For 36 years The Fabbro Way has been the guiding light at Fleet Feet Montclair. That always meant a focus on diversity and inclusion, a lot of WWJD (more on that later), a sprinkling of “we’ll make it work” and a healthy dose of community at the family-owned and operated run specialty retailer in suburban New Jersey.

And it continues today. Only now it is more becoming the Fabbro Women’s Way as two daughters, Madeline and Emilia, join their mom, Dawn, and a host of key female team members in continuing co-founder John Fabbro’s vision to be a community running resource and a jewel in the Fleet Feet family.

But make no mistake about it, John Fabbro, who opened the store along with Dawn back in 1987, is still the big boss (who cringes at that title) and the store on the corner of Bloomfield and Midland Avenues continues to bear his imprint. It’s just that increasingly it is the Women Who Are Running the Fleet Feet Montclair Business.

And he would have it no other way.

“It brings me joy to see my daughters elevating the store with a new level of energy,” he says. “They are bringing a new community, a new customer, better marketing and purchasing and better social media.”

The Origin of the Fabbro Way

The women’s touch has always been a part of the Fleet Feet Montclair story, going back to the beginning when John and Dawn realized their shared vision of entrepreneurship and met with Fleet Feet founder Sally Edwards to find a location for the second Fleet Feet franchise east of the Mississippi River (the first was Fleet Feet Adams Morgan in 1984 in Washington, D.C.). 

Not quite sure of their chances of success, John kept his day job as controller at a New Jersey chemical company while Dawn leaped into the world of run specialty retail with both feet. The store opened with, as she recalls, a grand total of $35,000 in inventory purchased with the help of loans from the family. When that initial inventory sold out Dawn stocked the shelves with Discus sweatshirts until more product arrived.

The female influence in those early days was further bolstered by the presence of John’s mother, Elsie. Described by her granddaughters as a Depression-era Italian from the Bronx who wore high heel shoes rather than sneakers and was known to sneak outside for a cigarette now and then, Elsie was a key contributor when ambition and enthusiasm far outweighed retail acumen. (John’s father, Joe, also worked the floor on weekends, and he was known as the guy to go to if you wanted a little discount on your shoes.)

The challenge of running a nascent run specialty store grew exponentially a year after opening when Dawn became pregnant with their first child, Chelsea, who was born with Down syndrome. Dawn looks back on those days with a sense of marvel allowed only by the passing of a mother’s time.

“We were young and dumb and we had no plan for any of what we were doing,” she recalls. 

That’s how John’s mantra of “We’ll make it work,” became the foundation of Fleet Feet Montclair as two more daughters – first Madeline and then Emilia – soon had John outnumbered four-to-one. With Chelsea holding the title of director of fun, Madeline as director of marketing and events and Emilia serving as the director of operations/apparel, accessory buyer/merchandiser, the current team has taken shape in different ways, with the COVID-19 pandemic playing an important role.

Maddie was living in Brooklyn and working for a large publishing company in Manhattan while keeping an eye on what she believed to be the store’s social media and marketing efforts in need of an upgrade. She had worked there on and off during her school years, admittedly “not loving it at the time,” and felt the pull of the family business as the pandemic changed everything in local retail. Thus she returned to the family’s roots in suburban New Jersey.

Emilia was always a little bit more involved in and drawn to the retail life, an attraction that took shape during her grade school years when the store was on her way home from school and she would stop by to hang out with her mom and grandmother. When her father insisted she earn her own money to pay for a high school trip to Spain it was only natural that she join the team on the floor to raise the cash.

That initial exposure led her to follow her parents into the retail business and she soon found herself tinkering with some operations, gradually expanding her reach into buying and merchandising. “I guess I started shaking things up a bit,” she admits.

The fact that their parents encouraged their input and ideas fostered even more of this shaking up and the girls’ input gradually became more valuable. “It was a process, but their ideas were good and they worked gradually as we older retailers started to change,” says Dawn. It was the family trust that proved a key element of that change.

“We are daughters of the owners and mom and dad allowed us to try things,” explains Maddie, who has been a full-time Fleet Feet Montclair employee since 2019. “It was a scary time, but they trusted us.”

Dawn attributes the acceptance of their daughters’ new ideas to the Fabbro philosophy of inclusion and diversity.

“I never thought any of my children would end up in retail,” she admits. “But now we love watching them have the same passion and trust and love of community that John and I have.” 

Looking Outside for Help

As Fleet Feet Montclair continued to grow – an expansion last year nearly doubled the retail floor space and the recent holiday season was one of the best in its more than three-decade history – the Fabbros have not hesitated to look outside of the family for talent that would help take them to the next level. And, not coincidentally, one of the key hires was another woman.

Mary Spink joined FFM in 2021 after a long relationship with the store – first as a novice runner looking to learn how to train for and run a 5K, then as a coach in the store’s training program as well as a part-time salesperson. She is now director of purchasing/shoe buyer/training program coach, a position well suited for the former VP-planning at Calvin Klein.

“When they reopened after the pandemic I was looking for a way to get out of the house and away from my two kids,” she says, only half-jokingly. With her retail background, Mary was becoming an asset for Emilia, who often found herself turning to Mary for advice and bouncing purchasing ideas off of her.

“The timing for everyone was amazing,” Dawn recalls.

“Yea, and I have wormed my way into their hearts,” agrees Spink, adding that she has a 15-year-old daughter who is taking a mild interest in the business.

Together the women taking increasingly more responsible roles at FFM are ready to take on the challenges in what is still very much a male-dominated business world. Those challenges certainly do exist beyond the friendly confines of Montclair, NJ.

“Our staff knows that there are a lot of powerful women in our store and they respect us, but if you put us in a room at an industry meeting we still have to earn that same respect,” explains Emilia.

“The voice of the male executive in run specialty is the one that always got heard first, but that’s changing,” says Dawn. And she is changing with it – she admits that on more than one occasion she used to use John’s email in order to get a better response than she would get from her own email. But her daughters are breaking her of that practice.

There is strong sense that having such a diverse staff and a multi-cultural community helps business. Emilia thinks it is not a coincidence that Fleet Feet Montclair sells more shoes to women than to men and that women outnumber men in its training programs.

“Running stores can be really intimidating to people who are not runners,” adds Maddie. “Having a staff that is gentle and empathetic and diverse removes a barrier of entry to the store.”

Looking to the Future

The joy that John Fabbro feels when looking at how his family-owned business is slowly also becoming a women-led business is a direct result of his and Dawn’s insistence on diversity within its staff — in terms of gender, color, size and age. It also is a product of John’s background, having grown up with three sisters and a host of female cousins.  

“Our entire community knows how committed we are to diversity and we are always trying to be aware of who is missing from our staff,” explains Dawn. 

“Dad is very respectful of women and always makes sure we receive the respect we deserve,” adds Maddie. 

Where all of this goes from here is still undecided, but with a path partially mapped out the daughters have some idea of where they would like to run.

But Dawn, agreeing that they are now taking more of a back seat in day-to-day operations, says the challenge for her and John is to continue putting a strong team in place as they head to their eventual retirement. “We ask where is everybody going and how do we make our platform big enough for them,” she says.

And Dawn is confident that her daughters, along with the expertise and guidance of Spink and other women (and men) on the staff, will take the business in the right direction.

“Their dreams are probably way beyond anything that John and I could see,” she says.

“With so much growth here since the pandemic we haven’t had a lot of time to see what the future could be,” Maddie adds. “But we keep telling our dad and mom that at some point they should take a long vacation and we’ll handle things here.” 

For his part, John nods and offers his take on the increasingly women-run, family-owned business. “To see what they have done with the store and their dedication to the local community makes me feel good.”

As for WWJD? It stands for “What Would John Do” and it has long been the guiding mantra for problem-solving at Fleet Feet Montclair. That philosophy will live on, but soon with a little more WWMEMD? (You figure it out!) 


John Fabbro Speaks … 

With his daughters and other women dominating the scene at Fleet Feet Montclair, we asked co-owner John Fabbro to provide some advice for the Women Who Run the FFM Business.

To Dawn, Co-Owner: “Your work ethic and passion to continually improve is inspiring. Is slowing down an improvement option? Just wondering.”

To Madeline, Marketing Director: “You intuitively (and with the thousands we spent on a Pratt Art School education) capture and share the fun, inclusive, welcoming feeling and vision of our store. I’ve tried to up my design game through the years, but there is only so much you could do in Google Sheets or Excel.” 

To Emilia, Director of Operations: “You have a keen insight of what needs to get done and positively impact all aspects of the store. We all have trouble keeping up with the pace you set.”

To Mary, Purchasing Director: “Your data analysis and forecasting talents keep our inventory robust to satisfy both in-store and online. You also seem to excel at being the drink buyer at The Running Event and elsewhere!”

To Chelsea, Director of Fun: “The team has the most to learn from you; we just need to take the time to listen. Your energy is contagious and you make all who attend events feel welcomed.”

5 Pieces of advice to the Women of FF Montclair (from someone who learns most from your advice and ideas)

1. Trust your gut.

2. Continually listen and learn.

3. Try new things — you learn from both your successes and failures.

4. Bring joy to those you touch.

5. On rare occasions, please don’t forget that I might have a good idea!