Norm Daniels, who went from a 16-year-old stock boy to the CEO of beloved Oregon outdoors chain G.I. Joe’s, died Friday at age 72 after a short battle with brain cancer.
Daniels was one of seven children from a working-class family in Portland’s St. Johns neighborhood, and he never graduated from college. Instead, Daniels stuck with the retailer that hired him for an after-school job in 1964 at its original store on North Vancouver Avenue.
G.I. Joe’s started as a scrappy army surplus outlet, but, under Daniels’ leadership, grew into an outdoors and automotive emporium with 31 stores around the Northwest. G.I. Joe’s sponsorship helped launch Portland International Raceway and sustain Portland State University athletics.
“He loved to work,” said Rickie Daniels, 66, Daniels’ wife of 37 years. “He just loved the company. It was his baby because he grew up there. That’s where he wanted to spend his time, but he also cared deeply about what the company could do to service the community.”
Bob Ames, a longtime Portland business executive, said that Daniels’ knack for marketing set him apart and helped him build G.I Joe’s into a distinctively Oregon institution, which grew to have 1,600 employees and $240 million in annual sales.
His marketing of the company and community service went hand-in-hand. As G.I. Joe’s advertising director in the 1970s, Daniels began sponsoring Portland State University’s athletics, offering store promotions around the school’s sports events and donating to its scholarship program.
Roy Love, a former PSU athletic director, told The Oregonian in 2007 that Daniels also talked others, including executives at Pacific Office Automation and Western Family Foods as well as national vendors looking for better play in his stores, into supporting the program.
“If PSU hadn’t had Norm Daniels back then, we might not have had athletics,” said Love in 2007. “G.I. Joe’s gave PSU credibility.”
Daniels also helped bring high-level car racing to Portland, according to Ames, who developed a close friendship with Daniels through their mutual love of the sport. G.I. Joe’s sponsored IndyCar Series race, the Grand Prix of Portland, at the Portland International Raceway for much of its run from 1984 to 2007. After he retired, Daniels started racing cars of his own.
“The Portland International Raceway wouldn’t be what it is today without Norm,” Ames said. “I don’t know where that kind of sponsorship would have come from.”
Rickie Daniels said her husband was especially passionate about supporting initiatives that helped children and families. The G.I. Joe’s Foundation provided grants to fund renovations at school athletic fields and provide uniforms to local teams, along with supporting local charitable organizations, including the Children’s Cancer Association.
A graduate of Roosevelt High School, Daniels also helped organize an annual golf tournament for decades to raise scholarship money for students at the school.
“He had a good work ethic and was the kind of guy you knew would be successful,” Stan Bozich, Daniels’ freshman football coach at Roosevelt High, told The Oregonian in 2007. He noted that Daniels hired some of his classmates as he worked his way up at Joe’s. “He took care of his friends.”
G.I. Joe’s was founded by Edward Orkney in 1952 and later taken over by his son, David, in 1976. Daniels, who had worked for the Orkneys since he was 16, took over as CEO in 1992.
Six years later, in 1998, Daniels led a management buyout and became the chain’s majority owner.
“The company was about ready to sink and the banks were ready to foreclose,” childhood friend Dave Johnson told The Oregonian in 2007. “He just put his heart and soul and every dime he had in and bankrolled it with the enthusiasm that it takes to survive.”
Over time, Daniels hoped for more, though, and sold a controlling interest in the company to a San Francisco investment firm in 2007 for $115 million in expectation of using the additional capital for a major expansion.
The deal was an immediate disaster, though, coming just months before the financial crisis that triggered the Great Recession.
The new store’s owner, Gryphon Investors, changed the store’s name to Joe’s Sports, Outdoor & More. It also loaded up Joe’s with debt in conjunction with the deal.
With competition heating up and sales falling off, the chain was unable to make its payments. Joe’s filed for bankruptcy in the winter of 2009 with more than $100 million in debt. All the stores were shuttered within three months.
“It’s a huge disappointment that it had to go down like that, for the loss of jobs, the great customers and vendors that supported the company,” Daniels lamented in the aftermath. “I don’t know if disappointment is a strong enough word.”
Ames called the closure of G.I. Joe’s a major loss for the community, but said the legacy that Daniels built at the company lives on.
“Norm was a great merchandiser who built an iconic Oregon brand,” Ames said. “GI Joe’s, on his watch, supported the growth of an array of amateur sports in Oregon and was primary in bringing IndyCar racing to Portland International Raceway.”
Family members will hold a private gathering in honor of Daniels. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a larger celebration of life will be held at a later date. In lieu of flowers, Rickie Daniels said contributions could be made to the Children’s Cancer Association.