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Fleet Feet Sports’ success, generosity turning heads

Ridgeland — At one time, Fleet Foot franchisees from larger, metropolitan areas used to rib local franchise owner Jeff Wells about being in Mississippi. However, after impressive year-over-year growth and multiple awards, one of which has led to international recognition, the joking has ended, and now it is Wells who is doing all the grinning.

“We have seen growth of 30%-40% per year since we opened in 2002,” Wells said. “I am having a lot of fun, and couldn’t be more pleased with how we are doing.”

Runner’s high

Oddly enough, Wells had no experience in business or retailing when he opened the Ridgeland franchise in February 2002. Born in Memphis but the son of native Mississippians, he graduated from the University of Mississippi with a degree in engineering, and spent the next 20 years in that field in Memphis and St. Louis. However, as a grade-schooler Wells had discovered the joy in running.

“I started running to stay in shape for football and basketball,” Wells said. “I’ve been running now for 30 years, and I just have a passion for it and fitness in general. I love that runner’s high.”

Wells said that the entrepreneurial bug bit him early in life. After two decades as an engineer, he suddenly put down his slide rule.

“I had a vision for owning my own business. I don’t know why I decided to go out on my own when I did. I was just ready for it, just knew it,” he said.

Looking for the right fit, Wells not surprisingly found Fleet Foot and its running shoes, apparel, accessories and related services attractive. Due to his lack of business background, he also was drawn by the relatively risk-free entry that is offered by Fleet Feet, a Carrboro, N.C.-based company that now operates 67 stores across the nation. In February 2002, Wells opened the doors to his franchise located on Avery Boulevard in Ridgeland.

Fleet Feet’s selection and state-of-the-art fitting and gait analysis services have few competitors in Mississippi. Thus, the store pulls in customers from across the state. Wells said his store draws as many, perhaps more, shoppers from the Vicksburg area than from metro Jackson. In fact, Fleet Feet-Ridgeland has set the bar in terms of geographic pull.

“I’ll go on record as saying our store pulls from a larger area than any other Fleet Feet franchise,” Wells added. “Corporate was amazed by our numbers. I told them that Mississippians were used to driving to Jackson to shop. It’s kind of a tradition.”

In addition to “tradition” and product/service offerings, Wells pointed to his workers as a key to success. All eight employees are runners or fitness enthusiasts, and Wells said that gives them a special connection to customers.

Corporate certainly has taken notice. It awarded Fleet Feet-Ridgeland its Rookie of the Year Award, given to the top performing franchise that is three years old or younger.

Fleet Feet and HANDS

Wells and his team have also connected with the community, and earned recognition for it. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Fleet Feet-Ridgeland got involved with HANDS (Helping Americans Needing Disaster Support), a hurricane relief organization created by Leisha Pickering, wife of U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, and Patty Peck Christy of Jackson-based Patty Peck Honda and others. Fleet Feet-Ridgeland, other Fleet Feet franchises and their shoe vendors ended up donating approximately 5,000 pairs of shoes for storm victims.

These efforts led to a surprise for Wells and his franchise. At a corporate meeting, Fleet Feet-Ridgeland was presented with the inaugural InDuna Award, created by South African sock manufacturer Balega Sports to honor franchises for their community assistance.

In addition to presenting the award, Balega announced it was raising funds for the Ethembeni School, a South African school for disadvantages and handicapped children. Fleet Feet corporate quickly announced it would match donations dollar-for-dollar.

Getting those funds to the school is where Wells comes back in. Wells has been invited to run the Comrades Marathon, a grueling, 54-mile race that is uphill the entire course. At the halfway point of the course sits the Ethembeni School, and Wells will personally present the check to the school during the race.

Wells called this a true honor, and sees more community involvement and sales growth in the future.

“I’m a spiritual person,” Wells said. “I’m very confident that the vision for the store will be realized, and I’m confident that growth will lead to other things. I don’t know what that may be, but I know it will happen.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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