Sporting goods and running industry legend Bill Robinson, who co-founded Florida-based running superstore Fit2Run with his son, Parks, passed away January 2 at the age of 70. His passing leaves quite a legacy not only in the running business, but in general sporting goods and in the Florida community where he lived.
Born on December 26, 1949, in Bradenton, FL, he was a graduate of Manatee High School and the University of Alabama with a degree in marketing. Bill and his brother, H.L. “Penny” Robinson, built Robby’s Sporting Goods, which was founded and had its corporate headquarters in Bradenton. Robby’s was eventually sold to Woolworth and was the precursor of Champs Sports.
In 2006, with his son Parks, Bill created Fit2Run, The Runner’s Superstore, a family-owned and operated running specialty store. Fit2Run took running to the next level of products and service, offering a range of athletic, walking, running, and trend-setting footwear brands and accessories, including The Fitness Bar, an in-store natural juice, smoothie and sandwich restaurant.
“My dad was a family man who loved his family,” says Parks Robinson. “He loved his business and the people that made/make it successful. He made sure all of our awesome associates was part of our family. He worked so hard to make our business family part of the Robinson’s family and bring a special culture to the company. I am lucky to have such a loving dad for 38 years of my life to help mentor me during my business career and in life.”
As with his other businesses, Fit2Run was built upon the same principles that Bill lived his life — exceptional training and staff, service and products. Fit2Run continues to grow, now with 13 stores and a new, race-timing company.
But it all started with Bill’s father and brother opening Robby’s Sporting Goods in 1960 in Bradenton. Bill and his brother, Penny Robinson, went on to build a successful corporation over the next 28 years that would grow into a 49-store chain across five southeastern states by 1988.
Bill opened their first mall store in DeSoto Square Mall in Bradenton and later they expanded to other cities, including Atlanta and Birmingham. During this time, additional store concepts opened, including The Sports Fan, a sports fanatic gear shop, and ownership of seven Athlete’s Foot franchises.
Although always proud of Robby’s Sporting Goods, Bill envisioned a new, more progressive Robby’s totally committed to the activities and taste of the new American sports lifestyle. In November 1985, Bill rebranded and introduced Robby’s Sports. The first draft of this new design was at Pompano Square Mall, where the merchandise selection tended towards lifestyle – guns and bows and arrows were removed – to serve a more sophisticated clientele. In a span of 24 years, from 1960 to 1984, Robby’s Sports grew from one to 20 stores. Incredibly, from 1984 to 1987, in just three years, 22 more stores were opened.
Bill was always one to give his leaders the leeway to excel, using the word “empowerment” before it became fashionable. He mentored and inspired many people on how to succeed in business and in life, helping to develop work ethics and leadership skills and enabling them to be successful. He understood marketing before “marketing” was even a buzzword.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, his managers would gather at Penny Robinson’s home for annual meetings, but as the numbers grew so did the venues. Ski parties at Bill’s home on the river became an annual event, where the forward-thinking owner partnered with the ski companies whose products he sold. In the years that followed, weeklong golf outings, Robby’s biathlon, softball tournaments, shoes for the Boys & Girls Clubs, and United Way fundraisers were all among Bill’s community mindedness.
Training and innovation were always a part of Bill’s mindset, from outdoor advertising to company videos to train staff, to an HR department before most companies his size had such a department, to corporate presentations requesting extra support dollars for his campaigns. From the first fax machine and overnight packages to the first computers, Bill was a trendsetter.
No matter what business Bill created, he had a way of finding talent and inspiring his team to do their best. After Bill sold Robby’s Sports to the Woolworth Corporation and it became Champs Sports, it was the start of a new era for him.
The years after Robby’s Sports were certainly full. Bill purchased Pursley Tree Farms, a wholesale tree growing business, expanded it and re-branded to The Treehouse with 10 distribution centers for wholesale and retail sales. While busy with that business, Bill gathered a team of experts to create the Loop of Northwest Bradenton, a luxury home community. Adjacent to The Loop sat hundreds of acres of land that Bill and his wife, Peggy, would purchase and donate to Manatee County to construct Robinson Preserve.
In 1990, Bill’s vision and love of the land around Bradenton brought together a group to organize and establish the non-profit Palma Sola Botanical Park with Manatee County Government. The park hosts collections of rare palms, fruits and flowering trees, as well as three lakes, a butterfly garden, gazebo and pavilion.
Bill has left his footprint in life and ran an amazing race to the finish line. He will be fondly remembered and will live on in the hearts and the souls of those whose lives he has inspired and changed forever. Bill’s favorite quote from the Robby’s yearbook was “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
A funeral service was held January 11 in Bradenton. Memorial donations may still be made to Manatee Community Foundation, c/o Bill Robinson Foundation, 2820 Manatee Avenue West, Bradenton, FL 34205, and/or St. Joseph Catholic Church, 3100 26th Street West, Bradenton, FL 34205. Condolences for the family may be given at griffithcline.com.