One of the key reasons the Coopers continue to expand is because in 1995, they formed an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, or ESOP, which gave their employees an ownership share in the company, which today exceeds 20% of the stock. “Even though we grow conservatively, we want to be moving forward not backwards,” says Cooper. “We need to increase the value of the company so that our employee owners will see growth in their ESOP. It took a few years before everyone really understood what it was, but it has been a great decision for us and for the business. We want to provide good benefits to our employees and they, in return, can be responsive to the guests in our store.”
Introducing the ESOP was a key milestone in the growth of the company, says Fred Martin, who began working for the Coopers in 1984, married their daughter, became the father to their three grandchildren, and took over as president of Mast five years ago.
“There were 14 of us when I started working for John and Faye,” he says. “Each of us had an intimate relationship with them. We killed ourselves, because we saw how they were killing themselves to get this off the ground. But when the organization became too big for John and Faye to have a close relationship with every member of the company, they knew they had to change gears and launch something that would give everyone a feeling that they owned the company. I was in a store recently and a guest walked up and asked, ‘Who owns Mast?’ And two of the associates on the floor replied, ‘I do.’ That’s why our guests tell us there is a feeling in every store that everyone owns it, which is true.”
Appearances Can Be Deceiving
While the Coopers honor the past through the way their stores look and feel, as well as their commitment to their staff, the truth is that they have been able to grow the business steadily over the years because of their respect for technology and modern business processes.
“I’ve had so many people over the years tell me they want to open a general store like ours,” says Cooper. “But I’m not sure that you could. It took us a long time to get the kind of buying power you need to make a diversity of merchandise like we have work. You need to order enough volume from manufacturers to make it worth their while. It would be near impossible to duplicate what we have done without a lot of money and people.”
At the logistical center of the business, for example, is a 25,000-square-foot distribution facility located a few miles from the original store where all the boots, gloves, beeswax candles, sourwood honey, ceramic mugs, potato mashers, hammocks, and dog toys sold in every Mast store arrive, get unloaded, checked and priced, and then sent back out to the store they will be sold in.
The facility houses some 90 full and part-time workers who form the nerve center for the entire business. It’s where merchants come to peddle their wares to the team of buyers who report to Lisa Cooper, who is now vice president of the company in charge of merchandising. Her mission has been to stock more locally-produced goods on shelves. “We’ve had a drive for years to source more product made in the U.S.A.,” she says. “About 20% of our products are made domestically at the moment, which is a huge difference from most other retailers out there.”
Lisa Cooper also played a lead role in opening Rivercross Market, a store that sells only goods made in the U.S., which sits directly next to the original Mast store in Valle Crucis.
As the business as a whole has expanded, she adds, they’ve also had to adjust and customize merchandise at their stores to meet the needs of customers in their new markets, especially those in South Carolina, who live closer to the coasts than the mountains.
Back at Mast HQ in Valle Crucis, there is also a large accounting department, the number crunchers who keep the company’s cash flow humming; the marketing and creative staff, who design advertising and print up many of the signs inside the stores; and then there’s the IT staff, a growing part of the business. The company has invested heavily in a revamped website, due to be released in 2014, that will include enhanced e-commerce capabilities. At the same time, it will also strive to capture the same look and feel a customer gets from walking into a Mast store.
“We offer our customers an authentic experience,” says John Cooper. “But we know there are people who want to shop online. I remember recently that we had a customer call up and ask if we had a certain product in stock, a shirt I think. So our sales associate used an iPad to take pictures of everything we had in all the different colors and then emailed it to him. The customer then called back and said he wanted one of each. We look at online as a part of customer service. I believe it will never really extinguish retail sales completely.”