Alpha Fitness Equipment loses business, warehouse, inventory, home in Katrina

When SNEWS® went looking for specialty fitness retailer Alpha Fitness Equipment, based in one of the totally devastated areas of New Orleans (Chalmette) near Lake Pontchartrain not far from one of several levee breaks, we didn't know what to expect. Owner Larry Thonn finally got back to us with his story, which he is allowing us to share, relating how he lost it all – business, warehouse, inventory, home – how he tried to find another place to live with price-gouging landlords, and how the help of some kind industry folks have allowed him to try to stay in business. Herewith, his story in his words.
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When SNEWS® went looking for specialty fitness retailer Alpha Fitness Equipment, based in one of the totally devastated areas of New Orleans (Chalmette) near Lake Pontchartrain not far from one of several levee breaks, we didn't know what to expect. With phones out, cell phone reception spotty, and email about the only way to reach somebody, owner Larry Thonn, a.k.a. Lean Larry, finally got back to us with his story, which he is allowing us to share, relating how he lost it all – business, warehouse, inventory, home – how he tried to find another place to live with price-gouging landlords, and how the help of some kind industry folks have allowed him to try to stay in business. In his words:

"If you want a story I will give you ours and there are many. We dodged a bunch of storms and it was just a matter of time before we would get one. We knew it could be bad and this one was. In just an hour everything we had worked for was destroyed except what we grabbed and left with.
 
The wealthy, middle class and the poor found themselves homeless, without communication, the local banks went down, and it was cash only at the gas pumps and in many hotels.Â

I lost my fitness retail business and sales. My warehouses stocked with fitness equipment and with some local orders scheduled to be delivered went under water.Â
 
I had a brand new product (the Lean Abs Machine) to be introduced by infomercial in October in another warehouse which is still underwater. More than 1,000 units will have to be replaced, and I don't think the producer's studio with my infomercial survived. I am going to try to get some help to get the show back together and order some more product. You may see it at http://www.leanabs.com. (Ed. Note: This is one reason Larry is known as Lean Larry.)
 
I have been using what little resources I have loans from friends and credit cards to set up a small office to run the only business I have that still is working -- that is our drop-ship Internet sales. We lost our warehouses. Two employees are without work and I do not need the ones I have but how do you tell your sons goodbye? My younger son called me when he could finally get through on about the fourth day after Katrina and said, "Dad, I know that you probably don't need me and could run the business without me, but what I want to know is, do I still have a job? With tears in my eyes I told him, "Son, you will always have a job with me if we have to share a small amount of money."
 
My two sons and I flew in from the Health & Fitness Business Show in Denver on Saturday night Aug. 27 at 11 p.m. Our wives had left town without us. One son left that night to be with his wife in Baton Rouge with just a couple sets of clothes. I spent the night at home in Chalmette and my youngest son spent the night at his apartment in Chalmette and left the next day to be with his wife in Picayune, Miss. When he got there they left and went up into Alabama. I went to my businesses and lifted up things as much as I could. Then I grabbed three of my five computer boxes, two flat-panel monitors and one key board and mouse. Because the computers have valuable information on them, I decided to take them to higher ground or I would have stayed at home and regretted it. I went to my friend's house in Picayune and rode it out there. He took his family to a friends house in Baton Rouge. The storm worked on clearing out the woods in Picayune after it killed many in Chalmette, St. Bernard and New Orleans. The high storm surge was an early morning rude awakening for many who stayed behind. If they survived the water surge, they found themselves fighting to survive in the flood and hurricane force winds.Â
 
We are not used to hurricanes this strong that kill this many people. We never thought we would experience it in our great country. This kind of thing only happens in Third World countries!Â
 
After riding out the storm in Picayune where the eye passed over I spend one more day to give workers time to clear out the roadways that I would need to find my family in Baton Rouge. Cell phones would not work so I did not know if I would be able to find them. When I got to Covington, La., my daughter-in-law got a text message to me. I did not know about text messaging or how to use it, but I learned fast! I text-messaged my wife and said, rent an apartment, because I knew our residence and businesses were destroyed.
 
She did not understand the urgency so when I got there we began the search for an apartment. An apartment is hard to find when your cell phone is not working and you don't have access to a corded line. Pay phones are hard to find and when you find one others are using it. When we would get someone on the line that had an apartment we would have to hold while they answered many other calls. People were renting up the place and buying properties that had been on the market for a long time and they were selling for more than they were asking.
 
I finally found an apartment in a neighborhood I did not feel comfortable in, but it was all I could find. Boy, was it a step backward -- from a nice home in a decent neighborhood to apartment life in a low-income area. I gave the man my check and came back the next day for the key and he said that I could not have the apartment because my check was not any good. My payroll check did not go in like it usually does because the New Orleans-based bank Hibernia was down and did not send out our payroll! My employees had to do without money also.Â
 
The apartment search rat race was on again. I got lucky and found another one in a better neighborhood. My Dad rented it with his check so that it would clear. I am sharing a two-bedroom with my mom and dad and my wife. Before we got the apartment, 10 of us were in a small, college, one-bedroom apartment with my daughter who is attending LSU in Baton Rouge.
 
Although I am happy to have a place to live and to set up our office the landlord had the upper hand: He was not nice and rented the available two units for $100 more than he usually gets. We asked him to change the worn-out carpets with holes in it from the dog the previous tenant had, he said, "You can change the carpet if you want; so many people want this apartment I can rent it as it is."Â
 
Along with the many rules that he gave us, he also told us that us four were the only ones that were authorized to stay in the apartment and that he would not let us turn it into a refugee center. My sons still need a place to stay.
 
Many nice people are helping and have offered to help. Powertec fitness said that they would waive some cost and lower our pricing to help us get back on our feet. Bill Barontini, one of the vendor reps whom we have never met face-to-face, has offered to answer our calls to help until we get phone service, and he is doing a great job. 
 
The population explosion in this area has caused many problems.  The traffic is bad all day long and Wal-Mart is out of many food items by the end of the day. Gas lines are long, but the situation is getting better.
 
Utilities and important services are hard to have connected because of the spike in new residences and repair work going on.
 
We will not have a corded phone in our place until Sept. 22, and the cell phones work only in the early mornings and late night times.  I believe that pay phones at all stores should be mandatory. 
 
Don't take me wrong. I am very blessed and there are many survivors that would love to change places with me in a minute. Many are still suffering, and I think about that all the time: I feel guilty because I have decent shelter and food. Many are still destitute and looking for family members. Some children were separated from their parents or may have lost their parents in the storm.
 
Thanks for contacting me and I hope that you have a better picture of what this storm has done."
 
Larry runs Alpha Fitness Equipment (www.alphafitnessequipment.com), formerly of Chalmette, La., and carries brands including Multisports, Keys, Diamondback, Powertec, Body-Solid Endurance, SteelFlex, Stamina, Yukon, ProSpot and TKO, as well as his own Lean Abs machine. Contact him by emailing: lean@leanabs.com

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