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In 1995 after spending several years with a major manufacturer as quality control manager, John Jacobs decided to start business as an independent service provider in the St. Louis market out of his basement. Being a meticulous, quality- oriented person, it didn’t take long for Fitness Plus to become the largest and most respected supplier in the St. Louis area.
It became a family affair when his son Jeremy began working part- time for the company in 1997, then moving to full time in 1999. With a focus on reducing customer downtime, Fitness Plus began building an inventory of replacement parts so that they could arrive with parts in hand on the first call, as often as possible. In a few years they had one of the largest inventories in the country among independent service providers.
Gus: Did you always plan to be part of the family business?
Jeremy: No I did not. After two years for college, I learned that aerospace engineering wasn’t for me and I came home from school to figure out the next steps. I needed a job and my father needed an employee, so I started working for him repairing exercise equipment. In college I had started teaching myself some web programming and continued to learn when I got home. After about a year of working only for my father, I started sub-contracting with area web development companies trying to land a fulltime job. I get along well with my father, but repairing exercise equipment wasn’t a long term career for me.
Gus: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned while watching your father launch a business out of the basement of your home?
Jeremy: I learned that running a business takes putting in long hours. A friend of mine who owns a business, joking refers to 12 hour days as working a half-day. I also learned the importance of invoicing customers. My father would tell me often during the early days that the most important thing he did every day was invoicing. I’ve known other business owners who have run into cash flow problems because they were too busy doing the work and neglected billing their clients in a timely manner.
Gus: Can you expand on how you convinced your dad to start a second e-commerce company and how that expansion has influenced the scope and direction of Fitness Plus Fitness Equipment Services?
Jeremy: Convincing him wasn’t difficult because the investment capital required was minimal. We worked out the minimum margins required to make the business work. We would start a new business entity for the e-commerce project, his business would supply the parts and I would supply the hundreds of hours or programming required to develop the site prior to launch of FitnessRepairParts.com, and the continuing work on the site. As FitnessRepairParts.com started exploding and the hassle of keeping two sets of books, and selling parts between the two companies increased, we made the decision to merge the two businesses back into one in 2007. Because the e-commerce growth has forced a large increase in inventory, moving from a basement to a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse, it has positively affected the local service side of things as Fitness Plus. We are able to get local customers fixed much faster than our competition because it’s likely we have the parts in stock.
Gus: Can you talk about some of the advantages of being part of a fairly immature industry?
Jeremy: The fitness industry is growing every year and constantly adapting to new fads. This constant evolution of the industry allows businesses like us who look for new ways to serve the customer better and implement efficiency creating technology in new ways to prosper and grow.
Gus: What milestone has felt the most significant so far?
Jeremy: There have been many significant events and goals reached over the past few years as we have continued to grow. Milestones such as moving into our first 5,000 sq. ft. facility or our first 100 order day, or achieving Inc500 status, or moving into our current 20,000 sq. ft. building. But I think the most significant mile marker we’ve reached was in 2009 when my father and I took a family vacation together. Up to that point in the business (over 10 years), we had never taken vacation at the same time because the business was not mature enough, large enough, or have enough structure in place to continue to run without one of us present. We finally reached a point where we could both leave the business for a week with relative confidence that everything wouldn’t fall apart and that our employees would be able to operate without one of us present. We have continued to take a family vacation together every year since.
Gus: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for Fitness Plus?
Jeremy: We are always looking for new ways to expand the business and gain new customers. In the fitness industry we look for new ways to innovate and move the parts distribution model the industry uses forward. For us as a company though, we are excited about the launch of www.BeltFrog.com over the summer. Industrial belting and bearings are already used in a lot of fitness equipment. We have a large inventory of these types of items already and relationships with manufacturers of those types of products. BeltFrog.com will attempt to reach a new customer base that use power transmission products for the repair of other types of equipment such as lawn mowers, cars, etc. The customer will be different and the way we reach the customer will be different, but it will piggy back well on our existing warehouse and shipping systems. We’re excited about the potential of this new site.