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Dick Pond Crosses The 50-Year Line

July 1, 2019

Iconic Chicago area retailer continues the traditions set by its founder a half century ago.
By Daniel P. Smith

Back in 1969, Dick Pond was working as a buyer for Sears, then one of the nation’s premier retail powerhouses.

“Lamps and giftware,” his wife, Lindy Pond, recalls. “He hated it.”

A former All-American runner at Western Michigan University and high school track coach known for striding shirtless around his suburban Chicago neighborhood in red-and-white split shorts, Dick longed to do something with running — his true passion.

Dick connected with Onitsuka, the forerunner to ASICS. A new company in the U.S. market, Onitsuka’s fast-and-light footwear wasn’t as readily accessible as Adidas or Puma and Dick seized upon the opportunity. He packed his 1965 Chevy Malibu with the footwear he could corral from Onitsuka and then peddled the goods from the trunk of his sedan at high schools, colleges and Chicago area races.

Thus, begins the energizing tale of Dick Pond Athletics, the suburban Chicago outfit that has planted its flag as the nation’s oldest running specialty store. Celebrating its 50th year in 2019, Dick Pond Athletics remains a family-owned operation with five retail locations and an unmistakable niche as a runner’s sanctuary.

 

The Early Years

If the trunk of Dick’s Chevy Malibu served as his first “retail” location, his Glen Ellyn, IL, home on Duane Street was his second, especially as Dick Pond Athletics’ inventory expanded to include footwear from Adidas, New Balance and Nike. Dick, in fact, was one of Nike’s first clients east of the Rockies and he began trading notes with Nike co-founder Phil Knight as early as 1972.

The doorbell of the Pond family home rang daily – and often – with runners looking to get their footwear fix. While Kirsten Pond, Dick’s eldest daughter with Lindy, fondly recalls a parade of athletic teenage boys visiting the home, the consistent stream of guests unnerved Lindy.

“We’d have people knocking on the door at 10:00 p.m. and it was just me with three girls at the house if Dick wasn’t home,” she says. “That’s why we got a Doberman.”

As Dick’s high school clientele matriculated into the collegiate ranks, a mail order business blossomed as coaches and athletes from across the Midwest and, later, the entire U.S. began calling upon Dick Pond Athletics for running footwear.

Even Vermont-based author Jim Fixx, whose 1977 opus “The Complete Book of Running” is credited with helping launch the nation’s jogging revolution, found Dick Pond. On the cover of his best-selling book, Fixx wore a pair of red Onitsukas he had purchased from the running retail pioneer.

In time, the running shoe business overtook the Pond family home — and family time. The basement became a makeshift warehouse hosting rows of shoe boxes Dick and Lindy would wrap and then pile in the kitchen for a UPS driver. Dick did his buying at the kitchen table, frequently tabbing Lindy to select shoe colors. The couple’s three daughters, meanwhile, grew up sorting metal track spikes into sandwich bags, addressing envelopes, folding brochures and lacing shoes.

“Even when the family was watching TV at night, we had shoes in hand,” Kirsten recalls.

As the running boom took flight in the 1970s and then surged into the 1980s, so, too, did Dick’s retail operation grow.

In August 1985, Dick moved his burgeoning retail store out of the family garage – one he had initially earmarked for a boat – and into a small warehouse space along an unpretentious industrial strip in nearby Carol Stream, IL. In doing so, Dick introduced a more traditional retail store – albeit one that only operated from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on weeknights and 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Three years later, Dick opened an outlet in a Lisle, IL, strip mall, about a 25-minute drive from his Carol Stream unit.

 

Being the Boss

Lindy says her husband relished two things: dealing with the sport’s purists, principally athletes and coaches, and operating his own business.

“Dick liked to be the boss and didn’t necessarily take direction well from others,” Lindy admits.

When Glen Kamps came to work for Dick in 1985, the company’s first full-time employee, Kamps jokes that he was only allowed to wipe the floor and feed the dog.

“Dick had to take care of every customer,” says the white-haired Kamps, a gregarious soul who would later come to represent Dick Pond Athletics to an entire generation of Chicago area runners — so much so that people think Kamps is Dick Pond.

Though running emerged as a more mainstream recreational activity throughout the 1980s, teams and tracksters continued to drive Dick’s success. In the late 1980s, Lindy recalls Chicago Marathon race director Carey Pinkowski bringing a crew of elite Russian athletes to Dick’s Carol Stream warehouse for goods.

“When Dick was with athletes and the coaches, that was his heaven,” Lindy says.

Dick Pond Athletics not only carried running trainers, but also track and field specialty shoes for events like the pole vault, high jump and discus. With a mix of entrepreneurial foresight and pragmatic thinking, Dick also began stocking wrestling gear. Like running, wrestling was an individual sport with hard-to-find product. Plus, Dick already had accounts with major wrestling players such as ASICS and Adidas to streamline ordering.

“More than anything, though, it was a way to get cash between the cross-country and track seasons,” Lindy acknowledges of Dick’s foray into wrestling, which remains a pillar of the Dick Pond Athletics’ business.

 

The Turning Point

In January 1991, Dick was diagnosed with leukemia, an unexpected diagnosis for a man who looked as chiseled and fit as any of his contemporaries. He passed away the following September, one day before his 53rd birthday.

“The end came fast,” Lindy says.

With no life insurance and three kids in college, Lindy faced sizable debt from medical bills, including a bone marrow transplant the couple’s health insurance provider refused to cover. Working full time as a career counselor while also teaching part time at a local college, Lindy questioned her future. Opportunistic buyers, meanwhile, presented offers.

“But selling the business would have been like selling Dick,” she says. “The only option was to make it work.”

Along with Kamps, who assumed many of Dick’s daily roles, including working the retail store and making school visits, Lindy charted a path forward. The first step was doubling down on mail order, which, at the time of Dick’s death, represented 70 percent of the company’s revenue. Lindy and Kamps produced a four-page color catalog identifying available products and sent it to every cross-country and track coach they could find in the U.S.

“Mail order was the logical step to grow the business and it really carried us forward,” Lindy says.

By the late 1990s, Lindy and Kamps moved Dick Pond Athletics deeper into brick-and-mortar retail, eager to capitalize on a booming running marketplace and the Chicago area’s dense, active population. The company added stores in the city’s northwest and western suburbs.

“If we had a chance to meet people face to face, it just made sense to do it,” Kamps says.

In 2005, two of Dick and Lindy’s daughters – Kirsten, an immediate care physician, and Sam Senner, a certified public accountant – left their respective careers to join the family business. They pushed for a more modern operation — more collaboration, more hands-on planning and more data analysis to drive the business. They installed a point-of-sale system in retail stores, ditching the company’s long-held reliance on pen and paper, introduced a frequent buyer program to fuel repeat business and unveiled a team rewards program to strengthen ties with local schools.

“We’re trying to make decisions that keep us in the game,” Senner says.

Lindy believes Dick would be shocked to learn that she retained ownership of the retail operation after his 1991 passing, but far more surprised that Kirsten and Senner re-entered the family business after crafting their own professional lives.

“He’d be surprised, yes, but also proud that they see the business as a part of them,” Lindy says. “I know the girls are 100 percent invested in this and that makes me feel blessed.”

 

Charging Into the Future

Today, Dick Pond Athletics leans into its history, its deep connections to the sport and celebrates its self-proclaimed heritage as America’s oldest running shop. Its stores feature team jerseys from local running programs, signage that shares company history and black-and-white photos of Dick donning his Western Michigan singlet. In the Park Ridge, IL, store, for instance, a six-foot black-and-white wall graphic behind the register shows a gassed Dick breaking the tape at a meet.

“We regularly hear stories from customers about visiting the house in Glen Ellyn or buying their first pair of shoes from Dick at their high school,” Kirsten says. “That history is a wonderful part of our story.”

But company leadership acknowledges it’s a different era. Mail order, once the majority of the company’s business, now represents about 20 percent of sales and Dick Pond Athletics’ retail stores face stiff competition from some three dozen running stores in metro Chicago.

“Once upon a time, we were the only game in town. Now, far from it,” Kamps says. “Once upon a time, Dick could load the car with one style and outfit a team of 50 boys from his trunk. Now, that’s a pipe dream.”

Those shifting realities have pushed Dick Pond Athletics to double down on outreach and community-based initiatives. In addition to sponsoring local races, hosting regular fun runs at its stores and overseeing an all-inclusive, 300-plus member racing team, the company’s Team Bucks program reinvests in local running programs while its popular Walk to Run program helps novices gain their footing in the sport. The Walk to Run program at Dick Pond Athletics’ St. Charles, IL, store routinely has more than 100 participants each session. The company has also been involved with special needs athletes, corporate wellness programs and a local “Biggest Loser” competition.

“We’ve made the conscious decision to be face-to-face, hands-on and to celebrate those trying to improve their lives through running,” Kamps says. “Fortunately for us, there’s not a shortage of people wanting to be healthy and we’re excited to help more people discover running as a way to improve their health.”

Notably, the company has worked to expand its customer base beyond runners, including outfitting hospital employees in apparel and footwear. It’s a strategy Dick could’ve never envisioned during his lifetime, but one that honors his entrepreneurial spirit.

“In 1969, we sold shoes to runners. In 2019, we’re selling health to everyone,” Kamps says.

Those efforts have earned results and recognition. Last year, Dick Pond Athletics received the Ubuntu Award for Community Service at The Running Event in Austin, TX. And earlier this year, the company scored another 50 Best Running Stores nod, cementing its place as not only one of America’s running retail patriarchs, but also one of its best.

“We’d all like to think the business can keep on going another 50 years,” Kamps says. “We’re blessed with such a strong history, super dedicated employees, loyal customers and people invested in keeping this alive that we hope to be running for another 50 years.”

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