All in the family: Sports genes

When Zides Sports Shop founder Bob Zide died in 2003, it hit his son Rod in several different ways.

“You lose a dad, a best friend and a business partner all in one big lump,” said Rod Zide, now president of the 55-year-old sporting goods dealer headquartered on Second Street in Marietta. “It’s when I found out how great the people are I work with.”

As Rod, his brother John and sister Lori Williamson worked to carry on without their father, they had the support of employees who’d been with the company for decades.

“They covered us, no question,” said Rod, 48. “Everybody dug in their heels and put up with us while we learned. And they’re still putting up with us.”

Rod said Zides is a terrific example of a family business – and that family is not limited to people who share a surname with the company.

“You can’t be with somebody for 40 years and not be family,” he said.

Ann Laing was hired by Zides 40 years ago in the retail department. She worked in different areas of the business and today is team sales coordinator, dealing with supplying equipment to various schools in five states. She remembers when a young Rod couldn’t be left alone with the chain-stitching machine she used to put names on jerseys.

“Rodney thought that machine was a lot of fun,” she said.

There’s always been a family atmosphere at Zides, Laing said.

“Co-workers’ kids were in and out of here,” she said. “If there was some odd job that needed done, a lot of times, it was people’s kids that got tabbed.”

This family business grew from another one – The Fair Store, a men’s clothing shop that Rod Zide’s grandfather, John, operated in the 100 block of Front Street. Bob Zide worked in his dad’s store and got involved in supplying equipment and other items to local softball leagues.

Bob’s first foray into the field backfired. He purchased softballs from a catalog and sold them locally for a small profit. But the quality of those products didn’t live up to the standards he would later establish for his own business.

“The softballs went bad. They all fell apart,” Rod said.

After accepting a $20 loan from his father to repay the customers, Bob continued in his efforts. Eventually, he would purchase the store from his father, and the business transitioned from men’s clothing to sporting goods.

“Really, at that point in time, it was a need,” Rod said. “There weren’t sporting goods stores,” he added, noting people obtained uniforms and equipment via mail order.

Bob’s brother Gabe joined him in the business, and over time the company grew to employ 31 people and encompass five divisions – retail, team sales, concessions, lettering and reconditioning. In fact, Zides’ football helmet reconditioning plant, a sister company known as Pro-Line, on Industry Road is one of just 30 such facilities in the country.

Zides provides and fits football helmets for more than 200 high schools, plus colleges, junior highs and Pee Wee leagues, in addition to selling uniforms and equipments for many other sports. They’ve also been the official provider of game day merchandise for West Virginia University since 1988.

“Any time there’s a football game, basketball game, baseball game, we’re there setting up, selling merchandise,” Rod said. “We leave at about 4 in the morning, and we get home about 9 at night.”

That doesn’t mean they get to catch a lot of Mountaineer football though.

“Been to every home game for (at least 20) years, and I’ve only seen five plays,” laughed John Zide, Rod’s brother and vice president of the company.

Family members start contributing to the business early.

“You get involved when you’re born,” Rod said. “Whether it’s a Sunday coming over to run a sweeper or … a summertime delivery, it was just a natural part of our family. ‘What are you doing this summer?’ ‘Well, I’m working at Zides.'”

Rod said he never doubted he would join the family business, but John earned an accounting degree and went to work in Columbus for two years after college.

Eventually, he decided, “Hey, if I’m going to work 15, 16 hours a day, I’m going to do it for my dad, not someone else,” John said. “I enjoy continuing the tradition of what Dad started.”

Their sister, Lori Williamson, oversees the WVU merchandise. Her children have done work for the company as well. Her son Rob is now a chiropractor and her daughter Vicki works as an electrical engineer with her father at Davis Pickering.

Rod’s sons are working at the business this summer. His oldest, Ryan, is preparing to start law school, and the youngest, Zach, is in his sophomore year of college, studying aviation.

“My rule was you have to get a degree, and then after that, if you want to come into the business, open arms,” Rod said.

John’s oldest daughter, 13-year-old Lexie, has gone to some of the WVU games with the family. Eleven-year-old Sidney and 6-year-old Izzy stop by the office but “they, painfully, only want to come when Uncle Rodney’s here at the store,” John laughed.

Although Zides works with a variety of sports, Bob Zide perhaps made the biggest impact in football. Making sure helmets fit properly was a major priority for him, long before the recent emphasis on safety and concern over concussions in the sport. The elder Zide had nine patents related to helmets and other football equipment, some of which Rod worked with him on – in various capacities.

For a component called a Shockblocker – made from hard and soft pieces so it could absorb energy from hits but hold a helmet’s face mask in place – Rod served as “the guinea pig.” A junior high football player at the time, Rod would get up early on a Saturday, with the promise of pizza, and don a helmet for product testing.

“And (they’re) going to hit you in the head with a baseball bat and see what you think,” he laughed.