Many companies talk about being customer-obsessed. While I believe that is important, I believe that we should be employee obsessed. I have long believed that the customer comes second. How can we possibly ask our team to take care of our customers and the community if we don’t take care of each other first? Are we publicly and privately recognizing our employees and their contributions? Are we listening to them, their ideas, and, most importantly, understanding their life and career goals?
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joey Pointer, President and CEO of Fleet Feet.
Growing up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina, Joey watched the way his father ran the farm, managed his business, and treated his employees. Those early examples of leadership, management, and partnership laid the groundwork for Joey’s approach to life and work, particularly when he became Fleet Feet’s CEO and president in 2017.
A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill (and life-long, passionate fan of the men’s basketball team — GO HEELS!), Joey majored in business and earned his master’s in accounting. After college he began working as an accountant at Ernst & Young. Upon learning through his wife (who worked part-time at the Fleet Feet in Carrboro) that Fleet Feet’s national headquarters also resided in Carrboro, Joey saw an opportunity to combine his personal passion with professional experience, and he inquired about a position. Shortly thereafter, Joey joined the Store Support Team made up of five employees, becoming the first classically trained financial member of the staff. Starting first as a financial manager in 2004, Joey was then in the position of director of operations from 2006 to 2012, and then CFO from 2012 until his 2017 promotion to CEO.
While he self-defines as a “creature of habit” and enjoys the same thing for breakfast and lunch almost every day (you can ask him what those meals are), Joey has been anything but habitual since his appointment to CEO and president. Under his leadership, Fleet Feet has undergone significant changes rooted in people, culture, business development, the customer experience, national marketing, and innovation. Guided by these strategic priorities, the brand has introduced fit id 3D foot scanning technology to all of its locations, driven customer engagement through its e-commerce site and digital media channels, added key roles to its senior leadership team, and undergone a complete brand refresh and logo update, all of which have helped the brand post consecutive months of comp store growth.
When Joey is not celebrating the accomplishments of staff members at the company’s monthly Core Value Awards, he’s on a walking meeting with a team member or vendor partner, out for a run in preparation for his next marathon, on the phone or in a store with a franchisee, supporting his children at Fleet Feet’s Mini Milers running program, mastering wakeboarding on Hyco Lake, or sharing inspiration and news on his Instagram account @runjoeypointer. He currently lives in Chapel Hill with his wife, Ivy, and their three children
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Myjourney to Fleet Feet first began as a customer. I was newly married and my wife, who is an avid runner, just started medical school. I was getting more serious about running and triathlons, so we would go to Fleet Feet on the weekends and look at all of the cool gear. Eventually, she got a job at the local store here in Carrboro for the employee discount and I started to realize that Fleet Feet was more than just one store. There were other Fleet Feet locations and the headquarters for the brand was also located here in Carrboro.
At the time, I was working at Ernst & Young and loved what I did. I worked 9–5 but lived for getting off early and going for a run or going for long runs on the weekend. I eventually had a light-bulb moment. What if I could turn my passion into a profession? I inquired about a position at Fleet Feet headquarters and the rest they say is history. I have held a lot of different roles in the organization over the years from financial manager to director of operations and now, president and CEO.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I have made lots of mistakes in life and business. Since you asked for funniest, one of my classic mistakes involved one of my first visits to a Fleet Feet store. I was visiting our newly opened Vacaville store in California and noticed they were really busy, so I decided to help out. As I was in the backroom in the racks where we hold shoes, I noticed that some of the shoeboxes were upside down. So, I did the logical thing and I flipped them over, turning the boxes right side up. After doing two or three, I decided I should check the rest of the racks. Sure enough, there must have been 40 shoeboxes upside down that I fixed. I was high fiving myself thinking I helped them get more organized, but when Carol, our local franchisee, saw what I did, I could instantly see the shock in her eyes. It turns out each of the boxes were upside down for a reason. We display one shoe on the wall for customers to see and have the second shoe in the backroom in an upside box, so employees know there isn’t a complete pair inside. Of course, now I know!
Often in business, we have to slow down to speed up. As leaders, we are always moving from project to project or meeting to meeting. You may notice something and assume it’s wrong, but you should always stop to ask questions because your perception may not be the reality. If you take the time to pause and dig deeper, you may uncover a great idea or process.
When Fleet Feet first opened back in 1976, did your founders feel any resistance as two women “invading” what was mostly a men’s domain?
Fleet Feet began in 1976 in Sacramento, Calif., as the result of two women — Sally Edwards and Elizabeth Jansen — wanting to create a place where their runner friends could shop for the products they needed, hang out and meet other runners, and just generally serve as a go-to place for all things running. They opened the original store in an old Victorian house and less than two years later, they opened a second location in Chico, California. As more inquiries came in about opening up additional Fleet Feet stores, they decided the best way to move forward was to begin franchising.
Today, Fleet Feet stands at 180+ locations across the country, and I think the thing that makes me the most proud is that the original intent and approach of Sally and Elizabeth — to welcome runners, to ingrain themselves in the local community, to seek out the best product to offer to their customers — remains embedded in the fabric of how we operate today. It was a gutsy thing to do what they did back in 1976, opening a specialty store in general, but in particular, for two women to do so, and I think it speaks volumes to the tenacity, spirit and passion of this brand and its owners today.
In the ad agency business, writers and art directors face a unique challenge. They have to surrender some of what they are most passionate about, the hands-on creative process, as they move up in the executive hierarchy and must sit behind desks as managers of departments. Did you find the same internal resistance when you moved from the street level to developing and running Fleet Feet franchise company?
I have always liked to be in the thick of the action and be hands-on. As I moved up and was given more management responsibility, one thing I struggled with was managing a group of employees that were performing the work. I always wanted to jump in and be hands-on, especially when it was not happening at the pace or level that I wanted it.
My mindset shifted after someone challenged me and shared a different perspective. He told me I was an unbelievable contributor and if I were a powerplant, I was producing 100 watts per hour. The team I was managing was producing 60 watts per hour. He went on to explain that if I could bring the group of five that I was leading from 60 watts to 90 watts per hour, we would now be producing 150 watts more per hour.
That analogy impacted me and pushed me to spend more time coaching and helping others improve, instead of assuming that I could do it all (because you can’t).
Running changes everything — you’ve brought Fleet Feet’s vision to life, inspiring thousands to hit the track, the road, or wherever. Is this the ultimate for you? Or is there a next stage to your vision?
Local communities are at the heart of Fleet Feet and everything we work to achieve. Whether it’s hosting group runs, fundraising for local charities and organizations, or contributing to national partners like Girls on the Run, I believe that strong running communities have the power to positively impact our communities as a whole. We have 180+ locally owned and operated stores that are doing great work every day, and I want to amplify this work and message.
Last fall, we formally launched a new charitable arm of our brand called, Do the Run Thing. The mission of Do the Run Thing is to create and nurture sustainable running communities that improve the health and happiness of the overall community. While this has always been at the heart of what drives our brand, Do the Run Thing will help us continue the good work across our communities through nationalized awareness and unified fundraising efforts.
I am excited to see this fully come to life over the next few years.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you became CEO what was your vision, your purpose?
Becoming CEO of this great brand was a truly humbling experience. My vision, and our shared purpose, was to create a culture of passionate individuals that get up every day guided by the power of running. It pushes individuals to lead a healthier and more active lifestyle and it truly brings people together. We are fortunate that we get to do something every day that we are passionate about and have a positive impact on people and our communities.
Fleet Feet has become so much more than a retail store; we have become a place of support and encouragement for the running community. Whether it’s hosting run clubs to help customers train for their next marathon or providing relief to customers who may be feeling foot pain, we are here to help, and this is what we love the most.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Celebrating, recognizing, and ensuring our employees across our retail network feel appreciated and valued is important. One of our core values is — It Is a Privilege to Serve. This year, we created a process to nominate and recognize employees that go above and beyond to create an amazing customer experience. One of my favorite nominations was from our Hendersonville store. The owner of that location recognized an employee, Kat, for going above and beyond for a customer after normal business hours. The customer, who was severely vision impaired, came in looking for a new pair of running shoes. Kat, who had already worked a full day as an elementary educator before her shift at Fleet Feet, immediately stepped in to help. She worked patiently with the customer, guided her around the floor as they tried on new shoes and really made her feel loved and cared for. That hands-on and thoughtful experience is what Fleet Feet is all about.
These awards, while small, allow our employees to feel recognized, see their peers recognized, and realize that they are part of something bigger. I hope that the lore of these stories will go on to help inspire future generations of employees at Fleet Feet.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
A mantra that you will hear me say over and over again is fail fast, fail forward, and hopefully fail frugally. Too often, people are afraid of failure. We don’t want to talk about it and brush failures big and small under the rug. As humans, we are not perfect, nor can we expect our teammates to be. While we strive not to fail, we must accept and embrace that failure will happen. What is most important is what we learn from our failure. Did we fail forward? Did we fail fast? And hopefully, did we fail frugally? Do not hide from failure. Share your learnings so that the rest of the team can also learn from them. We are each great, and when we live by this, we are getting better.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I‘m not sure many people dream of becoming CEO of a brick-and-mortar retail brand during the middle of the retail apocalypse. We struggled like most retailers on how to change and evolve at the same pace the customers’ expectations were changing.
Ten years ago, we talked about how to make our websites more sticky. Now, we were talking about how to make our stores more sticky. It forced us to take a hard look at all areas of our business. We ultimately ventured down a path to change our outfitting process. Outfitting customers has always been more like a craft — a mix of both art and science, but until recently, it was hard to demonstrate the “science” part of it. From 1976, up until now, the entire industry relied on the same metal tool — the Brannock Device — to measure the feet of our customers. While the technology and build of the shoes we sold evolved dramatically over that time span, the way we worked with customers to help them find the best pair of shoes for their needs had not changed much at all.
We found a technology partner who had developed a very fast and accurate 3D foot scanning system. In working with them, we introduced a 3D scanning system into our retail ecosystem that could not only enhance the customer experience, but also provide a tool for our outfitters that could improve the experience of identifying the best footwear solutions for our customers.
No longer do we tell a customer that “you have a high arch” or “your foot is wider than average;” now, we show them that, so that we’re literally helping customers to see their feet the way our outfitters do. With a 3D scan that has stats sitting right next to it, our outfitters can say, “Based on a million foot scans, your arch is higher than 88% of the population of people with your foot size” or “your foot is wider than 73% of the population of people with your foot size”. That level of detail is extremely powerful in creating confidence that the product solutions we recommend trying on are based on factual data.
Hindsight is always 20/20. This decision turned out to be a great one, but it was not an easy one. Changing the way you have done business for the last 40 years is hard and scary. There were many heated discussions along the way and lots of opinions. But in the end, I believe that we all recognized that we live in a time when most people are digitally native. Their phone is more than a phone, it is a camera, an alarm clock, a map, a newspaper, etc. By bringing digital technology into our process we are able to show the customer their feet in a different way than has been done before. The customer, in essence, gets to see their feet the way we see it and we’re able to provide customers with more information about the “why” of a purchase, which is powerful.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
I’m really proud of how Fleet Feet has evolved over the years and I truly believe our success stems from a belief in a unified purpose. Over the past decade, we’ve served more than 15 million customers, have developed an app, completely revamped our outfitting process to include fit id — our 3D foot scanning system, debuted a running shoe built from data points of over 100,000 customer 3D scans and launched our nationwide 5K, The Big Run.
I believe that our best days are still yet to come, and I look forward to seeing what we will accomplish together.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
It all starts with people. Many companies talk about being customer-obsessed. While I believe that is important, I believe that we should be employee obsessed. I have long believed that the customer comes second. How can we possibly ask our team to take care of our customers and the community if we don’t take care of each other first? Are we publicly and privately recognizing our employees and their contributions? Are we listening to them, their ideas, and, most importantly, understanding their life and career goals?
Secondly, as you eye the future, you must balance being bold and leaping forward along with taking care of today. The best preparation for tomorrow is doing our best today. Continuing to execute and focus on the fundamentals, while relentlessly honing our craft and maximizing every customer interaction. At Fleet Feet, we are continually balancing between adding new systems and technologies with just getting better with the fundamentals, as I believe that these fundamentals will separate the good from the great.
Build Brand. Drive Demand. The more thoughtfully and purposefully you build your brand and overall brand awareness, the more you can drive demand. This is especially challenging as you begin to grow. What investments are you making today that you expect a return on tomorrow versus what investments are you making today that may not return anything for another year? We have invested heavily in digital initiatives and brand marketing over the past three years to capitalize on things that excite our customer, while deepening their connection and overall awareness of the brand.
You must embrace technology. We have come a long way since deciding to add 3D footwear scanning to our outfitting process. Since then, we’ve overhauled our website, launched an app and rewards program, and are now on the verge of bringing personalization to life in a way that is meaningful to our customers. Whether it’s actual products such as personalized 3D printed insoles and sandals or the launch of a footwear fitting program on a customer’s phone using their camera, Fleet Feet is trying to leverage technology to drive human interaction.
Remember, no matter how great the technology is, you still win because of your people. Our people are the hero. Technology is the assist and the enabler to allow us to not only stay relevant, but also to amplify our message and grow faster. To do things, our competitors can only dream of doing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are two special people who immediately come to mind. One reminds me to stay humble, while the other continually points out that past success does not equal future success. Just because we had a great week, month, or year does not mean that we can let our foot off the gas. We have to be inventing and pushing forward continually.
Asking for help is hard. Admitting that you do not know all of the answers is hard. But no matter our position in an organization, we can all benefit from the advice and sounding board of others. I would encourage everyone to find someone that they can meet with and be that sounding board or mentor in their career.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Before I answer the question, I want to say I firmly believe that anytime you can turn your personal interest into a profession, you’re on to something. I love to run, and I love the joy, the challenge, and the friendships that it has brought to my life. Running led me to Fleet Feet. I only mention this as a backdrop because I wake up each morning intending to bring the movement that I am so passionate about to life.
The movement that I and everyone else at Fleet Feet are working to bring to life is to inspire the runner in everyone. It does not matter if that is a 5-minute mile or 35-minute mile; we just want you to move.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow me on Instagram @runjoeypointer for behind the scenes look at life at Fleet Feet, my running adventures, and life as a husband and father.
Readers can follow Fleet Feet at
If you are interested in more information on franchising, you can contact us at https://franchise.fleetfeet.com/join-us
But most importantly stop by your local Fleet Feet store.