Barely open two years, TFC Fitness Equipment has shut two of its three stores and the only employee remaining seems to be one of the three former owners.
Formerly TFC operations director, Fred Ramirez is answering phones, greeting customers and making deliveries for the one store left in the North Olmstead are of Cleveland, Ohio. G&G Fitness of Buffalo, N.Y., opened its doors in the area on July 5, just as TFC was finishing its move out of a space 50 feet down the corridor in the same plaza on July 1.
"Cleveland made a lot of sense for us," said Michael Grant, of G&G Fitness. "We already had our sights set on it. We'll never be the Busy Body or TFE. We have no interest."
G&G now has 12 locations in the Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Buffalo and Cleveland areas -- including the new Cleveland store and one in Akron opened this year. Grant said they expect to add another in West Cleveland this year.
But while G&G is growing, TFC was struggling. The third TFC location in Canton closed about a month ago, or about the same time that the other two owners, President Tony Stropoli and treasurer Chris Adams, took their investments out of the business and left for other jobs, sources said.
"I'm just here to try to take care of customers," Ramirez told SNEWSÂ®. "It's a shame that it came to this."
Ramirez, who is trying to make sure customers who have bought product get taken care of, blamed the rapid financial implosion on several matters, including the inability to get some product during the busy season despite vendor promises, commercial clients that didn't pay on time, and the cost of the lawsuit filed against the business and its owners by The Fitness Experience for, among other things, breach of contract.
The lawsuit cost "quite a bit," Ramirez said. "It hurt, and it did have an impact."
The financial problems were "a culmination of a lot of little things that made us susceptible to any bump in the road," he added.
Ironically, after being batted around in court for more than two years after it was filed in November 2003, the TFE case against TFC was dismissed without prejudice on Jan. 21, 2005 -- the same day that The Fitness Experience filed for Ch. 7 bankruptcy liquidation, according to U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of Ohio, documents.
In the case against TFC, TFE claimed breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, interference in contractual relationships and unfair competition by TFC owners. Three of six claims were denied by the court in December 2004. The original suit had claimed that Ramirez, Stropoli and Adams, who had all been TFC employees, were in violation of a non-compete when they left in March 2003 to open their own stores. The court found that the non-compete had been signed when they were employees of Exercare, which was acquired by TFE in August 2002, and since the non-competes weren't explicitly assigned to TFE or mutually agreed upon, they couldn't be applied. Â
Meanwhile, TFC -- with the motto, "affordable fitness equipment built around your goals" -- opened its first store in May 2003, its second in November 2003, and its third in July 2004.
Ramirez has stuck around the last store to take care of remaining issues. "I'm just trying to do the right thing," he said. "I don't hide. I take all calls."
Whether or when they will shut the last door or declare bankruptcy remains to be seen.
"It depends on what the next day brings," he said. "It's day-to-day."
But a shutdown seems inevitable, he added, although he called discussion of a bankruptcy "premature."
"I don't believe," he said, "I have the financial wherewithal to continue the business on my own."
SNEWSÂ® View: The Midwest has not been good to specialty retailers in the last couple of years. Or at least to some. Others still plug along, not necessarily growing but still making money and profits. With the departure of not only TFE earlier this year, but also now TFC, there is an even larger gap for regional players to fill in.