Bass Pro CEO says he won’t make ‘false promises’ that all jobs are safe at Cabela’s Sidney headquarters

Bass Pro Shops Chief Executive Johnny Morris said he wouldn’t make “false promises” that all jobs are safe at Cabela’s Sidney, Nebraska, headquarters, where he addressed some employees Tuesday.

But he reassured the workers that some operations would remain in the company’s hometown and throughout Nebraska after Bass Pro last week said it would take over Cabela’s. Morris made the remarks in closed meetings with Cabela’s employees. The World-Herald obtained an audio recording of the remarks.

Morris also addressed a report in Saturday’s World-Herald that quoted finance and legal experts as saying that a Bass Pro pledge to keep “important bases of operations” in Nebraska isn’t legally binding. “It is mostly puff and fluff,” one finance professor said of the Bass statement.

Morris took issue with the characterization. “We feel our word does have meaning,” he said, “and we don’t take that lightly.”

He continued, according to the recording: “Not that there’s not going to be change. Not that there’s not going to be some consolidation, but we plan to have jobs here — important, significant jobs.”

Still, he said, “there’s going to be change. There’s going to be some slimming down.”

A Bass Pro spokesman confirmed the meetings in Sidney. The spokesman said Morris, who founded Bass Pro, also committed to keeping three call centers open in the state in Grand Island, Kearney and North Platte, as well as the Cabela’s Club credit card operations in Lincoln.

Cabela’s didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Morris held two meetings at the Sidney headquarters, according to internal company documents obtained by The World-Herald. He addressed about 300 employees at each one. Employees were required to enter into a lottery to be chosen to attend one of the meetings.

During the meeting, Morris disclosed that this isn’t the first time Cabela’s and Bass Pro had thought of a tieup: About 10 years ago, shortly after Cabela’s became a publicly traded company, Morris said he met with Chairman Jim Cabela and former Chief Executive Dennis Highby to discuss the companies merging, but the deal fell through.

Morris said he again met with current Chief Executive Tommy Millner and Jim Cabela shortly after Millner took the helm in 2009 to discuss the companies merging — perhaps with Cabela’s buying Bass Pro. Millner introduced Morris to the employees at the Tuesday meeting, according the recording.

“We had this secret rendezvous meeting at some hole-in-the-wall place in Denver,” Morris said. “We went there and we had lunch. We were discussing the same things: Is there a way maybe our companies can come together? It obviously didn’t work out.”

Meanwhile, Morris said he has never talked to anyone at Elliott Management, the New York-based hedge fund that took a big stake in Cabela’s last year and pressed for big changes, which culminated in the $5.5 billion sale to Bass announced last week.

Elliott “indirectly reached out to us, but we refused to have any contact with them at any time throughout this, even to this day,” Morris said.

A spokesman for Elliott didn’t respond to messages left Tuesday. Elliott has made at least $90 million off the transaction so far, according to a World-Herald calculation.

Meanwhile, Morris said he met Monday with Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state’s Department of Economic Development representatives, as well as with Sidney Mayor Mark Nienhueser, Sidney City Manager Ed Sadler and other community leaders. Morris also said he visited the World’s Foremost Bank office in Lincoln, where the company operates the Cabela’s Club credit card.

(Capital One, which has partnered with Bass Pro to purchase Cabela’s credit card operation, also said last week that it would maintain the office in Lincoln, but did not offer any further details.)

Morris shed some light on what might become of the Cabela’s and Bass Pro brands. He said he expects to combine both brands, and Cabela’s signage could even be added to the exterior of Bass Pro Shops’ stores.

That’s just one idea of many, the Bass Pro Shops spokesman said later.

Morris told employees he expects Cabela’s hunting and camping merchandise to be incorporated into Bass Pro stores, and Bass Pro fishing and boating gear to be incorporated into Cabela’s existing stores.

“What’s going to separate us more, we think, from competition is by having one outlet for these great national brands.”