Lion King

Dan Miller
Forty years ago this month Michael Moran opened the first Lion’s Den retail establishment inside a remodeled store room in Columbus, Ohio.

“We opened one of the first suburban stores in the country and we didn’t know exactly if it would work or not, but it was very successful,” says Moran, who partnered with another Ohio-area retailer named George Thomas on the initial venture.

Moran had graduated from Ohio State University in 1969 and was working for a local music promoter named Ben Cowall in Columbus when his enterprising nature moved him.

“We would handle all the national acts from The Doors to Liberace to Holiday on Ice,” Moran recalls. “Until we opened that store in ’71, I was doing promotions and stage managing and working behind the scenes on productions. In ’71 about the time we opened the store I produced a company of Jesus Christ Superstar, and took it on the road in the U.S. and Europe and was successful with that.”

Indeed, there already was a trend beginning with Moran’s endeavors, one that has continued for the past four decades. The humble industry leader and free speech crusader has been successful at every level of business, overcoming numerous obstacles along the way while creating one of the largest and most well known retail brands in the nation. Because of his persistence, vision and refusal to accept government censorship, The Lion’s Den chain has grown to 40 stores in 19 states, with almost 400 employees. And plans for more expansion are in motion.

“My key people and everyone that works for us never had an idea it would get to this size,” the CEO and founder admits. “I think we’re one of the major chains in the country. We’re proud of what we’ve built. Now that my sons (Shawn and Christian) are working with me, I feel this will continue on for a number of years.”

Shelly Sandau, a six-year Lion’s Den veteran who runs the DVD warehouse and directs sales and marketing among other executive roles, tells XBIZ that Moran “is not afraid to try something new and he’s not afraid to take a risk.”

“He’s very successful and he wants everyone that works for him to be very successful,” Sandau says. “Michael does not blow his own horn. He’s not a flamboyant man. He’s just very down-to-earth. He has probably done more for this industry fighting the industry’s battles that needed to be fought over the years than anybody that I’ve ever heard of.”

In recognition of Moran’s exemplary leadership and ongoing efforts to protect freedom of speech, he will receive the special Lifetime Achievement honor at the XBIZ Awards show on Feb. 9 at the Hollywood Palladium.

“We continue to battle from the local courts to the federal courts to the Supreme courts,” Moran says. “We will take an issue as far as they’ll let us fight it. We have created a situation where these battles will cost them a lot of money and time if they pursue them.”

In this exclusive interview, Moran talks more about why he does not compromise, how the industry has evolved and what he does to keep the Lion’s Den on the forefront.

XBIZ: What is your focus these days?

Michael Moran: Most of my main interest is in future development. We have some men out in the field who are trying to find new locations and I work with them pertaining to the zoning and demographics and everything involved in placing a location.

We predominantly try to locate our stores on interstate locations. Presently we’re across the Midwest from New York to Kansas, from Wisconsin to Florida. We’re in 19 states; we have 40 stores. And I opened my first store in February of 1971 in Columbus, Ohio, and started building the chain in 1985 and going forward from there.

I’m involved on a daily basis in making sure things are progressing on new locations whether we’re building a new store and having to do designs or working on a remodel and trying to make sure it works within our guidelines.

One of my other interests that I spend a lot of time on is the legal issues pertaining to the stores. We have won a number of cases in federal court. In the last couple of years we won the right to continue having billboards and on-premise signs in South Carolina, Kansas and Missouri, and so I’m proud of the fact that Lion’s Den has battled to preserve our First Amendment rights for billboards and on-premise signs across the country. We’re involved in zoning cases, hour-restriction cases and zoning issues across the country. So I spend a good bit of time on working on that.

I’m also involved in our advertising. We meet regularly pertaining to our promotions and our monthly advertising. We do a large number of billboards and radio and TV advertising across the country, so we’re caught up in that.

XBIZ: How would you describe the legal climate regarding brick-and-mortar stores?

MM: Things have evolved. When I opened up our first few stores, we usually were busted for obscenity and we have prevailed over the years on those cases. And in the 40 years I’ve been involved, we have prevailed in the obscenity cases to the extent that we do not see many of those occurring any more. We hadn’t had any in 10 years and we had one two years ago in Louisiana that we just settled. So we prevailed in that. What we’re fighting more and more is zoning issues where they try to restrict where we can operate. They’ll try to change the zoning on us to amortize us out. We lost a store in New York City in the late ‘90s, when [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani did his purge of adult in New York City. We fought it for several years and finally lost that battle and lost that store.

We continue to battle from the local courts to the federal courts to the Supreme courts. We will take an issue as far as they’ll let us fight it. We have created a situation where these battles will cost them a lot of money and time if they pursue them.

Things have changed over the years. The secondary effects laws are more involved. They try to throw it in our face about our stores lowering real estate values, and that we cause more crime in areas, which we have proven otherwise in a number of surveys.

We have hired professionals to evaluate these things. The last one was done in Ohio. With our Ohio association that’s associated with Free Speech Coalition, we spent $150,000 and did this research in Columbus, Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo and proved all these issues they throw at us were wrong and we do not create these problems. We’re continuing to fight these problems, and we hope we can prevail in the future.

XBIZ: What made you continue to want to fight these legal battles over the years?

MM: I just believe in the First Amendment that we have the right to sell our products to adults. I don’t think children should be involved in this, but adults should have the right to purchase and view whatever they wish. So we have always fought these battles. Freedom isn’t free and we have to stand our ground to protect it, or they will continue to try to take it away from us. In the last 20 years we have fought the extreme right and some of these groups that try to restrict and censor us.

XBIZ: When you think back to how far this has come since 1971, what comes to mind?

MM: Reflecting back, it’s been an amazing ride. I had no idea we would be approaching 50 stores by the end of 2012 and the organization that it needs to operate them. We have close to 400 employees that depend on the income and the health insurance, their retirement funds, things that are the product of what we have built together. My key people and everyone that works for us never had an idea it would get to this size. I think we’re one of the major chains in the country. We’re proud of what we built. Now that my sons are working with me, I feel this will continue on for a number of years.

XBIZ: Who are your sons?

MM: Shawn and Christian. My older boy Shawn started out as a clerk and worked his way up to president of the company. He’s worked through all the various levels and really knows the company.

XBIZ: Aside from Shelly Sandau, who are the core people in your management team?

Tony Jones is in charge of operations; Mike Ulery is VP of administration; Mark Fisher is director of inventory and loss prevention; Gay Hicks is our human resources manager; Ron Baxter is the purchasing director; and Bruce Mapes is director of distribution…That’s my nucleus.

XBIZ: How has the Lion’s Den inventory changed in recent years?

MM: I would say five years ago DVD was our dominant piece of inventory, but that has decreased to some degree. It’s still a major player, but now what has surpassed DVD sales and are toys and novelties and clothing.

XBIZ: What have you found makes building your stores on the interstates more effective?

MM: It evolved back in the early ’90s. We found our first location on the interstate in ’87. Our first location between Columbus and Cincinnati on I-71 became a very successful store for us, so we started looking for more interstate locations and saw that the transients and the travelers would stop in. And I built a number of them outside of metro areas on the interstate and we feel those people will come out to us and feel comfortable away from their neighborhoods and that it has worked. Over the years we duplicated that numerous times. We look at the traffic counts and demographics at the interstates. We have just have found a niche in our business model in that regard.