John Egart, former CEO of First Team Sports Inc., a pioneering maker of in-line skates, died Aug. 22 after a 6½-year battle with bone marrow cancer. He was 67. Together with fellow local company Rollerblade Inc., First Team Sports popularized the in-line skating industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
First Team Sports was incorporated in May 1986, by Egart, David Soderquist and Ronald Berg. They made the Ultra Wheels line of skates.
Today there are 4.6 million in-line skaters, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, but at the sport’s peak in 1996 there were 27 million participants. In the 1990s, there was enough demand to support as many as three local in-line skate companies.
Egart attended a Catholic grade school and Notre Dame High School in Niles, Ill., and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1972 with an economics degree.
Basketball and baseball were Egart’s main sports growing up. Tom Gaul, a friend and Notre Dame classmate, said Egart was the senior captain of the 1971-72 Notre Dame basketball team in Digger Phelps’ first year as coach.
Egart was quiet, kind and humble, the type of salesman who built relationships and showed interest in others, Gaul said. “John never met a stranger; he always asked people questions and got to know them,” he said.
After graduating from Notre Dame, Egart joined the toy company Parker Brothers. A few years later, he jumped at the chance to be a sales rep for Converse, and later for Adidas. He moved to Minnesota in 1976, in part to be closer to hunting and fishing opportunities.
Egart knew Soderquist as a hockey equipment rep, but it was a chance encounter in a pheasant field that led to their partnership.
They formed the company in 1986, but nearly lost it a year later when it went public. Their initial public offering (IPO) of stock happened on Black Monday — Oct. 19, 1987, a day the overall market dropped 22 percent.
Soderquist said that had the IPO pricing been scheduled for the afternoon instead of the morning, the deal may never have gone through.
At the time, most viewed in-line skates as offseason hockey trainers. Egart wanted to position the products as footwear and target more than hockey players. In 1990, the company scored an endorsement deal with hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. “We never used Wayne as a hockey player,” Soderquist said. “It was always Wayne and his family.”
The Gretzky endorsement and one from figure skater Katarina Witt earned the products market recognition. “Both John and I believed that the growth was going to come from the women’s market,” Soderquist said.
In 1995, Twin Cities Business Monthly named Egart and Soderquist Entrepreneurs of the Year, and in 1996, Fortune magazine ranked First Team Sports 53rd on its list of 100 Hot Growth Companies.
By July 2001, the trend was fading and First Team Sports agreed to be acquired by Toronto-based Gen-X Sports for $1.76 per share, or $10.6 million (the stock had once traded in the $30 range). Soderquist said the two never had any regrets about the twists and turns the company took. “We were really proud of what two sales reps did,” he said.
After his time with First Team Sports, Egart became a consultant in the sporting goods industry, helping other companies find manufacturing partners in Asia.
Most recently, he was involved in a project that combined his outdoor passions with his business acumen. He helped invent the Fryin’ Saucer, a portable outdoor cooker.
Egart is survived by his wife, Patty; children Christy Berg, Ben Egart and Allie Egart; grandchildren; two sisters and two brothers. Services have been held.