In the sporting-goods industry, the best man always wins, until a better one comes along.
Brendamour's Sporting Goods succumbed to a better one Feb. 26. During its latest bout with bankruptcy reorganization - its second in less than three years - the 60-year-old retailer went down. Its Joe Frazier? Superstores that low-ball on price, niche mall chains and broad-marketing department stores.
The Cincinnati chain, unable to pull out of the bankruptcy protection it sought after a surprise termination of its financing, will begin liquidating inventory from its remaining 12 stores. Brendamour's Inc. in November filed for Chapter 11 reorganization after Minneapolis-based Norwest Bank Minnesota abruptly canceled its credit line, just a year after the sporting-goods merchant recovered from bankruptcy reorganization in 1995.
Brendamour's had closed 10 stores since 1994 but at its peak had operated 28 stores and employed 400 people.
People familiar with the company that had survived two family generations and three owners describe it as long-standing achievement that became a victim of the times.
''You can go to Wal-Mart and buy a basketball for less than Brendamour's pays for it,'' said Peter Chapman, an unsecured creditor and president of Bankruptcy Creditors' Service Inc. in New Jersey. Mr. Chapman had bought more than 40 claims against Brendamour's during its first bankruptcy.
''I think it was inevitable that Brendamour's was going to do one of two things - either find a very, very specialized niche or liquidate.''
Jerry Gordon, president and chief executive of the ailing chain, saw a different option. Mr. Gordon is the former wholesale jeweler and athlete who bought Brendamour's in 1976. He thought that the company's product was good, but it was battling in the wrong arenas.
Stores in a few secondary locations, in Zanesville and Piqua, were doing well, and Mr. Gordon wanted to continue building in such markets while closing less-profitable stores.
''We found that direction, but it was too late because we couldn't open up these stores fast enough to offset the deterioration or problems we had,'' Mr. Gordon said.
It's a humbling, though not uncommon, ending for a company that once ruled the ring.
Though the current company was formed in 1937, the Brendamour's name can be traced to 1902, when businessman Edward Brendamour opened a jaunty sports and motorcycle store on Fifth Street where the Westin Hotel stands today.
That store, Roll-Crawford & Brendamour, later moved to Sixth Street and operated into the 1920s. During that time, Edward Brendamour Jr. succeeded his father, formed a new partnership and changed the merchant's name to Bolles, Brendamour & Co.
In 1937, after what can delicately be called a conflict of interest among the partners, Edward Jr. broke off with Bolles and started his own company, Ed Brendamour Inc. It evolved into what today is known as Brendamour's Inc.
The younger Mr. Brendamour's business acumen prevailed, and by the 1950s, the company held elite rank among the retailers. It got its just desserts by buying out Bolles Sporting Goods Co. in 1956 and becoming one of the largest sporting goods firms in the Midwest. Its Sixth Street store, at 17,000 square feet, was one of the largest in the country.
In 1959, the Brand Names Foundation named Brendamour's ''Retailer of the Year,'' attracting for it a national spotlight.
But the company operated in a different retail sphere at that time. The competitors were mom-and-pop shops, and regional expansion was a cutting-edge concept for sporting goods retailers.
Still, Brendamour's did expand, often by acquisition, though not at a modern-day pace. It opened a second store, at the Tri-County Mall, in 1959, and others followed in Kenwood, Western Hills Plaza and Beechmont Mall.
By the time the family in 1969 decided to merge with Washington D.C.-based consulting firm Checchi & Co., it was prepared to blaze a trail across the country.
''The merger was the answer in growth in those days,'' said E. Jack Brendamour, who succeeded his father, Edward Jr., after his death in 1964. ''Actually, the plans were to take the group national.''
No more Brendamours
But the family left the business in 1972, after Checchi took a financial blow that would keep it from growing the chain.
E. Jack Brendamour and his sons, Doug and Mike, now run Brendamour Group commercial investor real estate, Brendamour Warehousing and Brendamour Mayflower Moving and Storage, all separate businesses.
For Mr. Brendamour, it was a move free of regret. ''I got out of the business at the right time because the giants were really beginning to show,'' he said.
But not to Jerry Gordon, a former college basketball player who helped Columbia University's team go undefeated in 1952. When he bought the store in 1976, at the age of 46, Mr. Gordon wanted to add one or two stores a year, building along an industry landscape then relatively free of national sporting goods chains, mega-stores and discounters.
And he did. In 14 years, he beefed up the chain from an eight-
store operation with 120 workers to a 28-store chain with 400 employees. He also replaced the stores' trademark fishing, hunting and bowling gear - staples of the industry for some time - with athletic clothing, sneakers and licensed products.
It was a promising move at the time. Tennis, running and water sports - as well as brand identity - were in vogue among even shade-tree athletes. It showed that he had talent and an affinity for evolving consumer tastes and demands.
It was a crowd pleaser, but only for a while.
''The changes in the industry started to really happen about 10 years ago,'' Mr. Gordon said, naming infiltrators such as Footlocker, Finish Line and Champ's Sports. ''It got to the point when there were very few independently owned (stores) in the mall.
''I could see it happening. I attempted in many ways to offset it.''
Mr. Gordon sparred; he evaluated and adjusted both management and merchandise. But offering novel products and competing on service and presentation grew more difficult as the contenders multiplied. Along with mall chains, department stores and superstores such as Wal-Mart began to compete. And the latter began drawing shoppers from the malls.
''I think that Jerry was a subject of the times,'' said Buz Anderson, owner of Anderson Sports Inc., a distributor.
Mr. Anderson had worked with Brendamour's from 1966 to 1987 through his former company, Hutch Sporting Goods. Before that, his father and grandfather worked with Brendamour's.
Mr. Anderson illustrated: In 1966, he said, about 500 accounts comprised 60 percent of his business. In 1987, about 25 accounts made up 80 percent.
''When you're in a business for a long time, sometimes you don't see something,'' he said. ''I think that was Jerry's big problem. I don't think badly of Jerry. I think he did as well as the Brendamour family, who had the foresight to know when to get out.''
By the time of the first bankruptcy reorganization, in 1994, Mr. Gordon discovered that his stores in secondary markets did markedly better than one in congested areas. Brendamour's decided to follow that path and, most recently, opened an Ashland, Ky., store in August. In the meantime, it was closing unprofitable stores - 10 from the time of the first to the second bankruptcy filings.
Mr. Gordon felt confident with this plan, but it was shattered in November when Brendamour's bank, Norwest Bank Minnesota, canceled its financing.
''Not only did it come as a complete surprise that they did it, but the timing couldn't be worse,'' Mr. Gordon said. ''They did it seven weeks before Christmas.''
Some critics, such as Mr. Chapman, the unsecured creditor, have been crying foul since the Chapter 11 filing in November. They say the company's inventory should have been liquidated in the busy holiday shopping season, when it could have earned, some figure, as much as 50 cents on the dollar. Now, it will probably collect about 35 cents for every dollar of merchandise.
Mr. Gordon said he had every hope and intention of keeping the business alive. No sporting goods retailer has emerged from bankruptcy twice; it would have been a great comeback.
Some don't hold that against him.
''It's an old institution,'' said Rusty Saunders, Brendamour's chief financial officer from 1974 to 1978 and now owner of Saunders & Associates Inc., a sporting goods agent in North College Hill. ''Frankly, they did a lot of things right. It just got sort of caught.
''I admire (Mr. Gordon) from the standpoint of trying to hang in there.''