As an aspiring professional in Chicago, being able to find and connect with industry leaders can prove difficult for those not well plugged in. Enter Life Lessons from The C-Suite, where you gain insight and learn from those that have achieved levels of success we aspire towards even if they can’t be our one-one mentors. Life Lessons from the C-Suite’ hopes to serve as a mentor bridge, where Chicago or Chicago connected industry leaders offer advice and share insights that has helped them on the path of success to help inspire next generation leaders.
On April 2, thousands upon thousands of runners and walkers will officially kick off Chicago’s running season at the Bank of America Shamrock Shuffle 8K. One person that’s quite familiar, not only with Chicago’s running scene but the business of running, is Fleet Fleet Sports-Chicago CEO Dave Zimmer. Zimmer opened his first Fleet Feet franchise in 1996 and now has 7 locations in the Chicagoland area. In 2016, Fleet Feet Sports-Chicago reopened its Old Town location after suffering a devastating fire. They also made headlines in 2016 when it was announced that it would swap race production for retail with RAM Racing. I had the chance to sit down to learn some life lessons and business keys from Mr. Zimmer, who is driven by customer service and numbers. He talks about advice he’s been given, celebrating 25 years of marriage and how Fleet Feet has helped make marriages happen as well; why its important to trust your instinct, love the hard work that comes with running a business and so much more in this Life Lessons from The C-Suite.
Emotion will take you so far but believe the numbers that you see and let the numbers give you guidance to let your passion take you to the home stretch.
Before you opened your first store in ’96 what were you doing?
After graduating college, I took a job working for Citibank. I started off in their retail banking sector, eventually becoming part of a program called Citigold, a retail private bank. I learned a lot about lending, investing; It was a great education to learn about the world of finance and banking.
You’re a numbers guy?
I like data, I like numbers. I am also a runner and running is very specific when it comes to numbers. A marathon is 26 miles 385 yards. At Fleet Feet we know that there’s about 26 bones in each foot connected by over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments, 34 joints striking the ground 1700 times per mile with 10x the force of your body weight on top of it. Its a very specific set of numbers we look at. When we fit shoes, what we are looking at is the way someones foot strikes the ground, to make sure the shape of the foot matches the shape of the shoes to reduce the shock forces of making contact. What we are looking for is what’s happening when your foot is flat on the ground and you have 10x the force of your body weight on top of your foot in order to make sure we’re putting enough support underneath your foot so as your foot is making that motion to disperse shock that it’s doing the right thing to support your foot as well to give you the best chance for a comfortable run.
Why did you decide to open your own business?
I come from a very entrepreneurial background; my father owned a construction company when I was growing up and I worked for that company from the time I was 10 years old until I was 22. I DJed through college, spinning house music. I’m a massive fan of music; I play the guitar, music is the soundtrack of our entire lives at home. I wound up owning my own production company. Myself and my partners, in the first business that we had, were featured in Money magazine for being one of the young entrepreneurs. We were doing all these parties. The entrepreneurial spirit was always part of my life and I didn’t know where it was going to take me. I was making a nice living at Citi. I started training for a triathlon and my wife bought me a book called Heart Zone Training: Exercise Smart, Stay Fit, and Live Longer by Sally Edwards. In the back of the book it had a blurb to call for information about franchising Fleet Feet Sports. So I called and I met an amazing group of people that I’m still friends with til this day.
The first store was in Old Town in a 1400 sq ft location. We wanted to build a community, we didn’t know that at the time, we just wanted to service customers, do group runs and create a racing team and that’s what we started doing day in day out.
After deciding that you wanted to open your own Fleet Feet franchise, was the decision to leave Citi immediate? Were you working 2 jobs?
My wife and I didn’t have children at the time we opened our first store. We were three years into our marriage when I told my wife I wanted to open up a running specialty store but we made the decision together. We are both passionate about it and she was on board.
“Just love what you do. Once you don’t love what you do then stop doing it.”
Talk to me about Shamrock Shuffle, the unofficial start of Chicago’s running season?
We’ve been involved with Shamrock since 1997. We brought in Olympic athlete Herb Elliott to be a star speaker one year and Shamrock Shuffle really is the official kickoff to the running season. It would be many runners’ first race of the season and then continuing through the rest of the spring and summer. Using running as a measure of fitness.
Do you still run?
I have battled my injuries though I still go out try to do 15-20 miles/week and I continue to make sure I keep fit by cycling and cross training as well.
Three business essentials you know now but wish you did when you got started?
1). Organization. Being able to mentally prioritize the day. When I first got into this, all I wanted to do is be everything to everybody at every moment and that is something that is a recipe for burnout and disaster. The first 90 days of being open, I was at the store everyday. There are some people who have certainly gone deeper. Understand that you can do anything, you just can’t do everything.
2). Communication is the absolute gold when it comes to business. If you can’t communicate to your consumers, your employees, then you are going to be dead in the water. Being able to communicate is absolutely the most critical part of it.
3). I didn’t realize how critical it would be in the beginning, but there’s truth in numbers. Emotion will take you so far but believe the numbers that you see and let the numbers give you guidance to let your passion take you to the home stretch.
How do you work with competitors as in the case of how Fleet Feet worked with RAM Racing?
I was approached by Steve Ginsburg, the CEO of RAM Racing to talk about the race management company that we had and some of the races that we were doing incredibly well with and some we were working on trying to make better. He reached out and said, “I think I can help you make this particular race better” and that’s where the conversation started. Sometimes its hard to find a peer that you can talk to and be able to get really good information back from and when Steve and I started talking, I felt like I was talking to somebody who understood me. I love retail, I really do! I love solving customers’ need, the presentation of the products and I believe that we do it really well. Steve loves his racing business and they are doing an amazing job with it. To be able to do the exchange that we did, I think made our business more focused and made our decisions cleaner and now we’re partners. We still have those customers coming to us and we get to go out and sponsor those races. It allowed us to be able to be focused.
Best advice you’ve been given?
My mentor was Tom Raynor, owner of the Fleet Feet Sports franchise company for many, many years. The biggest thing that Tom would always say to me is “just love what you do. Once you don’t love what you do then stop doing it.” It’s part of that mantra that you can do anything but you can’t do everything. Its a simple piece of advice that directs itself to passion, but just love what you do.
Your business is embedded in the community, was that part of your business plan or it came from customer feedback?
When we first opened up, one of the first things that we did was hand out water and Gatorade on the lakefront as people were training for the Chicago Marathon. That meant a lot to me. When we talk about this idea of love and passion because we looked at marathon runners as the pinnacle of the running community. It didn’t matter if someone ran a 2.5 hour marathon or 5 hour marathon, they did a marathon and those that had never competed in a marathon would look at their marathon running friends as the runners. We wanted to be incredibly important to those people. By giving them water and Gatorade and talking about our store, we were getting access to the gate keepers to the rest of the community. By talking to them, we started to build a community of athletes that looked at us as their clubhouse meets retail store, in a way their running Soho House. We’ve had 26 marriages from people who have met through a racing team, on the sales floor, employees who have married customers. When I think about that, its magic. We’ve connected to people! That speaks volumes to me.
With the rise of social media, there’s been a most definite interest in fitness, how has that played into your business?
People on our racing team joke around and say, “if you don’t post your run it didn’t happen?” They’ll say “did you put it on Strava?” I love all of that, because its all about building a community and if you have the ability to communicate and use the voice of social media to be able to get inspiration to people, its incredible. Recently, 2 people that met on our Cupid’s Dash run 2 years ago, got engaged and they posted it on our Facebook page.
This idea of passion permeates what we do. People are passionate about their sport, success and other people in life; If we can be any thread in that, then we are winning as a business. Our job is to make sure we are helping people further their success by getting them in the right gear. We tell great stories about our products through videos. The way we communicate via Instagram & Twitter tells stories of people going out there and being active; we are connected to them and want them to feel like they are a part of it.
Does being physically active help to be a good leader?
I will give you my perspective as an athlete, coach and as a father. As an athlete, I believe that athleticism prepares you for focus. When you are looking to accomplish a goal whether that goal is to get a workout in so you can be fit, or that you are looking to accomplish a marathon or whichever the goal might be, I believe that level of focus transcends things in your life and if you are physically active I think you are giving yourself the best shot to be focused on other things in life. Generally when you finish a workout, you feel just a little bit better about yourself and when you do, then your ability to be a better leader, spouse, parent, employer or employee all elevates that. From the level of a coach, the kids who come out and are athletes, those kids have a tendency to do better at other things in school. They are focused on their athletics and their studies. When you have something that allows you to blow off this steam, then focus can happen. As a parent if I can get my kids up and active in the morning, they have a tendency to do better at school and be a bit more focused that day. They are not leaving the house feeling lethargic, they already got some energy.
I really believe in the idea of being active, being athletic is transcendent. I believe this statement wholeheartedly that “Running changes everything.” When I go out doing speaking engagements that is how I generally start and finish. I really believe that running does change the world and it helps people to make monumental changes internally. The Chicago Marathon last year brought $18.5 million to different charities by people doing this activity of left, right repeat.
What 5 books would you recommend?
I love biographies and autobiographies, love them! I am currently reading Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, its his memoir and I am learning so much about the passion that drew him to continue to create from the time he was 17 to now at 67 years old. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is one of the best, breathtaking books that I’ve read over the past few years.
The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman, from the music front, I found it to be an amazing book. From a business perspective, Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Raving Fans: A Revolutionary Approach to Customer Service by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles is my business mantra. I am also a fan of The One Minute Manager and Gung Ho!: Turn On the People in Any Organization, also by Ken Blanchard. Independence Day by Richard Ford is an American story of a father and son and I just love the creativity of it. I love music, creativity and the fact that you can touch people in so many different ways.
What advice would you give a next generation-er?
The advice I would tell is love the the hard work. Nothing comes simple or easy and you have to love the hard work. Jump into it with both feet. Have late nights and early mornings and love the frustrations that come with it. Honor the success that you get, don’t let it pass you by. Take a moment and absorb it.
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photo credit: Socialifechicago; FleetFeet
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.