By Kevin Trampone
DeWitt, N.Y. — Earlier this year, Cherise Wilkins started talking with running shop chain Fleet Feet about becoming a store owner.
It was her first step in becoming a protege of the man who fit her for running shoes in high school, Fleet Feet Syracuse co-owner Ed Griffin.
"For 15 years, it stuck in my head as a great store," she said.
Griffin and his wife Ellen co-own Fleet Feet Syracuse. Wilkins, a Camillus native and 2002 graduate of the Manlius Pebble Hill School, is one of several employees the Griffins have mentored over the years.
It's a responsibility they take seriously, Ed Griffin said. Their efforts have helped make Fleet Feet Syracuse a feeder for other Fleet Feet locations and the entire running industry.
"This really starts with the philosophy we have about our employees," Ed Griffin said. "If we help our employees reach their goals, it always works out best for our business."
Wilkins started work at Fleet Feet Syracuse over the summer. She wants to stay in the Fleet Feet family and own a store someday.
Other former Fleet Feet Syracuse employees have gone on to positions at major running companies like Nike and New Balance.
Another became a podiatrist.
Two other current Fleet Feet Syracuse employees, Kenny Jesensky and Laura Walker, are starting down the path toward store ownership.
Fleet Feet is headquartered in Carrboro, N.C. The franchised chain has more than 150 locations nationwide.
Goal setting and simple conversations about what employees want to accomplish are built into everyday life at Fleet Feet Syracuse, Ed Griffin said.
Fleet Feet corporate also has several development programs for ambitious employees like Wilkins.
"It's like a farm team," Ed Griffin said. "You're developing talent."
The Griffins move interested employees to different areas of their business. The employees don't get bored and they get experience in marketing, sales, operations and more.
The Griffins also concentrate on communicating the importance of building acommunity.
It's a message that resonated with Fred and Shelby Joslyn, who worked at Fleet Feet Syracuse for more than five years and were mentored by the Griffins.
The Joslyns opened a Fleet Feet location in Mechanicsburg, Pa., earlier this year. The emphasis on community was a key takeaway from their time in Syracuse.
"They really kind of taught that if you treat the community right, you're going to be successful," Fred Joslyn said. "That will come back and reward you in its own way."
The Joslyns had toyed with the idea of owning a running shop in the past and while at Fleet Feet, they realized it was something they could make into a career.
Fred and Shelby are both avid runners. Fred was a fixture at Syracuse-area races during his time in Central New York and ran the local Fleet Feet training programs.
He also competed at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.
The Joslyns, who are both from the Binghamton area originally, entered a Fleet Feet corporate program that starts with company ownership of their store. Over time, they'll buy out the firm's stake until they own it themselves.
The timeline is about five years, Fred Joslyn said. They learned a lot from the Griffins, he said.
They hope their store in Pennsylvania will mirror the chain's success in Syracuse.
"We're trying to create that same experience for customers," Fred Joslyn said.
The Griffins started Fleet Feet Syracuse in 2000 at a location on Erie Boulevard. Ed and Ellen both had careers of more than 25 years in the business world before opening the store.
Ed previously worked as national sales manager for East Syracuse-based PPC, which makes connectors used in the cable industry. Ellen had been a broker at Merrill Lynch.
Owning a business was a longtime goal.
They fell into running somewhat by accident. Ed was traveling a lot for his job and eating out frequently. He found himself gaining weight.
Running was an easy, convenient way to keep the pounds off, he said.
At the same time, the Griffins saw a lack of resources for runners locally. It was an opportunity, Ed Griffin said.
The couple moved their store to a new, larger location on Bridge Street in DeWitt in 2010. They opened a second Fleet Feet Syracuse store in Clay two years ago.
To feed that growth, hiring top people is critical, Ellen Griffin said. Such individuals often have entrepreneurial ambitions.
And that means they might not consider a run-of-the-mill retail job. Fleet Feet's focus on employees' goals means the stores can land job candidates who would otherwise ignore the chain.
It shows new hires that working at the store can represent a real future, not just a job, Ellen Griffin said.
The Griffins' long business careers before starting Fleet Feet served them well when they opened the store. They both had mentors who helped them learn how to lead others and run a company.
It's perspective they can share with potential store owners, Ellen Griffin said.
It's especially gratifying to see former employees who stay with Fleet Feet and own stores, Ellen Griffin said. That's because Fleet Feet franchisees often talk and share ideas.
"We may be stealing ideas from them someday," she said. "They may come up with something we wind up borrowing."
It's one reason Fred and Shelby Joslyn didn't want to go too far from Syracuse. Fred said the two stores may look to collaborate on events in the future.
Beyond any benefit their business gets from their work mentoring, the Griffins said it's also simply the right thing to do.
"People have to believe in you if you're going to lead," Ed Griffin said. "The best way to get people to believe in you is to show them that you care about them."