A Publication of WTVP

Bushwhacker, in business nearly a half century

by Linda Smith Brown | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Rich Pestien is owner and president of Bushwhacker
Rich Pestien is owner and president of Bushwhacker

The ‘math nerd’ became an outdoorsman, and the rest is history and happiness for Rich Pestien

As a kid growing up in Lombard, a suburb of Chicago, Rich Pestien had little experience in the great outdoors. He had been to Starved Rock hiking a couple of times. That was about the extent of it.

Little did Pestien know that the great outdoors would become a way of life and a living for him. He has now owned and operated Peoria’s Bushwhacker outdoors store for going on 50 years.

A ‘math nerd’ hits the rocks

By the time Pestien enrolled at the University of Illinois in Champaign as a self-described “math nerd,” he’d “never been camping, never been skiing or done any of that.

“A hot night out for a math major or a computer science guy was to spend all night in the computer lab, key-punching the IBM cards,” Pestien said. “Then at 6 o’clock in the morning, you’d go to Denny’s for breakfast … That was the ultimate night out for a computer science major.”

During his sophomore year, a fellow student invited Pestien to go rock climbing, which brought adventure beyond just scaling the rocks. Sometimes he had to backpack to the climbing areas. Sometimes it meant setting up a tent and spending the night, too.

Pestien started making frequent trips to Bushwhacker, an outdoor equipment supply company in Champaign. Eventually he was offered a part-time job there.

“I started working more and more at the store and less and less on my master’s degree,” he said.

In 1974, the owners of Bushwhacker asked Pestien if he wanted to invest a few thousand dollars to become a partner. “Like a dumb kid, I said, ‘That sounds good’ and I was in the outdoor business and retailing.

“At the time, we partners were hardcore, granola-crunching backpackers, climbers and cross-country skiers, with a bunch of warm jackets in the store. We did OK, in spite of ourselves.”

Branching out, hitting a bump

One partner opened a Bushwhacker store in Springfield. In 1976, Pestien came west to Peoria, where he opened a Bushwhacker at the corner of Main and University, where One World Café is now located.

“But then around 1980, all the hippies grew up, got married, had kids and stopped backpacking, so that market went south,” he said. “Then it stopped snowing regularly, so our cross-country skiing market went north with the snow line. We lost a lot of money in a couple of years.”

His partners left the business. Pestien’s Bushwhacker store in Peoria was the lone survivor.

As his building lease was about to expire and parking was becoming more difficult, Pestien considered several new locations. Pestien met with Marv Goodman, the founder and then-owner of Metro Centre.

Goodman predicted that if Bushwhacker moved to his shopping center, business would increase 30% the first year, 20% the second, 10% the third. Pestien was skeptical, but picked up and moved to Metro Centre in 1985.

“Goodman had never been skiing in his life and was not a backpacker, but he ‘knew business.’ I thought he would be wrong and he was wrong. We were up 33% the first year, 22% the second and 11% the third.

“We got into downhill skiing, the patio furniture and finally got out of the red. We’d had a big negative net worth for a long time. In ’86, a year after moving to Metro Centre, we had a big survivor party.”

Pestien convinced Goodman to build him a new, stand-alone facility at Metro Centre in 1991.

New product lines

Pestien and his vice president, Sally Brown, had often discussed getting into the bicycle business, but there was already a specialty bike store in town and one was plenty. When it went out of business, Bushwhacker seized the opportunity.

“That’s kept going and we keep expanding it little by little. We are a top 120 bike dealer in the country,” said Pestien.

Through the years, Pestien has always looked for the next big, fun thing in outdoor recreation.

In the early ’80s, windsurfing was regarded as the fastest growing sport in the world. Brown and Pestien both became certified wind-surfing instructors and the store sold about 50 boards a year. “That business helped keep us going for a while,” he said.

“Skateboarding became popular for the kids. We sold $100,000 in skateboards around ’84 or ’85,” he said. Then came downhill skiing. Again, Pestien and Brown learned to ski, then began selling the equipment.

By 1986, roller blading had become popular, and again Pestien and his VP learned the latest craze.

Through the years, Bushwhacker sold a lot of patio furniture. “People would kind of laugh at us: ‘What is this, Lawn Whacker?’ Well, you know, even the dedicated outdoorsman needs to sit down and relax once in a while,” Pestien said. “We like good quality skis, we like good quality packs and boots, and we like good quality patio furniture.”

Moving once more

After 30 years at Metro Centre, the Bushwhacker lease was set to expire in 2015. Goodman was deceased and Pestien knew that moving forward, the store needed more room.

He negotiated the purchase of an acre in Junction City shopping center, found an architect and builder, and six months later had relocated to the current location fronting Knoxville Avenue.

Business at the Junction City location has been good, said Pestien, but at 72 “I’m still working six days a week. I haven’t retired.” Brown retired when the store moved to its current location.

During those early years of rock climbing, Pestien met an outdoorswoman, Barb, who became his wife and remains an outdoorswoman today, said Pestien.

The couple have one daughter in Colorado, Jamie, who skis and snowboards, and another daughter, Robin, who is a physical therapy doctor in Alaska. “She’s out there hiking and biking with the moose and the bears.”

Pestien said Bushwhacker has survived because he has never really wanted to do anything else.

As for the future, “I’d like to keep the store going in Peoria. It’s kind of a cool local thing and I’d rather not sell it to somebody outside of town,” he said. “I still like it, although I don’t run as fast, I don’t ski as fast, and I don’t roller blade as fast.”

Linda Smith Brown

Linda Smith Brown

is a 37-year veteran of the newspaper industry, retiring as publisher of Times Newspapers in the Peoria area