Gazelle Sports CEO Jennifer Brummitt took her position at an interesting time. The 40-year-old, who has worked with Gazelle in various capacities since 2003, became the Kalamazoo-based company’s first CEO in July 2020. The daughter of Gazelle Sports co-owner Jean Sequite was charged with helping right the ship following a sales drought caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gazelle has two locations in Grand Rapids, along with stores in Northville, Birmingham, Kalamazoo and Holland. Brummitt talked with Crain's about the athletic wear company's resurgence since the start of the pandemic.
You were named Gazelle's first CEO during a turbulent time for the company. How prepared were you to take the role in July 2020?
I'm not sure I could've ever felt prepared stepping into my role during the pandemic. The circumstances gave me an opportunity to lean in to vulnerability because we were all facing new and different circumstances every day that our company and communities had never faced before. I felt more comfortable leaning in and saying, "I'm not sure," and getting feedback to do the best we could during a really uncertain time. We were able to build trust among our team and learned that we could handle difficult and stressful situations together quickly.
What types of changes — structural, product-wise, etc. — have you made over your nearly three years as Gazelle CEO?
Our product mix has really remained the same with the core of our business still focused on running and walking footwear. During the pandemic we saw more folks incorporating health in their lives and we were honored to have the privilege of supporting their journey. In terms of our structure, we've moved to a regional model with the management of our brick-and-mortar business. We've divided the state into three regions: metro Detroit, greater Grand Rapids and Southwest Michigan. We promoted three of our store managers to newly created regional roles. Each of our stores have their own uniqueness that comes from their teams and communities, and moving to this regional model has helped us to better connect and collaborate between stores within a region, especially as we've continued to add additional doors.
How bad was the sales drought for Gazelle early in the pandemic?
The doors to our five locations were closed for 76 days. Our overall sales dropped roughly 60 percent from March to May 2020. We were fortunate to have a fairly strong e-commerce business so we saw our customers turn to our website to find their shoes and apparel during the pandemic.
Everyone was scared when things shut down in 2020. There was a lot of talk, though, about more people opting to do things outside. Much of what Gazelle offers is for outside activities. Was there any shock within the company when sales took a dip in 2020?
I don't know that there was shock that our sales dipped during that time. We had lost the opportunity to connect with customers through our in-store experience and through community events, and for us that's what makes Gazelle Sports special. When we were able to reopen our doors we were pleasantly surprised to see an increase in new customers who had turned to walking and running during the pandemic come through our doors. We ended 2020 down about 13 percent over the previous year. To be down just 13 percent after being closed during two of our busiest months felt like a huge win.
A 2020 Crain's report stated Gazelle did not expect to turn a profit in 2020. Has the company turned a profit since then? How have sales rebounded since the summer of 2020? Can you give me an idea of how sales have increased each year since then?
We've seen a pretty significant increase in our overall sales the last two years. In 2021, we were up more than 39 percent over 2020. Last year, we were up 13.5 percent over 2021. The growth can be attributed to a few different factors: People went back to shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. We've seen a continued increase in e-commerce sales and sales through third-party sites like Amazon. The opening of our second Grand Rapids store in May helps, too.
Are there plans for more expansion in the future?
We're kicking off another project this month. Gazelle has owned and operated a New Balance Store in Grandville for the last 20 years. This spring we will be transforming that space into our seventh Gazelle Sports location.
What lessons would you share with other people in leadership positions on how to set up their companies for sustained success coming out of the pandemic?
First, stay true to your core values and gut check decisions against them daily. Does this align? If not, it's an easy pass. Second, know what makes your business special and lean in hard. For Gazelle, it's our in-store experience and our team. Customers can buy most products anywhere and have it arrive the next day to their doorstep but what they can't find everywhere is caring and knowledgeable people who truly listen and care about why they walked through our doors. People crave connection, care and want to support their local communities more than ever. Lastly, be willing to let things go that no longer work post-pandemic. We have had a few of these and while they are things we always did before the pandemic they no longer met the needs of our business or our customers. They were difficult to let go and we sometimes find ourselves gravitating back toward the behavior. We do our best to reset and look toward the things that make us stronger that we've learned over the last three years since the pandemic started.
You've obviously had a long relationship with Gazelle. Are you super active?
Active living is a core value of the company. That means something different to everyone. I'm active with my family, and find value in moving my body regularly by running, walking and strength training.
Do you think working for a company like Gazelle pushes staffers to be more active?
I wouldn't say we push our team to be more active but what we do have is a group of like-minded folks who believe in movement as part of their daily life. Our team has some of the most incredible stories about their movement journeys — from folks who have been running and competing their entire lives, to folks who picked up running as a way to quit smoking or make friends or because someone dared them to do a 5K. We've all started and restarted, and I think that's what makes our team so special. We truly understand the struggles, challenges and highs, and what it feels like to achieve a goal or hit a new (personal record) and we love sharing these stories and knowledge with others.
From Crain’s Detroit Business.