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Fit to grow

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 7:13 a.m. May 17, 2013
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
  • Entrepreneurs
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Bill Robinson had been out of the specialty athletic footwear retail business for nearly 15 years when his son, Parks Robinson, reeled him back in.

That was in 2005, when the father and son launched Fit2Run. The idea was to build a chain of stores that put a premium on personalized customer service and offered a smorgasbord of athletic gear and equipment for all levels of athletes. “It's like a candy store for runners,” says Bill Robinson. “If anybody has it, we have it.”

The chain, with a corporate headquarters in Parrish, in north Manatee County, also has some fast growth. It has eight stores, including one at Coconut Point in Estero that opened earlier this year and another location, at the Dadeland Mall in Miami, which opened in April. Other stores are in Gainesville, Orlando, Sarasota-Bradenton, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wellington. Combined annual sales at those stores have grown 183% since 2010, from $6 million to $17 million in 2012.

“The company is in a good position now,” says Bill Robinson, and both father and son agree: A target of 50 stores, at an undetermined date, is an achievable, albeit wild and crazy, goal.

Yet Bill Robinson says Fit2Run's success is somewhat of a surprise, at least considering the first year or two, when the business struggled to get inventory. And Robinson says a diverse product list, that includes rare items, is the best formula for success in the sporting goods industry. “Starting from scratch,” says Robinson, “was very difficult.”

The elder Robinson, however, tracked down an Asics salesman he knew from the 1980s, which got the company going. Fit2Run has since added dozens more products, in addition to a series of features to meet customer demand. Now the specially trained staff at each store tests and scans customer's feet to perform a gait analysis and find the right shoe. 

Athletic specialty retail was the obvious choice when the Robinsons launched a business together because sports has played a key part in each entrepreneur's life. Parks Robinson played college baseball at the University of Georgia and Valdosta State University. “I always thought I would be a professional athlete,” says Parks Robinson, who sold shoes at the Nordstrom in Tampa before Fit2Run.

Bill Robinson's father, meanwhile, H.L. Robinson, founded Robby's Sports in Bradenton in the 1960s along with Bill Robinson's brother, Penny Robinson. That chain, partially under Bill Robinson's leadership, became one of the largest athletic retailers in the country, with 49 stores and $70 million in annual sales.

The Robinson family sold the business to the Woolworth Co. in 1988 and Bill Robinson stayed on to run the business, now Champs Sports, for three years. Bill Robinson oversaw massive national expansion with the company, but he ultimately decided corporate life didn't fit.

So Bill Robinson left Champs in 1991 and switched industries. He ran a successful tree farm, which grew to $12 million in annual sales, and he got into commercial real estate. Bill Robinson sold the tree farm business to John Deere around the time Parks Robinson, 31, came to his father with the idea for Fit2Run.

Bill Robinson, 63, says he has no retirement plans and he loves coming to work every day, but the business, for the most part, is Parks Robinson's to run. “My role is to pass on what I know to Parks,” says Bill Robinson. “Parks is a unique son in that he listens. He takes things in, he thinks about it and he makes his own decisions.”

Of course, like any father-son duo, the Robinsons don't always agree with each other. “But conflict doesn't necessarily mean bad,” says Bill Robinson. “Conflict means creativity.”


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