Belfast Telegraph

Hitting the ground running

By Paul Gosling

Up & Running NI has outlets in Belfast's Wellington Place and Newry's Francis Street and claims to be the leading specialist running and walking shoe retailer in Ireland.

When owner Michael Jenkins began the business in 2005, he chose the franchise route. His business is now the largest in the Up & Running group - and the relationship of the Northern Ireland operation is more independent of the brand franchise than is normal.

"We decided to go on a franchise basis because we were buying into a level of expertise and a UK running network," explains Jenkins. "We could hit the ground running! We achieved in two years what would probably have taken us five.

"We are very much part of that network, but we look at it now as being part of a buying group. We have complete control of the business in Northern Ireland."

Jenkins puts the success down to three factors - working hard on pre-trading preparation and a big focus on both networking and personal in-store service. "I did a year's groundwork before we launched - market research and establishing personal contacts," he says. "The networking is absolutely crucial."

Although Jenkins is an experienced manager in retail - he was previously with the Dixons Stores Group - he adopted an unusual approach when forming Up and Running.

While starting the business, he also did a Masters degree in marketing, entrepreneurship and strategy at the University of Ulster's Jordanstown campus.

Although it was hard work doing both things together, Michael has no regrets.

"One of the things that (the course) taught me was the importance of networking. We applied that from day one and that has given our business a very strong foundation. We have worked very hard at business and personal relationships."

Much of the personal relationship focus is in the shops, where the employees are committed athletes. That gives them expertise when selling running shoes. The stores also use 'digital gait analysis', which examines the way a runner's feet hit the ground. This is to ensure the shoes are appropriate for the way a person runs or walks.

Jenkins says the three factors to determine the correct shoes for a purchaser are comfort, fit and running gait. "If someone buys a running shoe in a sports shop or online, there is only a one in four chance of them buying the right shoe," he says.

Up & Running also sells runners' accessories and sports nutrition drinks, where the business is again the market leader, says Jenkins. Now the business is strengthening its online presence, via its website.

"We have had six really enjoyable years in Northern Ireland; now we are looking at a new growth strategy and in early 2012 we are launching our website"

Up & Running NI operates an online 'Talkback' forum, where the company fields questions from amateur athletes and other people interested. It has 1,500 users and another 10,000 followers.

"We are very excited about this and we are looking to reinvent ourselves on a multi-channel basis," says Michael.

With a stronger online presence, Jenkins intends to further build the Up & Running NI brand - already strong through sponsorship and key partnership with sporting events. It is an official training partner of the Belfast City Marathon and helped the event grow in the last six years from 8,000 runners to 21,500 participants.

Up & Running NI also partners the Belfast Telegraph to support the annual 'Runher' event for women, which in just five years has become the third largest indigenous running event in Ireland. "Close to 10,000 women have run our event," says Michael.

Up & Running - like Runher - has come a long way and intends to go the distance.