Providing for his family and making the world a healthier place was Michael Gotfredson’s inspiration to revolutionize the running and fitness industry.
Gotfredson, also referred to as Mike G., or Chief Runner, founded Road Runner Sports in September 1983, and today it is the largest running specialty retailer in the United States. His creation led to his induction in the Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame Class of 2022.
In 1983, Gotfredson had a wife and four kids under the age of 5 when he lost his job forcing his family to live on a tight budget. One day, he went into a running store and was appalled by the high cost of shoes and poor customer service. He believed he was not alone in his frustrations, so with an MBA from Fresno State in direct marketing, he decided to solve the problem.
His vision in the pre-Internet age was to mail catalogs to consumers with detailed descriptions of the features and benefits of running shoes and fitness products, and to sell them at fair prices, something that was unheard of at the time.
One of his first big hurdles was to open business accounts with the big running shoe vendors including Asics, Brooks and adidas. However, vendors only sold product to brick and mortar retail stores back then, and Gotfredson couldn’t afford to open his own store. So he did what any entrepreneur would do and stretched the truth. He told vendors he sold running shoes out of his brother’s car rental company to travelers. They bought it.
The vendors came on board and Gotfredson’s fledgling company began. On the first day of business, they took seven orders. Within months, Road Runner Sports experienced explosive growth, and the excited shoe vendors asked Gotfredson to open as many “running shoe car rental shops” as he could. Gotfredson had to come clean, and admitted he mostly sold product out of a garage solely through catalog mailings and “Fit Experts” taking calls from across the country. The vendors were shocked, but had to agree the concept was valid and decided to keep supplying Gotfredson with product.
The growth continued as did the number of employees. The Road Runner Sports Customer Care Center grew from one Fit Expert to almost 200 within a few years. And Gotfredson to this day shares he has personally taken more than 50,000 phone orders and wrapped 50,000 packages.
By the mid-1990s, the Internet was born, and Gotfredson pioneered the first online sales of technical running shoes. Others followed his marketing leadership, of course. He followed that success by entering the brick-and-mortar space in the early 2000s. Road Runner Sports now has 41 physical stores focused on all facets of running and fitness. Each store is dedicated to selling the right product to fit the specific needs of consumers.
As Gotfredson’s success grew, he felt he needed to give back to his community and those less fortunate than him. So, in 2000 he founded Athletes Helping Athletes, a charitable organization that gives handcycles to children with permanent physical disabilities to help them be active and healthy. To this day, the charity has given away 1,524 handcycles, amounting to over $2,000,000, at no cost to families all across America. Some recipients have gone on to become Paralympic medal winners and now inspire thousands of others to reach for their dreams.
From the beginning, the importance of family and teamwork played an essential role in the company’s growth and success. Gotfredson’s family and kids all chipped in to help along the way. Today, three of his sons work for the company, with his oldest now carrying the torch of success as the new president.
Now, 38 years after the sale of its first pair of running shoes, Road Runner Sports can attribute its success to the special one-on-one relationship it enjoys with its customers and to the core mindset it is always going to do it differently than everyone else. The business has flourished because more than 800 employees genuinely care about their customers and make the most of every opportunity to interact with them. Every order taken and shipped, product selected for the catalog, website, retail store, catalog mailed, are opportunities to establish and develop a personal relationship.
Like many other entrepreneurs, Gotfredson’s journey has positively impacted many lives and made their personal journeys better. He is, and has been, an industry pioneer who changed the way consumers satisfy their running and fitness needs.
Road Runner Sports now has distribution centers in San Diego, California, and Columbus, Ohio. There are neighborhood retail stores throughout nine states with more on the way. The size of Road Runner Sports and the number of its locations has changed, but one thing that remains a constant is Gotfredson’s commitment to customers and their passion for running and fitness.