The Clothes Came With the Building
PFI Western Store originated in 1975 as Preferred Farmers Incorporated, a dusty livestock feed and farm supply business located on Springfield's northwest side.
There has always been a tremendous amount of risk involved with farming, so the partners originally decided to focus on those farmers with the best track records who had the best chance of paying their feed bills. By incurring less risk with focusing on the "preferred farmers" as their customers, they could pass along better prices.
Though its means were modest (the first store boasted only one desk, two chairs, a telephone, and lots of feed bins) PFI had ambitious dreams even from the beginning. That goal, shared by the original five partners, was to become the best livestock feed company in the region.
But then a funny thing happened on its way to becoming a successful feed store. When more space was needed to make room for the growing line of farm supplies, PFI bought the Western wear clothing shop next door. The clothes came with the building.And then an even funnier thing happened. While the original plan was to sell off the clothing inventory as quickly as possible and replace it with farm supplies, Larry Burks and Randy Little, the two remaining partners, discovered that their customers liked the Western-inspired fashions. They agreed to keep the clothes in stock. When the original merchandise that came with the store sold out, they restocked. And restocked. And restocked. Before long the feed bins were tossed to make room for more clothes.
Randy Little became sole owner of PFI in the 80's with his college sweetheart-turned-wife Johnelle serving as his fashion guide. Having grown up around horses, she knew Western styles better than her husband, an agricultural economics major from the University of Missouri. Together, the Littles became a formidable force in the world of Western fashion, taking Preferred Farmers, Inc. through various names and incarnations before finally stopping for good at PFI Western Store, now a multi-million dollar empire with the largest Western retail center in Missouri, located at U.S. 65 and Battlefield.
Quite a journey for a business that never set out to sell anything other than farm supplies. But therein lies the beauty (and perhaps the genius) of PFI. By watching the folks who shopped at his once humble feed store and listening to what they wanted, Little built PFI around his customers, giving them what they wanted: functional but fun Western-inspired fashions, rather than the livestock feed he originally thought they needed.
So far, so good. No complaints yet from any underfed livestock or any underdressed cowboys or cowgirls.
Challenges? What Challenges?There were only a few minor challenges in PFI's early days. The original feed store was located on the then-unfashionable northwest side of town. The transition from feed store to Western fashion outpost came at the very time the Urban Cowboy trend was on its way out. Even the initials behind PFI were all wrong: Preferred Farmers Incorporated hardly described the products or services offered by the Western retailer.
And, oh yeah, Randy Little had no prior retail experience.
Nothing that couldn't be overcome with a little horse sense and lots of humor, both of which Little used in his early advertising spots, which played on the dual universe he had unintentionally created when he began selling clothing in the feed store.
Early radio ads featured two voices: "I got my dog food there," one voice said. "Well, I got these boots there for $99.99," the second voice answered. And then the tag question: "Is it a feed store or is it a Western store?"
Little's philosophy? Get the customers in the door and let them decide what kind of store it was. Better yet, create a retail center that broke all the rules and resisted easy categorization.
That's what PFI did with its 30,000 square-foot retail center. Opened in 1993, the new store addressed the location problem and helped establish PFI's unique identity as the retailer like no one else.
To meet his competition head-on, Little knew he had to break a few rules. He did so with gusto, developing a good, better, best philosophy of buying that appealed to all levels of taste and budget. Unlike the inventory at the discount megastores and the franchised stores in the nearby mall, PFI prides itself on its unexpected and even outrageous inventory of 15,000 (yes, thousand) styles of boots available in a childs size 4 to mens 16 and in leathers that range from cowhide to ostrich to kangaroo.
Recognizing that the Urban Cowboy trend might come and go, but that Western lifestyle was as much a part of the American landscape as the Grand Canyon or the Ozark Mountains, PFI not only survived but endured, even though the initials still don't make much sense.
Act Don't React
PFI's mission is simple: To be the most creative, customer-respected, people-oriented retailer in America.
Simple but not easy, especially because the typical PFI customer doesn't exist. PFI fashions are popular with everyone from federal judges to country singers to police officers (when they're not working) to stay-at-home moms (when they are working).
So how to serve all of these diverse customers? By rigidly adhering to a philosophy of flexibility that allows PFI to act rather than react to the needs and desires of customers.
That means combining superior customer service with a team of top-notch professionals (many of whom have been with the company since the very beginning) who can deliver what the customer wants today, whether it's a perfectly custom-blocked cowboy hat or a pair of boots that fit like a glove or a saddle that’s comfortable for both rider and horse.
It means regular buying trips to New York, Dallas and Denver to sniff out what customers will want next season, keeping in mind that while one PFI shopper might want a $10 henley shirt, another will want to splurge on a $10,000 designer jacket.
But perhaps most of all, it means recognizing that Western is more than fashion. It's a lifestyle choice that embraces freedom and adventure.
So it only makes sense that shopping for that lifestyle should be as enjoyable for the customer as it is for the employees. Indeed, the philosophy at PFI is that shopping for Western fashions can and should feel as comfortable as slipping on a favorite pair of cowboy boots.
Anything but Ordinary
Anyone can hang a denim shirt on a rack and call it just another ordinary Western store. PFI is anything but ordinary, as suggested by its 30,000 square-foot retail center modeled after a turn-of-the-century train station.
But of course, this is no ordinary train station. Witness the massive video wall, the old farm truck in the middle of the store filled with merchandise, or the giant mural in the foyer that depicts a stampede of wild horses.
Real horses can often be found in the parking lot, trying on a new saddle (more than 300 saddles are always on display) or being fit for a custom-made saddle by one of PFI's skilled saddle makers. In either case, the PFI secret to saddles is deceptively simple: Always make the horse and the customer happy.
Inside PFI, the “anything but ordinary” theme continues. The entire retail center has an undecidedly un-mall-like feel. Instead of just metal clothes racks, fashions sometimes hang on rustic wooden displays, where a customer may look up to see a bobcat peering down at him. But of course it's the jaw-dropping array of boots that puts the Western in PFI Western store. Kenny Rogers once sent a limo to PFI pick up 15 pairs of cowboy boots.
PFI Town is divided into various boutiques. That's a mighty fancy word to describe Big Spur Hat Co, where hats are custom-fitted and blocked for every customer. Saddle City is the place to get a saddle made or to just watch a professional saddle maker in action. Diamond Annie's carries a wide selection of specialty foods and spirits including many of our own private label and family farmer brands. But our biggest brand to date is BootDaddy, which carries the baddest boots on the boulevard.
PFI also serves the wired cowboy with our websites PFI and BootDaddy. But somehow, that's not quite as much fun for Randy Little and his sales team as fitting a horse with a saddle in the parking lot while blocking the owner's cowboy hat while helping a customer pick out an exotic pair of lizard skin boots. It's especially fun when the horse, hat, and boots all belong to the same customer.
Give to Kids Who Can't
Pulling oneself up by their own bootstraps is a familiar phrase to virtually all Americans, whether they've ever been on a horse or seen a pair of bootstraps. That's because self-reliance and independence are as much a part of the fabric of our country as is faded blue denim.
But there are those who, because of physical, mental, or economic limitations, are less able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Those are the people PFI reaches out to help.
Giving to kids who can't is a commitment Randy and Johnelle Little take seriously. PFI has sponsored the Boys & Girls Town of Missouri Wagon Train Ride and provided holiday shopping sprees for the residents of Boys Ranch. PFI has also been a Grand Giver to the Developmental Center of the Ozarks and donated a percentage of boots sales to help provide a bone marrow transplant for a Springfield child suffering from leukemia, as well as being a major supporter of the American Cancer Society's Cattle Baron's Ball.
Camp Barnabas holds a special place in PFI's heart. The Purdy, MO-based camp is a place where children suffering from disease and disability can experience the kind of outdoor adventures (swimming, camping, creating crafts for Mom and Dad) most of us took for granted as children. In 2001, PFI sponsored an outdoor concert featuring Toby Keith and Montgomery Gentry to raise funds and awareness for Camp Barnabas so that more children facing life-threatening illnesses or disabilities could enjoy a happy summer at no expense to their families.
Of course, it's always fun when charitable giving can be combined with family entertainment. That's exactly what happened when PFI helped bring the PBR Extreme Nationals Professional Bull Ride to Hammons Student Center in September 2002. In addition to providing an exciting spectacle for area families, PFI donated $20,000 in ticket proceeds to Missouri State University. The scholarships established from that event are just another way PFI reaches out to those who simply need a little financial assistance so that their education will allow them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.
To help support the PBR riders who can't afford to pay all their medical bills, PFI always throws one of the biggest parties of the year, with their annual Party In The Parking Lot to support the Rider Relief Fund.
The PFI Western.com Invitational PBR event has become a much anticipated annual fixture at JQH every year and PFI even has their own BootDaddy bull.
One Last Thing... An Attitude of Gratitude
It's tempting to think that PFI is where it is today solely because of an enlightened management philosophy or an inspired company history. The truth is PFI is successful because of the people who come there every day both as customers and employees.
From the very beginning, Randy Little knew he had to hire people who had more experience than him. And not just retail experience.
To create the kind of retail experience he wanted to build, Little knew he had to find old-fashioned craftspeople who still knew the art of blocking hats, making saddles, and custom-fitting a pair of cowboy boots.
He was blessed that such talented people live right here in Springfield or close enough that they were willing to commute. That's why Springfield is as much a part of the PFI success story as is Randy and Johnelle Little and all those thousands of pairs of cowboy boots.
But PFI would be a deserted storefront were it not for the customers who shop there time and again. Whether it's to pick up a denim shirt to wear on casual Friday or to shop for a child's first pair of cowboy boots, PFI has become the place people turn when they need a little Western in their lives.
The fact that Americans still hunger for the fashions that evoke the history of our country is a tribute both to the timeless fashions and the proud history of our nation. Being able to fulfill that hunger for the pure and honest Western lifestyle is a privilege Randy Little and everyone at PFI feels grateful to be able to do every day.
And so, as Springfield has helped PFI grow, so too has PFI helped Springfield grow. With hundreds of thousands of customers crossing PFI's electronic counter every year, it’s clear that PFI has become a tourist destination, helping to strengthen the link between Springfield, Branson, and all of Ozark Mountain Country.
In a very real sense, Springfield and PFI have grown up together over the last forty years. While both are committed to keeping up-to-speed with technological innovations, neither are willing to abandon the solid roots and traditional values that got them where they are today.
These roots that originally focused on taking care of the family farmer and all the values they represent: hard work, honesty, friendly manners and always willing to lend a help still are at the heart of PFI today. As is their focus on the preferred, quality brands and listening to what their customers want.
Old-fashioned? Maybe. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.