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By MARC LUTZ
Business Journal Editor
The best customer service is the kind consumers never knew they received. That’s the exact experience Tony Vice wants customers to have.
Vice owns Fleet Feet Sports stores in Stockton and Modesto – with plans to open a third by year’s end in Brentwood. And the success of those stores, he said, is based on relationships.
Having grown up in the food service industry, Vice admits he was overweight as a child. But when it was time to start his career, he put his all into it.
“I learned from the ground up,” Vice said. “I worked in will call, learned a lot of products and made a name for myself as a hard worker.”
Vice moved up through the industry, building relationships along the way. Eventually, he worked with small companies in the food industry, helping them to grow in the western, Pacific Northwest and southwestern markets. Relationships gave way to contract work and Vice found himself burning out on the work.
Looking for a means of reinvention, Vice discovered triathlons – which he still competes in to this day. During his mid-30s, he spent a lot of time at Fleet Feet in Sacramento.
“I looked around one day, saw what was going on, and I thought, ‘this is all about relationships’,” Vice said. “This is all about building bonds with the customers that come in.”
The process began for franchising a Fleet Feet location. Research was done to find an underserved market. Stockton was settled upon, and Vice wanted to be in Lincoln Center.
“A normal two and-a-half year process turned into a year and three months and we had the store open,” Vice said.
Fleet Feet Sports started in Sacramento in 1976, opened by Sally Edwards and Elizabeth Jansen. The business had offered franchises and had some success. In 1993, Fleet Feet was purchased by Tom Raynor, who restructured the business and moved the headquarters to North Carolina.
In just 10 years, franchises have grown substantially. In 2007, there were 76 Fleet Feet franchise stores. In 2016, franchises numbered 129. There are 36 company-owned stores across the U.S.
Gear for running – mainly shoes – and other items are sold that revolve around a fit lifestyle. Staff is meticulously trained to size those on the hunt for proper footwear through the Personal Fit Process, ensuring customers are taken care of from the very start.
“Product they can buy anywhere,” Vice said. “They can click a button, they can go down the street and get the exact same product they can get from me at the exact same price. But the difference is, they’re going to get someone that’s going to give them a high-five and be their biggest fan.”
Customers will also learn a lot, Vice said, due to staff expertise. His staff is comprised of people who are also into running or other athletic endeavors, all being different shapes and sizes. The key difference, he said, are the relationships they build.
One such customer is Lisa Richmond, a teacher at Snell’s Pre-Kindergarten School in Stockton, came through Fleet Feet’s doors at a rough point in her life. She was determined to finish a half marathon when she had learned from friends that people could walk in the races. They recommended Vice’s store.
“I owe a lot to Tony,” Richmond said. “He would tell me, ‘You’re a runner, you just don’t know it yet.’ That day, he was running with me, and I didn’t think I could keep going. He encouraged me. When you recognize something in someone that they don’t see themselves, and you’re able to pull that out, it’s a special gift.”
Richmond became a mentor for other runners at Fleet Feet, working her way up to coach. She said she has trained at least 200 other runners to date.
Vice has encouraged entire communities to be their best. He helped organize the inaugural Emergency Food Bank Run to Feed the Hungry held every Thanksgiving in Downtown Stockton.
Co-organizers Tim Viall and Ralph Womack originally planned for possibly 200 runners and walkers. Vice warned them that the number would be higher.
“I was the one who grossly underestimated,” Viall said. “We had it staked out so it would finish on the field (of the Stockton ballpark). It ended up totaling 800 some-odd people.”
Viall said the event has grown over the past 11 years from 800 finishers to about 3,000 at the most recent run, raising more than $100,000 per year for the Emergency Food Bank.
“He’s got a great heart for this community,” Viall said of Vice. “Without somebody like him and Fleet Feet, I don’t think it would have changed all that much in the last 10 years. I think he gets credit for a much more active community.”
Outside of the myriad of races Vice sponsors or helps to organize, his business efforts are just as healthy as the community he serves.
Seeing a demand in the Modesto market, Vice, along with his co-owner and wife, Natalie Vice, opened their second store in the Stanislaus County city. At first, Vice was worried that store would take away from the Stockton store’s profits since many customers would travel to Stockton.
The Modesto location was opened in 2015, and is just as thriving as its Stockton sibling.
Not one to slow down too much, Vice now has his sights set on a third store. Fleet Feet Sports Brentwood is planned to be open by November of this year.
Vice takes it all in stride, knowing when to take a rest day. He believes three stores are the right amount, allowing him to remain focused on helping others and spending time with family.
“He’s got a creative wisdom and energy that most don’t have,” Viall said.