WESTBROOK — An off-the-beaten-path town straddling the Canadian border might not seem the best place to open a retail sports store.

After all, Derby, Vt., has just 5,000 residents and is hours by car to the nearest big city, Montreal.

But for Olympia Sports, a 185-store chain based in Westbrook, towns like Derby are keys to success.

Olympia, which was founded by Portland resident Edward Manganello 35 years ago, has expanded across New England and grown into a major player in the retail sports industry, thanks in part to a strategy of selling family sports equipment in towns lacking a large retail presence.

“We went to smaller, remote markets that have little or no competition. There is quite a need there,” Olympia President Dick Coffey said Tuesday in his Westbrook office. “If you have a young family with a bunch of athletes, we like to think we carry the stuff you are looking for.”

Coffey remembers visiting Derby before Olympia opened a store there in 2004. He was on a scouting mission, and the townspeople told him they desperately needed stores.

“People said, ‘We gotta go to the hardware store to get our underwear,’ ” Coffey explained.

Derby isn’t a unique demographic for Olympia. Many of the company’s 185 stores are in small towns – places like Presque Isle, Waynesboro, Pa., and Geneseo and Olean, N.Y. Olympia competes in big cities, too, with a strong presence in and around Boston.

CEO and Chairman Manganello, a native of the Munjoy Hill section of Portland and a former math teacher at Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, opened the first Olympia store in 1975. He chose a 2,700-square-foot space in the then-new Maine Mall and sold products that have became Olympia staples: footwear, sports equipment and clothing. Coffey, one of Olympia’s first employees, managed the Maine Mall store.

But Manganello had his eye outside the Portland area, and by the 1980s had opened stores at regional malls in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. 1994, Olympia owned and operated 33 stores.

In the mid-1990s, the company began expanding into strip malls, and in 2002 moved its corporate offices and distribution center to a 118,000-square-foot building in on Bradley Drive in Westbrook.

Today, Olympia has some 2,000 employees and 185 stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania.

Coffey said expansion continues. This year, the company plans to open 17 new stores.

Matt Carlson, president and CEO of the Illinois-based National Sporting Goods Association, finds Olympia’s expansion impressive because the sporting goods market has consolidated in the last few decades.

Citing industry data, Carlson said the number of so-called “full-line sporting goods stores,” a category excluding discounters like Walmart and department stores, has dropped from 7,959 in 1987 to 6,441 in 2007, the last year of available data.

Carlson said consolidation and the proliferation of massive national retailers drove the decline.

But through the years, Olympia expanded.

“Olympia is operating in an industry undergoing tremendous consolidations. Something they are doing is really working well,” Carlson said.

It’s difficult to gauge the health of Olympia, or to learn much about its internal operations because the company is privately held. Coffey said Olympa intentionally keeps a low profile.

He did say, however, that yearly revenue is roughly $180 million and that the recession hit Olympia hard, pushing sales down by double digits.

But Olympia has rebounded and revenue has risen in the last two years.

In addition, Coffey said holiday sales were strong.

Indeed, the entire retail segment is starting to rebound from the recession. According to the National Retail Federation, December and November retail sales jumped 5.7 percent over 2009, the biggest holiday gain since 2004.

Larry Weindruch, a director at the National Sporting Goods Association, said Olympia’s reserved style isn’t unique.

“A lot of privately held companies prefer to keep their head down and stick to business,” he said. “A lot of it trickles down from the leadership style.”

But not all private sports retailers are so private, said Weindruch. Take Modell’s Sporting Goods, for instance, a New York City-based company that operates 140 retail sports stores.

“They do a ton of advertising and a lot of promotion,” he said of Modell’s. “They are the opposite of these reticent or modest companies. It’s two different approaches.”

Weindruch can’t speculate on Olympia’s financial health because the numbers are private, but he said the company is regarded in the industry as “a strong regional sporting goods chain.”

Olympia competes with other big-name sports stores, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Sports Authority and Foot Locker, which owns Champs Sports.

Unlike many competitors, Olympia doesn’t sell camping, hunting or fishing gear, some of the industry’s largest segments.

Instead, Olympia focuses on footwear and equipment for such team sports as soccer, basketball, football and baseball.

And like nearly all retailers, Olympia contends with Walmart, which Coffey said sells more sporting goods than any retailer in the world.

But Coffey said Olympia differentiates itself from Walmart with trained staff and high-quality products.

“If you want the cheapest basketball, you will go there. But if you want more options and customer service and knowledge, then you come to us,” he said. 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com