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Swinging a big loop; Changes coming for Decatur’s cowboy kingdom

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What do you get when you combine a unique and growing market – people who ride and rope – with a business owner who lies awake at night thinking up ways to meet their needs?

A little western store becomes a chain, then a mail-order catalog business. People have questions, so you build a training center. People have horses, so you sell trailers. Horses eat, so you add a feed store.

Eventually, you’ve got a world – NRS World.

New Era Rising

NEW ERA RISING – David Isham stands atop a pile of dirt as construction rises on the new NRS Ranch off U.S. 81/287 south of Decatur. FX5 of Decatur is doing the site work, and PVP Building Systems, another Decatur company, is putting up the steel for the huge facility, which should open next spring. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

David Isham’s business has grown from that little shop in Decatur into one of the nation’s largest retailers of all things western. The next phase is rising now, on a hilltop off U.S. 81/287 southeast of town.

Think Cowboy Cabela’s.

“I’ve always wanted to build a destination store,” Isham said. “It’s really a 25-year dream coming into being.”

NRS celebrated its 25th anniversary Feb. 1. By the time the next birthday rolls around, its 150 or so employees should be getting ready to move onto the new campus that will house a huge store, offices, a warehouse and fulfillment center along with a feed store and a hay barn.

It comes with a new entrance off 287 and plenty of parking for horse trailers.

The NRS empire is moving, not uptown, but out of town – onto the acreage where the NRS Training Center and NRS Trailers are already located.

“We’re going to bring people to an authentic, real-deal Texas ranch, where people come to rope or come to learn how to be a better horseman,” Isham said. “It’ll be a nice retail store for our customer, a more efficient mail-order warehouse for us and a new building for our staff.”

After breaking ground June 2, steel is now rising on the office and store. From that location, just 10 feet shy of being the highest point in Wise County, shoppers will be able to look out the back window down to the ranch.

Finally, Isham said, the home store will meet or exceed people’s expectations.

“When you looked at my catalog, visions of what the NRS Store might be didn’t match up with the reality,” he said. “It was still just the David’s Western Store in Decatur.”

That gap between expectation and reality widened when NRS began going to Las Vegas, renting a ballroom at the MGM Grand and setting up a 90,000-square-foot store for the two-week run of the National Finals Rodeo.

“Our customers who see us for the first time at Vegas, they come to Decatur and say, ‘Is this it? I thought it’d be a lot bigger …’”

By next spring, it will be.

Isham pointed out that the big outdoor retailers like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops create an illusion in their stores – indoor mountains, streams, stuffed game animals – to make shoppers forget they’re on the side of the interstate.

“We don’t have to create an illusion,” he said. “There’s going to be big glass windows at the back, looking down on that arena where some of the best ropers and roping horses in the world are working – it’s all real, and it’s right there.”

Architects Drawing

ARCHITECTS’ DRAWING – When the NRS Ranch is completed, it will look something like this, with a big western store, warehouse, office building, feed store and hay barn – and lots of parking for trucks and trailers. Drawing courtesy of Oxley Williams Tharp, Architects

START SMALL, DREAM BIG

Isham’s family moved to Decatur from an Arlington suburb when he was 10. He got into roping late in high school and continued to compete on the weekends while earning his accounting degree at Abilene Christian University. When he graduated, he went to work for a big accounting firm, but roping and the western lifestyle had become his passion.

So when Bryan’s Western Wear in Decatur went up for sale, he bought it. Before long, he was able to move it into the old Western Auto building at 1410 FM 51 South, which at 17,000 square feet was a big store.

“It’s been an awesome base of operations for the last 25 years,” he said.

Isham added stores in Weatherford and Granbury and began advertising in roping magazines, touting the toll-free number which is still 1-800-GO-ROPIN (467-6746).

He answered most of the calls himself – and quickly sensed that “David’s Western Store” wasn’t really getting the message across.

“I knew somebody in Colorado or California would see that ad, and they would just envision a store – no different from the mom-and-pop store in their town,” he said. “It didn’t conjure up a vision that said, ‘Man, that guy must have it.’”

So he came up with National Ropers Supply.

“It was one of those middle-of-the-night things,” he said.

To the 800 number, he added the catch phrase, “If it’s right for ropin’, it’s right here.” The phones blew up.

ANSWERING QUESTIONS

When folks called with an order, often they had a question, too.

“Do you have a catalog?”

Isham packed orders in boot boxes and sent them out the back door – but he also saved the names and addresses of his customers, building a database in a boot box. In the fall of 1994, NRS mailed its first catalog – a black-and-white affair with 40-something pages.

When the 20th NRS catalog comes out this fall, they will mail about 1.5 million.

Over the years, they expanded, creating a warehouse in the old Decatur Bowling Center located just behind the store. Isham said mail-order accounts for about 70 percent of the company’s business now.

Phone questions also led NRS into the training business, as callers were constantly picking Isham’s brain about roping.

He had no desire to add “coach” to his job description – but he did sense another opportunity.

“I knew if people enjoy roping more, they’re more successful at it, they’ll do it for a lifetime,” he noted. “If I can help them enjoy that, become better at it, eliminate the negative things that can happen – maybe that guy would be my customer for life.”

About 11 years ago, 260 acres off U.S. 81/287 southeast of town became available and Isham bought it. The first thing he did was build the NRS Training Center. Since then, they’ve hosted more than 4,500 students from all over the world.

The pavilion, which offers world-class training in barrel racing, horsemanship, roping and more, features a covered 150-by-300-foot arena, stalls, trailer hookups, a pro shop, a kitchen, custom bunkhouses – even a saddle shop and a restaurant.

ALL ABOUT RELATIONSHIPS

Despite impressive growth, big buildings and big numbers, Isham’s focus remains exactly where it’s been since day one – personal relationships, with customers as well as his employees.

Mildred White, who was managing Bryan’s when Isham bought it, is a good example. At 88, she still works at the store.

“Mildred has been selling western wear in Decatur for 38 years now,” Isham said. “She loves coming to work, and everybody in town knows her. She’s a sweetheart.”

Isham is excited about providing loyal employees with a better working environment.

“Right now we have them stuck in closets all over the place,” he said. “We’re building a really nice set of offices that ought to be just a great collaborative work environment.”

If employees are family, you’d have to say Isham’s customers are cousins.

NRS is the official catalog of the United States Team Roping Association, the National High School Rodeo Association, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and other groups that focus on rodeo or the western lifestyle.

They log a lot of miles maintaining those ties.

“Once you align yourselves with an association, you need to go meet that customer, get in front of them and create a relationship with them,” he said. “That kind of launched us into the road show piece of our business.”

Last week NRS had a rig in Rock Springs, Wyo., for the National High School Rodeo Finals, and they also set up stores for the National Junior High finals, the U.S. Team Roping Association finals and of course, the NFR.

“Roping has grown so much as a sport, and we’ve been right along with that,” Isham said. “It’s all about personal relationships and the kind of people you deal with.”

SHIFTING THE COWBOY CAPITAL TO WISE

Somewhere along that 25-year journey, Wise County became the mecca of roping and rodeo. It’s home to several world champions, Roy Cooper to Trevor Brazile to Brazilian bull riders like Silvano Alves and others.

Is it a coincidence that Decatur is also home to one of the nation’s top western retailers?

Probably not, Isham said.

“I know it’s luck, and timing, but I feel like we’ve played a role in that, too,” he said. “For 20 years we’ve been putting all this out – and Decatur, Texas, is on everything we ship.”

It’s an American success story.

And from the looks of what is rising out there on the hill, Decatur won’t be giving up the title of “Cowboy Capital” anytime soon.

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