Bond gone as HEST deals with changes in challenging retail times

A rock in the fitness industry between 1981 and 2006, HEST Fitness has in the last week experienced a culmination of escalating changes since it was sold by its founders 16 months ago.
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A rock in the fitness industry between 1981 and 2006, HEST Fitness has in the last week experienced a culmination of escalating changes since it was sold by its founders 16 months ago.

HEST investment partners that bought into the Texas chain in March 2007 with then-spouses James and Laura Bond (click here to see that March 2007 story) terminated James Bond's contract as of July 14, per an email sent by Bond on July 15. Laura Bond, divorced from James in late May 2008, had officially parted with the business as of the end of January 2008, but was phasing out her involvement starting in November 2007. She has since moved on to independent marketing endeavors.

Earlier this year, investment partner Bruce Thaler had begun to take a more active role in day-to-day management and has now taken on the responsibilities and title of CEO.

"My partners have exercised their right as majority owners to terminate my contract for running the company," Bond told SNEWS the day he parted ways with HEST. "Although I disagree with their decision and did not want to leave, I respect their decision and for the benefit of the company and the employees, I will exit in a professional manner and wish them the best of success."

Thaler declined comment when reached by SNEWS, saying only that he wished Bond well.

The changes were announced in a three-hour all-company meeting Tuesday evening, July 15. Sources told SNEWS that all stores closed at some point in the day for all employees to drive to HEST headquarters in Austin, meaning some stores in the farthest reaches of Texas were closed nearly the entire day.

At the meeting, it was announced that Joe Gulino, former district manager at Total Fitness Equipment and, prior to that, at Omni Fitness, had been hired that morning to help out the business. Gulino told SNEWS that he flew to Texas from his home in the northeast Tuesday morning, was introduced to and talked with employees that evening, then headed to Denver with Thaler the next day for the Health & Fitness Business show.

"Things are definitely positive," Gulino said. HEST, now with Gulino's help as a manager, is working on a plan to help streamline the 14-store business to move it into its next expansion phase.

Bond's email sent widely around the industry said he was no longer going to be involved in day-to-day operations but could be reached at jabond@austin.rr.com.

"This opportunity of the last 18 months is not one I will ever forget," he wrote. "There are many of you who helped make it happen and supported me through the process and to you, I am eternally grateful. I look forward to what's next and am sure our paths will cross again soon."

In addition, he told SNEWS that he and the investors had "different styles," but they had repositioned the HEST business to be leaner, including outsourcing its delivery and service areas. Although store count was still 14, employee numbers -- partly due to outsourcing -- had dropped by about half.

"It's a lean and mean machine," Bond said about HEST. "Those are the companies that will survive.

"There is a tremendous amount of talent at HEST," he added, "and I strongly believe in their future."

SNEWS® View: With the current times mandating lean and aggressive operations, we're sure we'll hear soon about the plans that Thaler, Gulino and team will be working on to pay down any debts and continue the company's operation in Texas -- however that might be molded. With 25 years under the company's belt under the ownership of Albert and Paula Kessler before it was sold in 2007, there is a strong foundation that will help anchor HEST during changes and rough times, both internal and external. Nevertheless, internal upheaval, such as the termination of an executive after only 16 months, can affect any company, especially with external forces, such as the current economic roller coaster, adding to it.

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