HEST Fitness passes the torch to new owners James and Laura Bond

After 25 years of "keeping Texas fit," Albert and Paula Kessler have sold their HEST Fitness chain to a partnership that has James and Laura Bond in the drivers' seats.

After 25 years of "keeping Texas fit," Albert and Paula Kessler have sold their HEST Fitness chain to a partnership that has James and Laura Bond in the drivers' seats.

Closing the deal on March 2, the Bonds and Albert Kessler were hitting the road March 3 for a four-day "road show" to appear personally at all 12 stores to talk to employees about the change of ownership and to calm any possible nerves.

The deal is the first store ownership for the Bonds, who have been a married sales and marketing team for nearly six years. They have mostly worked for other stores, manufacturers and businesses, although they did operate a sales and marketing agency for a year before joining Leisure Fitness a little more than five years ago, where both worked until late fall 2006.

The Bonds make up a third of a three-part partnership that includes Robert Poole and Bruce Thaler, two businessmen on the East Coast who are real estate developers and investors. The new partnership is called the Fitness Group of Texas LLC. Financial terms of the deal were confidential.

"The deal is a win-win-win for everybody," Laura Bond, vice president, told SNEWS®. "A win for Albert and Paula, a win for us, and a win for our partners. Everybody is very happy."

Said James Bond, president, "The vision is to grow the company to the maximum capacity in Texas."

Kesslers not retiring
Already losing his voice from all the talking, Albert Kessler noted that after running the stores and being in the fitness business for 25 years, "It was time. It's a change for us and for the employees.

"This industry has been through a lot of ups and downs, and we've been through most of them," added Kessler. "We're ready for a new challenge. We're ready for a change."

Not to say that the Albert, 52, or his wife Paula, 50, are ready to retire. They own a ranch north of HEST's corporate headquarters in Corpus Christi that Albert called mostly "recreational." But the change in the business could allow them to look at getting into cattle or even exotic game. He also joked that maybe he'd come to work in a store for the Bonds; "I'd love to get back on the floor."

The Kesslers got into the fitness industry in 1981, opening the first store in Corpus Christi after a health club deal that Albert had nearly sealed fell through. On a "thin budget," as he put it, HEST survived with the one store until 1989 -- and one employee by the name of Paula. Albert himself didn't join the business full time until 1985, he said. The second store was in San Antonio in 1989.

Now the chain operates a conservative, slow-growth business with 12 stores -- up by one in 2006 -- in Corpus Christi, McAllen, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. Brands include Precor, Cybex, Lamar, LifeCore, Bodyguard, Inspire, Torque, Quantum, SportsArt and others -- a lineup that the Bonds have no intention of tinkering with. In fact, they only considered a Precor dealership when looking for a store chain to purchase since they have both worked with Precor for a number of years. HEST, by the way, stood for "Health Equipment of South Texas."

"We didn't come in with any specific desire to target any vendors, in or out," James Bond said. "They have a successful company and we'll build on that foundation."

Texas competition and growth
Currently, HEST faces the biggest competition in the Houston market, where Stan Terry's Busy Body and Fitness Unlimited are based, and the Dallas market, which is the hub for Trevor Glanger's Fitcorp USA business with the Busy Body brand there.

"Houston and Dallas in particular are very competitive markets," James Bond said, intimating they were already looking at expansion this calendar year somewhere in the state. "We only want our fair share of the markets HEST is in," noting there were still growth opportunities in both Houston and Dallas.

Currently, about a fifth of the business is commercial sales, which should also grow, James Bond said.

"It's a dream come true," he said of the deal. "I can't wait to get to work."

For Albert Kessler, it's bittersweet to leave, partly because of 90 employees with an average tenure of nine years that they call "family." On March 7, Kessler will return to his office to clean out his desk, he said, which strikes him as odd since he's never really done that. Still, he doesn't think the change will really strike him until Monday morning March 12 when he realizes he doesn't have to get up and go to work.

"The fitness industry brought a lot to me and Paula," he said. "It's been a nice ride. We've met lots of great people."

SNEWS® View: When James left Leisure Fitness in October 2006, followed soon after by Laura, we of course knew that that they weren't going to spin their wheels for long. Since James was born and raised in the Houston area and their agency partnership was in Austin, buying a chain in Texas is certainly ideal for them -- like going home after stints in other parts of the country. HEST has always been a solid store brand, but remained a bit conservative in an increasingly competitive Texas market. To remain top-of-mind and not slowly cease to be necessary, it was imperative for it to earn a shot of energy. There were, of course, many ways for that to happen, but James and Laura bring enthusiasm, a little more youth and what we expect to be an infusion of new ideas that will help HEST remain a great regional chain. We look forward to watching the Texas market over the next couple of years, since this will also make others based there not take anything for granted.



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