Judges' Choice AKFIT Inc. - KidsFit Inc.

By CRAIG GILBERT

The fitness world, and a lot of the equipment Karen Hastie sells into it, can be complicated.

Karen Hastie President
AKFIT Fitness Superstores

So can the business world, but the owner/operator of the AKFIT Inc. chain of Fitness Superstores has helped herself succeed in both by keeping things elegantly simple.

Hastie keeps her equipment warehouse, AKFIT, the holdings firm she founded to purchase her Barrydowne Road building and her newest enterprise, a children's exercise centre chain called kidsFIT Inc., as entities wholly independent of each other. In her corporate structure as in sales to clients, she tries to keep things as plain and simple as possible, and singles that out as the big reason for her success.

AKFIT began as a fitness consulting operation in 1989, which Karen launched after she graduated from Cambrian College's charter fitness and leisure management program.

The winner of the prestigious 2005 Northern Ontario Business Judges' Choice Award recalls it was tough to get a job in the field without being bilingual. "There is a lot more opportunity today with that program; fitness is a lot more important in Northern Ontario."

Many grads from the program, she says (Hastie today sits on the program's advisory board), go on to become personal trainers, where employment in the province is generally on the rise.

In those days, she spent a lot of time promoting "wellness," a term virtually unheard of back in the days of legwarmers.

People then were eager to start thinking about their fitness level, but weren't so eager to pay for the right programs and equipment to help them get to where they wanted to be.

So AKFIT became a consulting company, helping individuals and organizations select the right combination of equipment.

Then it dawned on her.

"This is crazy, we should be selling the stuff!"

And so the equipment sales began. It was mostly simple treadmills in those days, maybe two or three models, and they went for $2,500 apiece.

Today, AKFIT sells over 30 models of aerobic and other equipment, and some of it starts at $700.

It's funny, she says, that the company has come back full-circle to consulting again.

She is working on a floor plan for a fitness centre in a new resort in Muskoka. AKFIT is also working with a First Nations community to equip a new gym and training its staff.

About 80 percent of the company's sales are related to retail and commercial customers.

"We sell a product people need," she says.

Quality and customer service are paramount in Northern Ontario, which has but a sliver of the province's population pie.

In southern Ontario, she says, a retailer can bamboozle a customer to sell them something they don't want or really need, or something that will fall apart in a year, because the market is so huge they don't need that customer to ever come back. In Northern Ontario, repeat customers and positive word-of-mouth are the bread and butter of any successful retailer.

"The customer is very important," she says. "That's why we have no commissioned salespeople."

She has been asked to bring her business model to southern Ontario, but likes it where she is.

"I'm comfortable here, I want to get my North Bay store up and running, and we're looking at Timmins in order to cover that area."

She hopes to retire sometime, but can't see herself not being involved at some level.

That's one of the reasons she moved a lot of her stock from her Barrydowne location, which AKFIT has more or less outgrown, to an off-site warehouse. If and when she backs away from the retail locations, she would maintain ownership of the warehouse, which would become a regional distribution centre, selling the equipment to the storefronts.

"It would be hard to just walk away from it."

Hastie never saw herself as an entrepreneur. Her father was a third-generation Inco worker, and after having children, her mother left her job to stay home with them.

She has been told she is passionate.

"To grow with it, you have to believe in what you're doing. I couldn't just sell something. I'm good at sales, but I want to feel like I'm helping, not just taking people for a ride."

Hastie has recently launched a new franchise called kidsFIT Inc. Its goal is to provide children with a safe place to become more active.

It is a pet project now, but Hastie has received communications of interest in franchises from all over North America and from "Montreal to Japan."

The kid gyms will feature instructor-led, age-appropriate workouts and equipment. The gyms will feature pint-sized treadmills, for example.

"It's not weight benches, or competitive workouts," she explains, stressing the workouts will be geared to different age groups, and will be basically low-impact.

"Schools today have a tough time meeting the fitness needs of their students," she explains. "Physical education has almost been wiped out at the elementary level. That, or it's just low-organizational games."

Like a child in a hockey family is more likely to pick up a stick at some point, Hastie hopes the children who go through the kidsFIT experience will be more apt to lead an active lifestyle into adolescence and adulthood.

Hastie likes to keep things clear, simple and in balance. It's a theory she takes with her into her personal life, where her daughter is paramount to all of these business goings-on.

"My seven-year-old daughter always comes first," she says.

There are a lot of young, passionate people on her 15-strong payroll, she says. One staffer has been there for five years, another for a decade. That helps. "I'm blessed to be able to be a mom and work on my company's development, because I have good staff I can trust."

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