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Running: After 12 years, Lonctos reach the finish line

There are only a couple of stores in Western New York dedicated to selling running apparel, and one of them is about to change hands.

After 12 years in the business, Dan and Alice Loncto have decided to retire. The owners of Fleet Feet Rochester will take over their Fleet Feet Buffalo store on Nov. 3. The transition should be seamless, as the 19-person staff here will continue in its positions.

As their time in the business winds down, it’s easy for Dan and Alice to turn nostalgic about their experiences. Back in the late 1990s, Dan worked for a bank, Alice in the insurance industry. Dan filled some of his spare time by working on running projects; he was the point man for the Corporate Challenge each summer.

“I wondered, ‘How can I become a professional at this?’ ” he said. “In the Corporate Challenge, you meet a lot of people. I thought it would be great to make a living at it.

“So in 1999 or 2000, I saw an ad in Runner’s World that franchises were available from Fleet Feet. I said I didn’t know if I wanted to work in retail and do that. But I knew I wasn’t too good at working for someone else.”

Alice had taken up running as a adult in an effort to improve her health and fitness, and loved it. After a visit to Syracuse to see what an operation looked like, the couple decided to take the plunge. Alice kept her job for a few years as something of an insurance policy against the running store failing.

The days leading up to the opening on Elmwood Avenue on April 13, 2002 were hectic ... and had one particularly memorable crisis.

“You place your orders far in advance of opening,” Dan said. “So around April 1 we started getting shipments but they were coming to our house on Chapin. One day I came home, and there were three FedEx trucks in front of our house. They were unloading hundreds of boxes of Nike shoes.

“It turned out that someone in Nike’s warehouse had made a data entry error. They actually sent us every single women’s pair of shoes for a particular model. In the midst of this, our order - which was maybe three or four boxes - was mixed in with it. We brought out staff to our garage to try to find our order. We told Nike, ‘Until we get the store opened, we can’t be bothered with this.’ So for about two weeks, no one in the country could get that particular shoe, because we had them all.”

Finally, Opening Day arrived. Would anyone be there when the front door opened?

“I remember how tough it was, not knowing if anyone would show up,” Alice said. “That was the scary thing. It was a rainy April day. Around 9:15 in the morning, cars started to pull up. At 9:30, people were lining up to get in. We were supposed to close at 6, and we went from 10 o’clock in the morning until 7 at night – nonstop.”

Dan added, “We were thinking, ‘Why didn’t we do this 20 years ago?’ We could have been rich.”

The store set a company record for most sales on opening day that still stands. Business stayed strong for several weeks, but then settled down. The Lonctos both say the second year was the most difficult. But they kept working at it, and eventually that paid off.

One marketing technique was to increase training programs to the point where hundreds of runners per year would gather for tips on how to run everything from 5-kilometers to a marathon.

In 2008, the operations moved a couple of miles north to a plaza on Delaware Avenue.

“Everything changed,” Dan said about the move. “Our sales jumped 40 percent the first year, and every year since then we’ve gone up by double digits. It’s amazing that parking has that much to do with success.”

During the last couple of years, the Lonctos started to think about retirement. That meant a crash course in how to sell a business.

“I’ll be 65 soon,” Dan said. “Starting when I was 62, we started to think about it. This past January, we said, ‘Let’s get this done this year.’ But it’s not like selling a house and putting up a ‘for sale’ sign. You almost have to do it without telling anybody.”

Fleet Feet has a program in which it buys out retiring store owners, and then puts a manager in place for a five-year period before selling him the business. Just when it looked like the Lonctos would take that route, the phone rang.

“In July, we got a phone call from the CFO of Fleet Feet saying he had just gotten an inquiry from the owner of the Rochester stores. They were curious about whether we were thinking about retiring at some point. We got together, and thought it would be a great fit.”

The Lonctos have been cleaning out their store in preparation for the sale. The original sign that hung in front of the Elmwood store is in the back of the new place; they’ll probably hang it in their garage at some point.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like to sign the paperwork and hand over the keys,” Alice said. “It has been emotional, at least for me. You make so many great connections.”

The Lonctos will spend part of the winter vacationing, something that often has been missing from their lives for the last 12 years. Meanwhile, Dan has some advice for anyone who wants to get into the running gear business.

“Retail is tough – if you aren’t willing to work long hours for little or no pay for two to three years while you build up a loyal community, don’t do it,” he said. “But if you are willing and you can make it through the first few years, it’s incredibly rewarding.”

(Running calendar on Page B15)