From teen’s bike repair shop to sports center

RICH MORTL and Becky Smart, owners of Mortl’s Sports Center, offer a full-service bike shop, downhill and cross-country skis, snowboards, snowshoes, fitness equipment, water sports equipment, stand-up paddleboards as well as The North Face and Under Armour clothing and accessories at the Iron Mountain business. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Mortl’s Sports Center had its origins when a couple of high schoolers in the 1980s got a notion … and a pet monkey.

Rich Mortl was a junior at Escanaba High School when he and his childhood friend, Matt Marenger, decided they wanted to open their own business.

“We both had a strong work ethic and had the strongest desire to be successful,” Mortl said. However, as 17-year-olds, what they didn’t have was funding.

“We approached local banks to ask for money, which was not an easy task. They pretty much looked at us like a couple of young kids with a pipe dream,” Mortl said.

So they started with a basic bicycle repair shop. Then, “not even knowing what marketing was all about,” the friends stumbled into what proved to be a key purchase for the business in buying a monkey named Barney.

“It was just a tiny little thing, but it roamed freely in the store. This may have been our smartest marketing move ever, because everyone was talking about us and stopping in to see the monkey in Escanaba. It gave us the opportunity to show the community what we had to offer,” Mortl said, adding, “We got lucky.”

While they started out just wanting to fix bikes, customers were constantly telling the teens they should carry some merchandise as well.

“So we picked up some bikes, and then we didn’t know what to do in the winter, so we started selling cross country skis and everything kind of just snowballed,” he said.

Exactly a year after Mr. Bike & Ski opened in Escanaba on April 1, 1985, they were able to add a second store in Iron Mountain.

Yet Mortl still pursued a college education, graduating from Northern Michigan University with an accounting degree. His first job was in Denver, Colorado, so he sold his half of Mr. Bike & Ski to Marenger.

Only eight months later, Mortl was back in the U.P., becoming an accountant for Lakeshore Inc., now Lakeshore Systems in Kingsford. At that time, he bought the Iron Mountain store from Marenger and changed the name to Mortl’s Sports Center.

Almost 32 years later, the former business partners remain good friends and even do their ordering together.

The store used to be near the train depot in Iron Mountain and in three different spots of the Fugere building across the street until Mortl built an 8,000-square-foot building at 120 E. Main St., between the A&W restaurant and Krist station, that has been their location since 1996.

The shop expanded services to include downhill and cross-country skis, snowboards, snowshoes, fitness equipment, water sports equipment, stand-up paddleboards as well as The North Face and Under Armour clothing and accessories.

Mortl’s Sports Center became such a successful business that Mortl quit his job at Lakeshore to be at the store. Being an outdoor sports and fitness enthusiast himself, he thinks it’s important for a shop owner to know the products offered.

“I don’t think there is anything we sell in here that I don’t do. We bike, I snowboard, I ski, I’m on my fitness equipment every day in the winter months, we paddleboard and most of the staff is the same way,” he said.

And Mortl enjoys “selling fun stuff.”

“I still love coming to work every day. Normally, people that come in are happy. They are buying a bike to go have fun, buying skis to go and enjoy the weekends with their kids.”

Mortl added, “I think it’s important to stress that this community is awesome. I thank God every day that we are as busy as we are and we are successful.”