It Was in the Cards

All you used to do with sports cards was stick them in your bicycle spokes. Today, Red Barnes makes millions with 'em.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the November 2000 issue of Entrepreneurs Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Having just hit 40, Red Barnes can pretty much say he's reaped the best of life. His sales manager, Alex Payton, expects Barnes' Norfolk, Virginia-based Baseline Sports Inc., a master distributor of trading cards, die-cast collectibles and supplies, to hit 2000 sales of $24 million. Last year's $19.5 million mark was accomplished without strain. And somehow, with all that money, Barnes, his wife Darlene, and twentysomething sons Bret and Blane, manage to live modestly, remaining active in their community. Heck, Red still drives a pickup.

Good-Luck Charm

Pickups are lucky for Red. It was in his '63 Ford that he hauled a shed-full of trading cards he'd bought in Fresno, California, with a $500 bank loan. The year was 1987, and the Navy had just moved him from Hawaii to Lemoore, a small California town "with about 12,000 people and one traffic light," says Red. Bret and Blane had gotten into card collecting back in Hawaii, and Red, looking for a way to bond with the boys, began collecting as well. By the time the family arrived on the mainland, they all had the bug. Too bad there was nowhere to go to add to their sets. "We were searching for card shops in the area," says Red, "but you'd have to drive an hour, and the guys weren't friendly."

All it took to convince Red to fill the void in the trading-card business was unloading some cards for "$63 and some change" at a flea market. "I rushed to where Darlene was working [as a marketing manager] and told her, and she just couldn't believe it," he remembers. "We were in seventh heaven."

Red was going out to sea days later, so his family did the work of organizing the rest of the cards, in hopes of setting up shop when he returned. And they did-in the back of a craft shop. "We had our own entrance, which was big for us," remembers Red. The rent was a whopping $100 per month. When Red was gone on duty, Darlene would take charge of the store. And in the early days, the doors wouldn't open until school let out so eldest son Bret could help out, too.

R&B Sports quickly outgrew its tiny space and moved to a larger location. Then, amid success, the news came. Says Red, "I called Darlene from Hawaii and said, 'The good news is, I'm coming home early. The bad news is, we're leaving, so you need to sell the house and the business. I'll be home in 30 days.'" Red had been restationed.

"Neither of us wanted to leave, nor did the kids, for that matter," says Red. But they packed up for Lorain, Ohio-home state of Red's favorite baseball team, the Cleveland Indians.

The family had no plans to open another store once they'd reached their new home, but the opportunity proved too great to pass up. See, football trading cards were in great demand on the West Coast, but they were fairly easy to obtain in Middle America. And Upper Deck's Ken Griffey Jr. baseball rookie cards were big everywhere-so Red swapped football cards to the West Coast for baseball cards, bringing a new sports-card business model to life-wholesale.

In such a small town, the grand opening of the Barneses' new retail store, called Baseline Sports, was big news and brought the local press, swarms of people and success-for a while.

Setting New Sites

In 1993, Red left the Navy and began focusing all his energy on Baseline, which, besides Darlene, employed five teenagers (some still in high school). By 1994, growth in Ohio hit a plateau, so the Barneses began researching new markets. They settled on Virginia, because there was no major distributor between the New York/New Jersey area and Atlanta, and Darlene, being a native, halfway knew her way around.

Despite the baseball strike in 1995, Red says Baseline has enjoyed "wonderful growth" year after year. To weather the strike and safeguard himself-and his distributors-from like turbulence in the future, he delved into NASCAR collectibles. Now Baseline has a full line of racing memorabilia, which, along with gaming cards like Pokémon and the traditional trading-card business (now including basketball, hockey and soccer), has helped Baseline grow into one of the 10 largest U.S. card distributors.

These days, after starting a deli on her own at one point, Darlene has left Baseline to restore an old house she and Red bought. Rooting for him, however, is a job she'll never retire from. Their son Bret recently graduated from law school, and Blane, resident computer expert, now works alongside his dad, doing promotions. The company has 30 employees and has even opened a second office in Jacksonville, Florida.

Red has most likely succeeded in this $1 billion industry (including sports, racing and gaming cards) because he knows how to keep everyone around him happy-especially customers. "Our customers are our friends, so we watch collectable trends and make sure we're providing the right products to them [so they can] continue to be successful," says Red. Doing things like holding a meet-the-manufacturer event at the Baseline Sports warehouse, where store proprietors get the rare chance to meet the card-makers, keeps relationships strong. "I feel like we understand how people like to be treated," says Red.

On the home front, Red is in no danger of becoming the Big Tycoon Who Can't Do Anything For Himself. In fact, you could say he's more the Millionaire Next Door. He and Darlene coached little league, even after their kids had stopped playing, and they're involved in the local charity football camp, which hosts NFL stars.

So how does Red maintain a manageable ego when, despite modest beginnings, business has gone up and up? "Just by remembering where I came from," he says. "I joined the Navy when I was 17, and I started this business with not a whole lot of money. I'm proud of what we do, and I realize that if we don't stay in tune [with] our customers, we're going to be one of the many distributors who are no longer in business."

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