Steve Burke was a First Lieutenant in the Marine Corps stationed in Okinawa, Japan, 30 years ago when his dad called to tell him about a new hunting club he wanted to create. Steve resigned from the Marines and returned to help his father launch North American Hunting Club. Ten years later they decided to launch a little club called NAFC. I caught up with Steve to hear about the fledgling Fishing Club.
Q. What exactly did your dad say when he called you in Japan to tell you about his vision, and what went through your head?
A. My dad called me at the perfect time while I was in Japan finishing my 4 years of active duty. He said, “I hear you got new orders?” I said “Yes,” and he asked, “Have you accepted them yet?” I said, “No, I’ve got them in my hand right now and I plan on signing them and turning them in this afternoon.” Dad replied, “Well, I’ve got this idea…”
I only had one question: How much would he pay me? As long as I could make my house payments and feed my family, I wanted to do it. He said he’d pay me $15,000 a year, and right then and there I said, “Deal.”
Q. What was the office and company like in those early days?
A. I was the vice-president, and the lowest man on the totem poll. We had two employees: Me and my dad. As vice-president, I opened the mail, paid the bills, everything really, except write the magazine. My dad did that. Our first office was a sublet of a sublet.
Our goal was to be a success, and success back then was can we pay everybody’s salary and have some money left over for broke. There were times we questioned whether or not it was going to be a viable company. Financially we were struggling the first four years. We were using the dues that came in that day to pay the payables that were screaming the loudest. Once the company finally became viable, it was wonderful.
Q. What’s the secret to NAFC’s success?
A. We call it the soul center. We have this great soul center, a core group of members that have fishing in their souls. When you go to Lake Minnetonka, you see people fishing from shore and off bridges, and you see people driving by in $20,000 boats. People are passionate about fishing, and we always tried to focus on what the club member truly cares about.
Q. What surprised you most about North American Fishing Club?
A. Actually, what’s very surprising is how successful we happened to be in hiring higher management right from the start. Mark LaBarbera was the first person we hired. He was the first editor of the Hunting magazine, and he stayed there for 20 years, turning down an offer from Outdoor Life. Our 2nd hire was Bill Miller, who we hired right out of college, and he’s still there today. We hired Steve Pennaz as an intern, then made him editor of the fishing magazine when he was just a couple years out of college. He didn’t have any gray in his beard back then and he wasn’t married yet, and there were a few female employees who thought he was something pretty special.
Extra Online Exclusive Questions and Answers
Q. If someone would have told you in 1988 you’ll have nearly half a million members for the Fishing Club in 20 years, what would you have said?
A. Back then I’d say it would be no surprise. The Fishing Club benefited greatly from the success of the Hunting Club. When we launched the Fishing Club we were hopeful that we had a good thing going and that we could follow that model.
Q, Tell me about the first issue of North American Hunter then?
A. We were such infants in the magazine business. We didn’t have a background in magazines, but my dad was very articulate. But we had a lot to learn. The first magazine for Hunter is the only magazine with me on the cover. There’s a photo of me with an elk. But there’s no article about elk anywhere in the magazine!
For the first issue of Fisherman, though, we had an in-house article and we knew our printer and paper.
Q. Was launching these magazines a childhood dream for you?
A. I grew up hunting and camping and fishing and Boy scouts. I told my wife that if I could, what I’d really love to do is open a hunting or fishing store. Starting the club was great for our whole family.
Q. Tell us about the family involvement in the early days?
A. Well, it was me and my dad. That was the company. That first summer I had a sister who was a senior in high school and she came in on an hourly basis and did dictation. We had an office that was probably 15 by 25. That was the extent of it.