Founder and CEO
Running Room Canada Inc., Edmonton
What was your original goal in opening the Running Room?
I’d gone from being a 238-pound smoker to becoming a runner. I thought I could show other people how to run, too, and also sell shoes and T-shirts. So, I opened a store. It was going to be a hobby business, since I was still working in the grocery business at the time. Originally, we were open only on Thursday nights, Friday nights and Saturdays. That lasted a couple of weeks; customers said, “That’s not going to work.”
So, I hired a couple of runners who were between jobs at the time, a husband and wife, and they ran the business. We had great success in Edmonton, and then in Calgary, and then in Vancouver—and the rest is history.
Early on, were you a hands-on manager?
I started as a hands-off manager, with the right people in place. I was still working in the grocery industry for a little while, until the Running Room started to take off. Setting it up that way taught me that part of growing anything is being a good manager. You have to find and engage the right people. I think that, early on, we did that.
What do you think makes you such a good pitchman for the Running Room?
I love what I’m doing. My job is to promote running—period. I enjoy talking about who I am and what I do. I think I can relate to the guy who’s out there trying to get back into exercise, or the mom whose kids have grown up and finds herself with some time to get in shape. And I’m not the only pitchman; a lot of our pitchmen are successful graduates of our clinics. Most of our advertising is word of mouth.
How valuable has it been for you to be in a business built around your passion?
I think all entrepreneurs have to have a passion for what they’re doing. True success is never knowing whether you’re working or playing, and I’ve been able to attain that. Many of the people working with us have, too, which is why we have high retention rates in our senior management. They’re engaged and passionate about what they’re doing, which is why many of them work very long hours and very hard for us.
How do you keep retail staff engaged?
At the managerial level, we make sure we have good systems for our people, which allows them to focus on what they’re really good at, and that’s talking about running. We centralized all the accounting, payroll, logistics and operational things that, a lot of times, store managers don’t particularly like doing. They like talking about what they’re passionate about, which is running, so we put them to work where their skill sets and passion can be used to the greatest extent. They generate enthusiasm, and that trickles down to the front-line staff.
Which retailer do you admire the most, and what do you admire about them?
Starbucks. It has developed a culture around its business. That’s part of its business model, and has made it successful. People go in and enjoy the ambiance. Starbucks created a meeting place for people, as well as a place to buy coffee. In many ways, that’s what the Running Room is about, too. We create a meeting place, a sense of community. You can go in all sweaty from a run and pick up information on a local event, or you can go in dressed in business attire and feel equally comfortable. That creates sustainability in the brand. It’s more than just selling running shoes and running clothing; it is, quite genuinely, a lifestyle we’re encouraging people to live.
What advice do you have for startups?
In our first few years, as we were growing our business, we had some debt. Don’t be afraid of that. Just make sure it’s within your means and that, whomever your debtor is, you have clear communications with them. Learning that our banker and accountant are really partners in the success of the operation led to the realization that they can give us some really sound advice. You’d be amazed at the cooperation you’ll get from a banker if you provide as much information about your operation as you can.
What do you think is an effective strategy for expanding into the U.S.?
Americans play hardball when it comes to retail. If one of their big players decides they’re going to take you out, they have the wherewithal to do it. We have eight stores now in the U.S., and we’re just getting ready to expand outside the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. We’re trying to build a cluster of stores to legitimize our brand in that area. And we’re doing so at a very guarded pace.
What are your thoughts on franchising?
We did try it. We had three locations that were franchised, but we made the decision to buy them back because it wasn’t working. When a franchisee buys a franchise, they’re looking for a return on their investment. I was saying to them, “You need to reinvest, to update your store, to expand, to have another location in this market.” And they were saying, “No, this is big enough. I want to reap some of the rewards of my hard work.”
It often takes us a while to develop a market, because we tend to be developing new followings of customers. And it takes some patience, sweat equity and financial commitment to do that. But once you’ve established that market, the customer-retention rate is very high. We were spending a lot of time trying to persuade the franchisees how they should do it instead of focusing on building our business. So, we bought the franchisees back. Our model just didn’t support franchising.
What’s the one thing you still hope to achieve in your business career?
What’s really important to me is to make sure that we have truly built something that goes beyond the success of one individual to the success of a team. The team involves my two sons in leadership roles, but there’s also a group of people who are part of the senior management team. We’re making sure that they sustain the core values that have made us successful today, and continue to experience the kind of growth in both sales and profitability that we’ve managed to enjoy. That transition of power to the next generation is what’s really important to me.
What would you like the epitaph of John Stanton to read?
He built something that’s bigger than him, and empowered Canadians to take control of their own lives.
Born in Tofield, Alta., in 1948.
As a teenager, takes a job as a bag boy at a local IGA grocery store; works his way up the ranks and, by the age of 30, becomes an executive vice-president at grocery distributor Horne & Pitfield Foods (now part of the Sobeys organization).
In 1981, the self-described overweight couch potato signs up for a three-kilometre fun run with his sons. He vows to change his lifestyle, and running becomes his passion.
In 1984, opens a store and meeting place for runners in a tiny room in an Edmonton house shared with a hairdresser. The new venture, called the Running Room, is meant to be a part-time hobby business.
The Running Room takes off as its community atmosphere and store-based running clinics resonate with customers. Stanton quits his grocery job and starts opening new stores. In 2004, he introduces the Walking Room.
Today, his firm operates more than 100 stores, including eight in the U.S. An active spokesperson, he is a best-selling author of six books on fitness.
In 2009, is appointed a member of the Order of Canada for his work promoting fitness among Canadians.