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Making It
For Fairfax couple, building a fitness equipment company has been a real marathon

By Margaret Webb Pressler
Sunday, July 8, 2007

It has been more than 20 years, but Carla Nees remembers vividly just how hard she and her husband sweated while building their very successful national chain of home fitness equipment stores.

Fitness Resource, based in Fairfax, is about to open its 26th store. But it would never have opened its first if it hadn't been for Carla, who as a new mother back in 1984 worried about her husband's two Virginia motorcycle stores, Cycle Sports. It was a highly seasonal business, and when the weather turned cold, so did sales. Carla wanted to escape that stress.

"Every winter day would be so depressing because there was no money coming in," Carla recalls. "I got this magazine, a Newsweek, and the cover art was the California home fitness craze. I looked at that, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, our guys . . . can put together exercise equipment in the wintertime."

David Nees was hesitant at first, given that his motorcycle business already required a huge effort. But the couple's business partner, who has since died, agreed "that the wave of the future is not motorcycles; it's going to be people wanting to keep their bodies in good shape," Carla says. David went along.

They were shocked by how much easier it turned out to be than selling motorcycles, simply because the time was right. While getting the first store ready to open in Oakton, Carla and David were bolting together two new rowing machines to display, as their young son played around them. Two couples wandered into the unfinished store, and each bought a rowing machine on the spot.

The business mushroomed from there and now has stores from Maryland to Georgia. David held onto the motorcycle business, finally selling it in 1998.

Over the years, the fitness chain has kicked out several million dollars in profit to the couple, who live in Fairfax. But a growing retail business is stressful: There are 200 employees, as well as trucks and stores to manage, on top of watching the latest fitness trends. The couple's son, a preschooler when the first store opened, is now 28 and works for his parents. "When he was a kid, he thought that's what all parents did -- go out and open new stores," Carla says.

To their surprise, being a family business helps offset the difficulties. When pressed, Carla calls herself marketing director. David is president. But they've never fought about who gets to do what. "We thought that it might be detrimental to our marriage, but it turned out that we work together very well," she says. "There is a very strong delineation of responsibilities." She takes the lead on longer-term strategy and he on the day-to-day-operations.

They plan to open three new stores a year for the next few years. Still, at 57 and 63, Carla and David also dream of selling the chain and having time to relax. But they won't sell right now: The downturn in the housing market has softened the demand for home fitness equipment, so it wouldn't be smart.

Timing, they have learned, is everything.

Were you also lucky to have great timing in starting a business? E-mail presslerm@washpost.com.

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