MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — One of Minnesota’s best-known hardware, farm supply and sporting goods stores is up for sale.

Brainerd-based Mill’s Fleet Farm has announced the company’s sale plan is the only path to its future growth.

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The privately-owned company is on the auction block and looking for an owner capable of investing in a long-term strategy of expanding its present chain of 36 stores in four Midwest states.

“Just their sporting goods alone sets it apart from other hardware stores,” said longtime Fleet Farm shopper Jay Cyrus.

Mill’s Fleet Farm’s 60 years of success is largely due to the strategy of having a little bit of everything for everyone.

“You don’t worry about running back to a bunch of different places to get what you need,” Cyrus said. “You can get hunting stuff, fix your trailer, pick up accessories for the four wheeler – it’s one of my favorite places.”

Chief Executive Officer Steward Mills III said the privately-owned chain of 36 stores must be sold to remain competitive. It’s in the process of attracting just the right suitor.

“It’s the ideal blue collar store,” said University of St. Thomas marketing professor David Brennan.

He says Fleet Farm’s line of work clothing, farm supplies, hardware and sporting goods is something most other competitors don’t offer.

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But he cautions that selling the chain will be tricky.

“If it’s working as well as it seems to be working now, there’s a temptation to change the formula and do some other things and that’s a dangerous proposition,’ Brennan said.

The company’s current CEO lost an expensive race for Congress against Rep. Rick Nolan last November.

But Mills has said the sale is not related to his political ambitions. Rather, for the chain to grow by adding more than four stores a year, it needs deeper capital than the family has.

“I guess if you’ve got to sell it, I hope they don’t change a thing,” Cyrus said.

The company says it already has several interested parties but won’t say who they might be or speculate how much the chain will sell for. The Mills Automotive Group is not part of the intended sale.

Brennan says consolidation with a retailing competitor, such as Wisconsin-based Menards, won’t likely happened. He said that is not a good fit for the business.

More likely, according to Brennan, the company will be sold to a private equity firm with retailing expertise.

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But the real challenge for a buyer will be remaining true to why shoppers are attracted to the big orange silo in the first place.