — and eventually outside the state.

By 2016, Rock/Creek founders Dawson Wheeler and Marvin Webb plan to hand over their soon-to-be-six stores and online retail shop to three of the company's top brass, dialing themselves down to advisory roles.

That will put Mark McKnight, Chad Wykle and Jonathan Scott at the helm and of a company that also has been a stable of community support and a sponsor of myriad outdoor sporting events driving athletes to the Scenic City.

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Rock/Creek founders look to next generation of leaders as outdoor retailer expands beyond Chattanooga market

"They've earned it," Wheeler, 56, said. "Marvin and I have always been centered around legacy and wanting to give people opportunities."

The trio, who are gaining equity in the company, have been driving forces for the independent outdoor specialty retailer, Wheeler said. "Marvin and I hope to be more of a board of directors."

Rock/Creek is set to open its newest store in Cleveland in August — but Wheeler considers that part of the Chattanooga market. The location that opens after Cleveland won't be as close, though it will be in Tennessee.

"I'd think by the time we get the Cleveland store open we'll be ready to announce the next one," said McKnight, 33. "We're ready to push beyond the hometown Tennessee has some of the fastest-growing counties in the U.S., and we'll definitely be focused inside the state right now. We'd actually love to go into North Georgia, but likely won't do that until Congress passes a simplified Internet tax."

McKnight, who joined Rock/Creek 11 years ago, is the company's e-commerce and marketing director. Wykle is the head buyer, and Scott is general manager for operations, one of the company's most senior employees.

All told, the company has about 100 employees, 20 percent of them full-time. They work out of the 2 NorthShore, Hamilton Crossing, Block, Riverside Drive and Ocoee locations.

Rock/Creek had been eyeing Cleveland for some time, McKnight said. Shipping and customer data justify the new location, he and Wheeler said. McKnight considered the area's household growth as well. Located in Cleveland Towne Center, the store will be about 5,000 square feet, a little more than half the size of the 2 NorthShore shop. Potential future locations include Nashville and Birmingham.

Business born at Baylor

The legacy of Rock/Creek starts with two young boys, schoolmates at Baylor, kicking around thoughts on the limitless shores of childhood.

"We would sit around like kids would and say, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' " Wheeler recalled. "I answered 'I want to be the outdoor business.' "

Fast forward to adulthood, 1987, when Wheeler bought Canoeist Headquarters. It took but two weeks for Webb to drive up from Atlanta and for the two to decide to "get the band back together," Wheeler said. The Hixson spot was 1,700 square feet, very much a hardware store, one that sold duck tape and pitons. Annual sales were less than $170,000, Wheeler recalled.

Their second year, the partners hired their first employee, a part-time high-school student. Three years later "Rock Creek Outfitters" came to be.

"We didn't envision the company would go to this level, nor did we (necessarily) have aspirations to," Wheeler said. "We thought if we are good stewards and good people to our customers, it would take care of itself. And it kind of has."

Online sales

Rock/Creek’s online sales have increased steadily, according to estimates by Internet Retailer. 2010 $8.64 million 2011 $9.07 million 2012 $9.53 million 2013 $9.89 million 2014: $10.32 million

Rock/Creek gives about 1 percent of its sales to nonprofit and local causes, Wheeler said. He declined to share the company's revenue. About 40 percent of Rock/Creek's sales are online and 60 percent are in its brick-and-mortar stores, he said.

In 2014, Rock/Creek's online sales were an estimated $10.3 million, a figure that's grown about 4 percent a year since 2011, according to Internet Retailer. In 2010, sales were an estimated $8.64 million.

The company has been in Internet Retailer's Second 500 Book, which lists the "rising stars of e-retailing in America" from 500 to 1,000. Rock/Creek's rank has slipped each year since 2011 when it was 593. Last year it was 716. That's because the company's annual online sales growth has been slower than the U.S. e-commerce market as a whole, 15 percent last year and 17 percent in 2013, said Stefany Zaroban, Internet Retailer's associate director of research.

Web business was more than half of all sales before Rock/Creek opened its downtown Chattanooga Block location in 2013. "But growth in brick-and-mortar coupled with our focus on high service instead of low price on the web has brought it swinging back the other direction," McKnight said. Nonetheless, the company continues to invest in online operations and will be working on a new mobile-responsive site to launch ideally late this year.

"The big shift is toward looking at the web — and all digital media — as an element of an omnichannel experience for one single customer," he said. The company has focused much of its marketing on Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, "where we're much more likely to make meaningful face-to-face relationships and then back that up with great web experience and easy shipping to the customer's home."

In 2013, the company was ranked "elite" by StellaService, an independent company that rates customer-service performance of online businesses. StellaService reported that only 4 percent of thousands of online businesses it evaluated reached the status. Rock/Creek also was Grassroots Outdoor Alliance's "Retailer of the Year" in 2011, 2013 and 2014.

Rock/Creek banks much of its success on customer service and staffing stores and phone lines with trained enthusiasts who know about outdoor gear and clothes, company officials said. Few customers come into the specialty store without having already done some research on what they want, and most of the company's customers aren't price sensitive, McKnight said. That helps with sales, he said.

Customer loyalty has too, not just because of service but also because plenty of staff are part of the outdoor sporting world. To wit: Wykle is the co-founder of the Triple Crown bouldering series.

Wheeler is a man of many sports, though he admits other people are far better at them than he is.

"I love running. Today I'm an avid skier. I was a rock climber a long time ago, an avid kayaker. Now I stand-up paddleboard, I'm an avid sailor," said Wheeler, a Chattanooga-area native. "And I've hiked the whole Appalachian Trail. Obviously, the world of hiking is where I was brought up."

Contact Mitra Malek at mmalek@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @MitraMalek.

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