Ilan Katz leaving fitness industry, reflects on relationships and experiences

An email letter landed in mailboxes around the country Sept. 14 announcing that Ilan Katz, long-time fitness industry retailer and entrepreneur, had made a business decision to leave the fitness industry. For many, the letter and the news it held came as an unhappy shock that someone who has a long history of integrity, honesty, passion and truth in the industry was going to move on.
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An email letter landed in mailboxes around the country Sept. 14 announcing that Ilan Katz, long-time fitness industry retailer and entrepreneur, had made a business decision to leave the fitness industry.

For many, the letter (printed below) and the news it held came as an unhappy shock that someone who has a long history of integrity, honesty, passion and truth in the industry was going to move on.

Wrote Scott Logan, director of marketing for SportsArt Fitness, in an email to Katz: "I can't tell you what a pleasure it has been working with you over these last nine years. The world needs more people like you; people whose word is their bond, and are passionate about what they do. We all wish you extreme success in your new endeavor! Our industry is losing a phenomenal resource!"

Katz landed in the United States in his early 20s from South Africa with no knowledge about fitness, but ready to roll up his sleeves and do what needed to be done. He moved up to vice president at Fitness Headquarters in Texas. In early 2004, however, he moved to Florida to satisfy a personal desire to have his own retail business, which he called Exercise Solutions. It didn't take him long to realize it was going to be perhaps more work than he imagined and living in Florida away from family and friends in Texas was not his cup of tea. Without apologies, he closed down in April after only a few months, admitted he learned some big lessons and moved back to Texas to start again at Fitness Headquarters. When that retail business was sold in August 2005, he stayed on with the commercial division, Comm-Fit, while also starting his own etail fitness business, Stacca.com. Stacca will remain up and running, Katz said, and he will remain in Texas.

"He's been a great customer and an even better friend for the five to six years I've known him. Whether it was during his time at Fitness HQ or when he started his own venture in Florida, Ilan and I always enjoyed our business," said Paul Goldberg, vice president of sales for GoFit. "I was happy to support him during his time in Florida and although things didn't work out there as he hoped, he had the integrity to pay every penny he owed prior to going back to Dallas. His 'friends' would have forgiven him if he hadn't been so responsible, but to those of us who truly know him, that wouldn't be Ilan's way of doing business.

"Ilan is an innovator and understands the investment needed to be a successful retailer," Goldberg said in an email to SNEWS®. "He was one of the first to jump into balance and stability accessories, and he foresaw the need to work with trainers and therapists to draw business in. Overall, he understands that successfully selling accessories is a great vehicle to selling the big ticket items. He taught me how to build a program instead of just 'selling products,' and I'll be forever grateful to him for his knowledge. He's been an asset to our industry and will be missed."

Indeed, SNEWS® agrees that Katz is someone who did what he said, walked his talk, and gave you full trust if you also did what you said and walked your talk. His integrity and honesty were without parallel, and those were two characteristics that helped him build so many lasting relationships in this business called fitness. The industry will indeed miss him.

Now, in Katz's unabridged words:

To all of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances,

For the last 13 years I have been involved exclusively in the "fitness equipment industry." Due to a unique opportunity being presented to me a couple of weeks ago, I will officially be leaving this industry.

I have accepted a job with a highly successful and expanding company that conceives, designs, produces and sells toys and children’s furniture. Loosely described, my initial responsibility will be dealing directly with some of the factories in China who manufacture these items.

For the next period of time, I will continue to do the purchasing for COMM-FIT on a part- time basis until they are satisfied with their new internal procedures. The website at www.stacca.com will continue to operate and it is through that email ilan.katz@stacca.com that I can be contacted. Note that my replies will probably be slightly delayed.

Friday September 15th will be my final day working full time in the fitness biz. If you think I missed anybody who you believe will find this letter relevant, please forward it to them.

As I reflect on my time in this business, the overriding aspect of it that sticks out at me is "The People." All of the phenomenal people that I have had the pleasure of working with and establishing relationships with.

Whilst shopping at a gourmet grocery store last weekend, I saw a sign on the wall that read, "Friendships are made over meals." This struck me as being so true. The majority of the time that I have spent with the people I know in this business has been whilst eating. Whether it was in my town, your town or at a trade show, we were always in some restaurant having dinner, lunch or occasionally even breakfast.

After 13 or 14 years being involved with fitness equipment, I can unequivocally say that the aspect of the business that I enjoyed the most was interacting with all of you.

I had just entered my 20s, fresh off the boat from Africa when I landed in this industry. I literally did not know what a bicep or tricep was on my first day. I still had everything to learn. Notwithstanding the fact that I was a relatively ignorant young foreigner, I was immediately embraced and assisted by the people that I met in this business. There was always somebody prepared to answer my questions, teach me what to do, help me learn the equipment and how to sell it. People seemed to have no problem spending the time required to get me up to speed.

Years later when I knew enough to do some damage, people patiently let me bombard them with my ideas, thoughts and opinions on how "it" should be done. I would trap company Presidents in their hotel lobbies after a long day at the Super Show, I would pull up the chair next to them at dinner, and I am sure, make their head spin with my verbal barrage of what and how we should do "things."

I would not give my dealer reps a chance to swallow their dessert as I continued to pummel them with business talk. And yet despite not letting anybody up for air, never once, did somebody cut me off, tell me to put a sock in it, or ignore me. You all patiently listened and indulged my passion for the business.

In retrospect I see how I could have been a pain for some at times -- but I also recognize how you treated me and am grateful to you for it. Although at FHQ, we were far from ever being the largest retailer -- it was not, I believe -- through lack of desire.

The fitness business literally sent me, the foreigner, to all 4 corners of the United States. I have been to the NE, NW, SE and SW. I have lived and worked on the East Coast, West Coast and Central part of America. I have been to multiple states and so many cities -- all through this business. And still -- I associate each City not by the physical location, but rather by the people I know who live in it.

At the risk of leaving anybody out I won’t mention any names, rather just some recollections.

I cannot think of Seattle and the Snoqualmie waterfalls, fish market, trees, rain and moss without thinking of the people who showed it all to me. I hold a great deal of fondness for Seattle, not because I especially like the city but rather because of the people with whom I worked there, at SportsArt America, LeMond Fitness and JR2 Marketing. Coincidentally, they were all so accommodating and kind. I am not sure if that is a local thing but all of them were always so generous to me -- I remember on one specific trip they put me up in a very expensive hotel, on every trip up there they gave me tons of stuff -- whether it was related to their company or not. At the famous fish market, I was forced to open an additional bag to fit all of the Salmon fillets, Salmon skins and flavored local honey that I was given. Books, DVDs, bags, shirts etc. all three of these companies went out of their way to make sure I was stocked up.

At year end, which also happened to be the time of my birthday, SportsArt was guaranteed to send me a gourmet Lox so large it couldn't fit in the refrigerator -- and they did it year after year. An unforgettable experience was speeding, almost flying along Alligator Alley between Miami and Naples in a near Monsoon rain that my then SportsArt rep was seemingly oblivious to as he never touched the brakes!

And they always gave me their time. Always willing to indulge me, at LeMond and SportsArt they included me in their designs and product developments whenever the opportunity presented itself. For this I am especially grateful for I truly enjoyed being a part of that aspect of their business. The people at those three companies stood out because they were so sublime, so understated, so friendly and so genuine that I was forced to look at myself and see how I could adopt some of these endearing traits.

When I think of the coldest temperature I have ever been in, 8 degrees Fahrenheit in Chicago (nothing for some of you, I know), I cannot separate the image of me freezing solid in seconds in the Life Fitness parking lot from the people who were with me at the time. I distinctly remember having to put on more clothes to make it across the street. I also recall being driven around town in a Jeep Wrangler wondering aloud what a dude who thinks Dallas is the Far North was doing here in February. These people were passionate about their brand, excited about their company's future, educated and on their best corporate behavior. From them, I was introduced to the concept of "not speaking out of school" -- perhaps unfortunately a lesson that I am still to adopt. These people clearly enjoyed their jobs and I thoroughly enjoyed working with them.

So many meals I ate -- so many steaks, seafood appetizers, huge desserts and copious amounts of sushi. So much sushi. I believe that every company I ever dealt with has sent at least one representative to the famous "Tokyo One" with me. On the topic of sushi, I must recall the time that I flew to Hoist and they sent our rep at that time on a special errand of taking me to a designated sushi restaurant and having the chef concoct special sushi dishes just for me. And when I think of Hoist, I have to remember the time they told me we were so close to hitting a magic sales number at year end, to which I replied -- "So what if we make it? Will you send us a box of chocolates?" And sure enough -- once we made the number, they sent me a single, solid, gigantic piece of chocolate that weighed multiple pounds! And through all of those meals in Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Seattle, Chicago, Orlando or anywhere else -- I cannot think of one I did not enjoy. I recall some exceptional meals courtesy of Landice.

I consider myself fortunate to have worked in a company whose core staff was so committed. The key people at FHQ had stamina, guts, focus and skills. They were able to absorb what I was trying to share with them and also apply it. They were the major source of satisfaction that I derived from my job. I believe without most of those people being there any longer it has put our apparently mediocre achievements back then, in a totally different context -- with the advantage of now being able to compare results, it is clear just how good those people were.

The FHQ Annual Conference was the highlight of the year for the employees who could attend it. That function was made possible only by your contributions -- the participation of the vendor sponsors.

To those of you who contributed time and money to that event, I am especially grateful. The consistent players were Tunturi, Landice, LifeSpan, SportsArt, Hoist and Life Fitness. Other companies who also supported us were Polar, Power Tec, Schwinn and TKO. Through the years, we also sold Spri, GoFit, Ball Dynamics and USA Sports. I once had a rep tell me that after 17 years on the road, one specific conference day (can you say, dragsters and paintball?) was the single best day he had ever experienced on the road.

Over the years I enjoyed so many conversations with different people -- bicycle racing, pro football, terrorism, government, politics, American history, American geography, manufacturing processes, Israel (so much support I always received), marriage, children, divorce, construction, cars, industrial design, houses, laptops, retail, selling techniques, prototypes and more. This is really how we got to know each other.

On many occasions I even shared hotel rooms on the road with some reps-- the funniest of those situations being with Jakko Kappanen of Tunturi, Finland. We just met each other and hours later we were sharing a room. Talk about accelerating the relationship!

It was always great to go to a trade show -- I would walk through the show and see person after person in booth after booth -- smiling at me, greeting me fondly, calling out to me or shaking my hand. It made the show and to a greater extent working in the industry an absolute pleasure.

I must say that I appreciated every pen, shirt, sweater, bag, folder, book, jacket, salmon, award, hotel room, plane ticket, sock, disc, meal, cap, sample, and more that was ever sent my way. Understand that I took none of it for granted and was thankful to receive all of it.

Basically, on my way out the door, I just wanted to make sure that you all knew how much I enjoyed your company and generosity over the years. I wanted to make sure that you knew it will not be the customers or the machines or the sales that I remember, but rather all of the people I knew and the time I got to spend with them.

Many Thanks for making this episode possible go to: Scott Logan, Ken Carpenter, Terry Brown, Kourtney Kerr, John Price, Karen Wade, Jim Rubart, Kurt Kenney, John Post, Bernie Bogoglio, Kiernan Short, Renee Devlin, Brian Williams, Reina Reeves, Roger Cloyd, Randy Webber, Joe Ellis, Bobby Krause, Bob Harms, Paul Trodd, Dan Quinn, Mike Quinn, Brian Hansler, Greg Savatierre, Matt Cohen, Paul Goldberg, Tommy Johnson, Chris Clawson, Pat Miles, Bill Ciszewski, Mark Goodman, Kevin Katz, Ludge Busche, Scott Kramer, Jeff Levitt, David Ely, Kim O’laughlin, Clint Arms, Glen Notelovitz, Mark Kerouac, Ran Radzewski, Eli Ner-Gaon, Jay Kuchman, Joel P Scalzo and all of the dozens of others not here named who participated along the way!

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