On a Wednesday afternoon at The Running Event late last month, Fleet Feet CEO Joey Pointer settles into a stool in the corner of the Austin Convention Center. He opens a hardcover notebook lined with neatly arranged notes, looks up and flashes a smile.
The trials of recent years could have easily hardened Pointer’s entrepreneurial soul and turned his curly locks gray.
Nearly three years ago, of course, the pandemic sparked uncertainty and rattled the prospects of brick-and-mortar retail. Then, two years ago Fleet Feet acquired Jackrabbit and began the arduous process of rolling nearly five dozen stores into Fleet Feet operations — a task littered with hurdles, including a lawsuit over the deal’s final purchase terms. And like other run specialty leaders, Pointer endured a number of pressing challenges that threatened Fleet Feet’s ascent, from supply chain disruptions to staffing shortages to economic turmoil.
But today, in a quiet corner of the busy TRE expo hall, Pointer displays no wear. His energy, like the red Fleet Feet hoodie he sports, is bright and his ambitions stand as high as ever.
“Incredible growth’s coming,” beams Pointer, who will celebrate his 20th year with Fleet Feet in 2024. “We want to be the best national resource for local running.”
After opening 19 stores in 2023 and completing 10 conversions of existing shops, the North Carolina-based company – now operating under the Onward Outdoor Brands banner in a move for further corporate growth – will finish 2023 with 291 stores in its orbit. Systemwide sales, meanwhile, are approaching $600 million, highlighted by a record-breaking Black Friday in which Fleet Feet stores collectively recorded more than $2.35 million in sales — the biggest sales day in the chain’s history.
As exciting as those figures are, Pointer understands nothing is guaranteed, particularly given persistent geopolitical tensions, inflationary pressures and rising competition. The challenge, he admits, is to celebrate the journey and savor the wins while remaining aware of potential pitfalls.
Seeking More Growth
Pointer calls managing Fleet Feet’s growth his priority, especially as leadership “pushes the pedal” to reach 400 stores and $1 billion in annual sales.
“Growth creates complexity and it’s complexity that kills growth,” he says.
Simplifying the business while maintaining momentum has consumed Pointer of late and sparked numerous investments. The company has installed new systems for enterprise resource planning and warehouse management, introduced bilingual robots into its warehouse (yes, really!) and finally moved on from QuickBooks as its prevailing accounting software.
“We have to ensure our footing is solid and that we have the proper foundation to support growth today and tomorrow,” says Pointer, who recently joined the board of Girls on the Run International.
Pointer doesn’t see any one particular growth strategy for Fleet Feet and, in fact, insists he’s agnostic when it comes to growing Fleet Feet’s store count.
Right now, Fleet Feet features a 60/40 split between franchised stores and corporate-owned shops. Existing franchisees as well as the corporate office continue opening new stores in markets such as Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis.
In addition to introducing new retail locations, Fleet Feet continues converting independent running stores into Fleet Feet operations, such as the Ultra Running Company’s recent shift to Fleet Feet Charlotte–Myers Park. If a running store possesses strong financials, capable staff, a healthy culture and lively community engagement, Pointer says Fleet Feet is more than willing to explore a deal.
“I think we’re a great exit strategy,” he says, “but I’m also not interested in a good price for a bad business. I’d rather pay a fair price for a good business.”
Notably, some of Fleet Feet’s franchisees are getting into the acquisition game, too. In November, for instance, Fleet Feet Fort Myers owners Janene and Brian Urichko purchased Run Florida on McGregor from John Rinkenbaugh.
“We want [Fleet Feet franchisees] to own their local market,” Pointer says. “It’s a winning strategy.”
For Pointer, it all contributes to the chase for 400 retail locations. “We want to grow into a national brand,” Pointer says.
Seizing Opportunity in 2024
As the calendar turns, Pointer says Fleet Feet will continue charging ahead.
Fleet Feet plans to open roughly 20 new shops in 2024, including additional stores under the Marathon Sports banner. (Fleet Feet acquired Boston-based Marathon Sports and its 18 storefronts in June 2022, though elected to retain the Marathon Sports name rather than rebrand those shops to Fleet Feets.)
In 2024, Pointer says Fleet Feet will also be reimagining its rewards program with multiple tiers to increase customer engagement and revamping its website as the company continues to refine its voice and style.
“We have work to do and that’s okay,” he says.
Pointer also promises to seek out inspiration from “anywhere and everywhere” to ensure Fleet Feet is creating dynamic retail environments for its customers. He points to the transactional ease of convenience stores to the energizing look of the Harry Potter flagship store in New York City as examples from which Fleet Feet can learn a thing or two. Simultaneously, though, Pointer acknowledges a spirited idea is only half the battle.
“Ideas are infinite, but execution is where the money is made and lost,” he says. “And we’re going to prioritize executing at a very high level.”