Since Ontario, Canada-based, fitness equipment manufacturer Northern Lights lost industry veteran Jhan Dolphin a few months ago (see SNEWS story from Sept. 24), the company appears to be quietly treading water in the U.S. market and keeping curiously mum about its plans. Dolphin spent six years at Northern Lights, most recently as director of U.S. operations and new product development, and pretty much was a one-man show, signing up more than 200 specialty fitness retailers to carry the company's products.
When SNEWS recently checked in with Northern Lights for a status update, we were told, well, almost nothing.
"We will continue selling in the U.S.," said Chris Bush, who oversees the company-owned Fitness Depot retail chain in Canada. But when we asked basic questions like if the company would replace Dolphin, how many U.S. dealers the company currently had and the percentage of company revenue that comes from the United States, Bush told us he didn't know and couldn't confirm anything because he was traveling in Western Canada and didn't have access to that information.
So we suggested talking to another person in the office who could access this information, but SNEWS was told that no one else could provide "the right answers;" he requested we call back when he said he'd be back at the office and available. Bush never returned our subsequent phone call at that time.
Northern Lights dealers and Dolphin, who had agreed to help with the transition through 2003, are in the dark as well. Dolphin said his repeated offers to help the company after his departure have been met with "shady, nebulous responses" or non-responses.
"I have a lot of clients that I don't want to leave hanging," Dolphin told SNEWS. "But it doesn't look like they will replace me, which could eventually frustrate some dealers who may end up feeling like they are not being taken care of."
Retailers left hanging
Not one of the five Northern Lights U.S. dealers that SNEWS talked to has received any formal communication from the company in the past few months; in fact, most of them learned that Dolphin was leaving when he himself told them.
"It's almost like the company has dropped off the face of the earth," said Paul Drake, president of Fitness Pro in Savannah, Ga. "Our orders have significantly decreased over the past few months, but we haven't even gotten a phone call from (Northern Lights). They've certainly been slack and poor about communicating with the dealer network."
One dealer who asked not to be named said, "We're pretty much done with them. They don't have good customer service, they didn't show up at the Health and Fitness Business show, and we haven't been in touch with them for four or five months. We just don't know what's going on there."
Some retailers are taking a "wait and see" approach.
"I've placed a couple of orders and they've been filled," said Mike Lyons, president of Professional Fitness Concepts in New Lenox, Ill. "But until I hear from them, I'm not really pushing their line. If I don't get any feedback, it just shows me that there is no support and it probably doesn't make sense to carry their products."
Another dealer who requested to remain unnamed told us, "Northern Lights' marketing and communications have suffered pretty severely since Jhan left, and I get the sense that they don't really care one way or another about the U.S. market."
Is there a future in the U.S. for Northern Lights?
Speculation is that Northern Lights will remain supplying dealers in the United States at its convenience, but won't actively promote itself, or add or delete products according to U.S. market trends, or try to open new retailers since the United States doesn't seem to be a top priority for the company.
"My guess is that they will sell to whomever Jhan set up but won't make any attempts to open new dealers," said Jerry Greenspan, president and owner of Exercise Equipment Experts in Columbus, Ohio, who has sold a lot of Northern Lights products over the past three years. "Since so much of their business is in Canada, what they do in the U.S. really is just frosting on the cake."
According to Dolphin, Northern Lights can indeed afford to drop the U.S. market altogether since it does an overwhelming majority of its business in its 30 Fitness Depot stores. But many U.S. dealers say they really like Northern Lights products due to their high quality and value, and would prefer to keep those items in their lineup. At the same time, however, the retailers we talked to all told us that if Northern Lights departs the U.S. market, the impact on their business will be minimal.
"It's pretty easy to replace these guys, and I don't see a big shakeup in the fitness industry if they leave the U.S.," said Drake.
"No one comes walking in asking for Northern Lights," Greenspan told SNEWS. "We really like selling them, but if we had to, we could put other gyms on the floor."
At this point, nothing seems definitive, except that the company says it will continue to serve the United States -- although its lack of basic answers and any communication at all leaves the matter open to speculation. Interestingly is the reference on the Northern Lights website (www.nlfit.com), still up as of Dec. 1, that refers to an office in Chicago, Ill. (that would be Dolphin's former office), and indicates the line's "wide and rapid acceptance in the U.S."
Drake looked at it another way: "It may be a matter of reorganizing, since they relied so heavily on Jhan. They are not a big company, and maybe just haven't figured out what they will do. If they put someone of Jhan's caliber in that role, I bet they could continue growing the business here."
SNEWS View: We were somewhat stunned by the downright secrecy (or was it paranoia?) displayed by Northern Lights owner Fitness Depot, whose representatives ignored multiple requests for interviews, refused to give us Chris Bush's phone number, then cut us off in a phone call requesting to speak to Bush. It seems the company does not want to talk -- unfortunately even to its own dealers -- which could prove to be pretty damaging in the long run. As they say, actions speak louder than words; in this case, the lack of any evident action seems to be sending a disappointing message to U.S. dealers that they aren't needed or wanted. We really hope that Northern Lights does remain committed to the U.S. market for the sake of consumers who enjoy the company's highly respected, superior quality, good value products -- despite not having the valuable Dolphin on-board. To crack Fitness Depot a break, maybe it too is struggling for an answer since Dolphin really was the one person responsible from the beginning; his dedication to the line was unsurpassed and his relationships helped build the line here. Perhaps once Fitness Depot figures out which way to go with its Northern Lights line in the United States, the tune from the north will change. We hope. For now, when the company says it will continue to serve the U.S. market, we are left to wonder about its definition of "service" and "serving."