What started as a business became a passion

By ARINA BILLIS/Montana State News

Bozeman’s downtown is full of businesses that have very special stories behind them. Universal Athletic is no exception.

The story of Universal Athletic began in 1971 with two 24-year-olds — Larry Aasheim and Dick Harte — who decided to turn a hypothetical business into something real. Now, 44 years later, Aasheim, the man who turned his passion into the work of his life, is the president of one of the leading companies selling sporting goods in 10 states.

“I could not have found a better thing for me,“ Aasheim says. The company is growing while Larry is getting ready to pass his presidency to the next generation in a few coming years.

Aasheim grew up in Billings and moved to Bozeman when he was 11-years-old with his parents and his brother Ron. As a kid he participated in every kind of sport. He and his friends used to go to the park and play ball all the time. In high school Larry Aasheim football, basketball and ran track. It was always his biggest passion. His father was a director of the Extension Service at Montana State University and his mother was a home-oriented loving and caring parent. He wasn’t raised in a rich family, but it was “comfortable,” said Aasheim.

After graduating from MSU with a degree in economics, Larry didn’t have any real plans for the future. His college friend Dick Harte was teaching a business course at Broadus High School, when one of his students came up with an idea for a sporting goods store in a school project. That project was the beginning point of Universal Athletic. Harte called Aasheim and they decided to give it a try. They started selling out of the back of the car, driving around Montana and trying to get orders from school sports teams.

Universal Athletic started out mainly as a wholesale company that would sell equipment to the sports teams. As they grew, they started to have retail stores as well. The company doesn’t produce the equipment; they just represent vendors like Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and many others. The company owns its own silk screening factory where they do the most of the lettering. By the end of 2014 Universal Athletic had 12 retail stores in six states. Universal Athletic also owns half of The Ridge Athletic Club in Bozeman’s downtown.

One of the challenges Larry faced was to keep up with the work and still find time for his family and to raise three children. Larry used to have a rule — he would never leave for work when the kids were growing up till they had gone to school, but there were little exceptions. It was hard because that kind of work demanded a lot of travelling. Aasheim considers himself fortunate to have kids that were also involved in sports. One of his favorite things was to coach them. However there were times when his wife would think that Larry spent more time at work than at home. Despite that they have been happily married for 41 years.

Now Larry is getting ready to retire in a few years and he is working mostly with big company projects. Universal Athletic is preparing to move to a building on Seventh Avenue.

“It’s different when I was out in the car trying to sell or when I was really into day-to-day operations. But I still come in, get up every day. And it’s not like I’m showing up for an hour. There is plenty to do,“ Aasheim said.  Aasheim likes downtown with lots of various places to have lunch and dinner, but he says it’s no more efficient for the store.

A typical Bozemanite in a blue jeans and a flannel shirt with a vest over it, 68-years-old Aasheim is always smiling and never seems to be down. The man who managed to put this huge company together likes to do simple things for recreation. He loves his grandkids and wishes to spend more time with them. Larry is also involved in working with MSU Bobcat Athletics and he is a big friend of MSU President Cruzado. He additionally helps raise money for kids programs and facilities. Aasheim likes to golf (but not ski), and spend time with his family and friends.

Bill Gum, one of Aasheim’s many friends, has known him for about 55 years. Since the very first time they met, he’s been impressed with Larry’s energy. They both have been fans of soft pitch softball, Aasheim participating in it and Gum was watching. Gum lived most of his life in Los Angeles and visited Bozeman once or twice a year, but now he is back in the small community.

“Every time we ran into each other on one of my visits, he welcomed me with a huge smile, a firm handshake, and if possible, a cold beer to share with our conversation. Now that I have returned, I have even a greater respect for how busy he is and how successful Universal Athletic and The Ridge have become,” Gum says. “He has worked hard and created a positive multistate reputation as a provider of quality athletic gear and a great employer.”

After watching a video on YouTube “2008 History of UA HD” – the history of Universal Athletic told by Aasheim, Harte and their employees – it’s apparent that Universal Athletic employers are very passionate people. They are also thankful for an opportunity to work in this place. Their headquarters office downtown looks like a tiny store to most of us, but it is lot bigger than that. It has a basement and three floors. Most of the space is full of boxes with sports items in them. The second floor is where the staffers work. People are always busy, almost everyone has their own office but the whole atmosphere is pretty laid back.

Aasheim’s office has a big desk full of projects to look at, cut out posters of different sport events on the walls and family photos all over the place. He is a guy who knows how to balance his job and his family and at the same time succeed at his work.

“I think you have to surround yourself with good people. That’s a total key to everything. Also, don’t think you are smarter than you are. Never think you know more than you know or act like you know more than you know. Be humble. Also having a passion for what you are doing just makes it so much more fun to do it. And if the boss is a dick, it’s no fun. Who wants to work for that guy?” Aasheim says.

However, success doesn’t happen without failure. The major mistake of this company was partnering up on a motel up in Oregon with their friend that was in the motel industry. Universal Athletic has lost a million dollars to the failed partnership, and it continues to lose money. It was the sort of bad investment outside of what they normally do. The company got outside of their world of knowledge and expertise. And Universal Athletic is concentrating on growing inside company and their expertise.

Aasheim enjoys talking about Universal Athletic’s story,  starting from zero and learning so much about business in a very short time. With a smile and no regret he remembers all their problems and mistakes. He loves the people there and people love him. Harte simply says: “He is just a really good guy.” Larry’s family is very supportive in anything he is doing.

Asked what a hypothetical biography on him would say in the epigraph, Aasheim gets a little emotional, rubbing his eyes that look red and watery. He thinks for a minute.

“I would say – a man who was fortunate enough to find an opportunity with profession and family that allowed him to live a life where every day was just another great day.”

-Edited by Nicole Duggan

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