“We have to be able to continue to provide a consistent experience where our customers come back. My hope is that I can do this for another twenty years.”
Ted McGreer remembers vividly, a conversation that he had with his Mom in the early years of his business. The topic of the conversation turned to his core values, and although Ted was new to the business world, his focus on his customers was laser sharp. “Of course I’m gonna take care of my customers, it’s a privilege to have them. I want to verbally hug each one of them.” Ted had a vision day one about how he would treat the folks who walked through his doors, and 18 years later, his philosophy hasn’t changed. When you step into his shop, Ted’s Shoe & Sport in Keene, you feel like family.
Ted grew up in Walpole NH, with his brother and two sisters. His parents were both creative entrepreneurs. His Dad was the Vice President of his grandfather’s Box company, a company that made high end wooden boxes. A portion of the World Series trophy is made with one of their pieces. His Mom owned a Color Analysis Business. She had a talent for understanding color schemes, and how they could bring out the most vibrance in one’s face, depending on the person and the season. She was a pioneer, gaining recognition from Cosmopolitan and Rolex, performing analysis on over 25,000 women during her career.
As a kid, Ted had that glass half-full mentality. “I was really happy. Eager to learn. I asked a lot of questions and looked at life pretty enthusiastically.” He enjoyed all sports, from little league baseball, basketball, soccer to playing tennis competitively at age 11. Between middle school and high school, Ted broke his right ankle six times, “I had really loose ligaments, so that became a problem.” Undeterred by his injuries and always looking for an adventure, Ted picked up ski racing at Fall Mountain Regional High School and excelled.
After high school, Ted attended Greenfield Community College, then transferred to Keene State, where he studied business and marketing. He had always figured that he’d take over his Grandfather’s company, thinking that it would be a good transition. However, things didn’t go as planned. His parents married and divorced each other twice, and his family ended up selling the company. Even as that door was closed, Ted’s dreams of being a business owner were getting stronger.
He worked through college at Norm’s ski shop in Keene. After graduating college, he decided it was time to branch out and head west. So, along with Todd, his best friend and skiing training partner, he moved to Colorado, “We packed our cars up, said goodbye to our families and drove across the country, living in our cars for a month. We finally found a place, The Fireside Inn, and lived in Breckenridge for $11 a night.” Desperately looking for work, he was able to find a job as a manager of a local ski and bike shop in Dillon, CO called “The Sports Store.” There, he was able to fine tune his craft of working with athletes and doctors to become a master ski boot fitter. US Ski Team athletes would often have their boots custom fitted by Ted. After a couple of years of skiing and living the western lifestyle, he realized how important his family was to him, so he headed back East.
Ted’s next chapter began in 1996, when he became the manager at Athlete’s Corner in Keene. The owner was basically absentee, thrusting Ted into a role with lots of responsibility. Over the next three years, Ted handled all aspects of the business. “It was kinda cool, gave me a chance to build relationships with reps and our customers, learn to strategize from a marketing standpoint. I got to run it as my own, it wasn’t my money, but sales were increasing.”
In the late 1990’s, the owner of Athlete’s Corner approached him and asked him if he was interested in buying the business. “I didn’t know anything. I was 28 and young and had no perception of what things cost per say. I wrote a business plan, I had the banks approval, and came up with an agreement to buy the business.” On the day of the closing, the owners got cold feet and backed out. Disappointed, Ted gave the owner an ultimatum. “If you’re not going to sell me the business, I’m not coming to work tomorrow.” Shortly after, Ted found himself in a precarious position, he was unemployed and newly married.
The Early Years
Despite his bad luck, Ted still dreamed of owning his own sports shop and wasn’t about to give up. “It’s amazing how certain people get brought into your life at the right time.” It was around this time that he met his future mentor, Richard Kalich. He told Ted that he should write a business plan from scratch, and to scrap the existing one he did for Athlete’s Corner. In addition, he advised Ted to come up with a marketing plan, making it as detailed as he could. Richard also told him, “You need some cash while you do this. Why don’t you work at my house, my house needs to be painted, and various odd jobs.” Ted was suddenly very excited about his future, “Everything Richard touched turned to gold, because he worked his butt off. I really respected that.” Ted rode his bike to Richard’s house everyday, painted his house, trimmed hedges, and mowed his lawn. At the same time, he worked on his business plan. He shopped it around to local banks, and didn’t get the response he was hoping for. “Eight banks turned me down.” The consensus for the rejections centered around the fact that Ted had never owned a business before, and it was too risky for the banks.
Giving up has never been a part of Ted’s DNA, so his next stop was the Small Business Development Center, and he got some new advice from the woman he met with. “Nowhere in your business plan do you state how many pairs of shoes you are going to sell. Come back when you get that number.” Ted went back to the drawing board, crunching numbers and doing more research. He came up with a conservative estimate, especially considering that there were 13 other stores in town selling shoes. His next bank meeting was a success, and his business loan was approved, with one contingency. He had to come up with an additional $60,000 from private investors, which he was able to secure. His dream was one step closer to becoming a reality, and the pressure was on. The next step was finding a location.
It just so happened that a beautiful corner location was opening up in the Spring of 2001 with ample parking in the back, a prime spot in Keene. Ted met with the building owners and handed them a copy of his business plan. It turned out, he was not the only one vying for that location. “Give us a week, we have 37 applicants for the space.” A week later, the phone rang, and there was more good news. “You were the only applicant that brought a business plan to us, congratulations we’d like to give you the space.” Ted was elated, as his hard work was paying off, but there would be bumps in the road.
“On the day of our Grand Opening of Ted’s Shoe and Sport, we came to the shop and all of our windows were taped with paper. The owner of Athletes’s Corner, had an employee of his, plaster Athlete’s corner sales flyers all over Ted’s store windows.” They also sat in his parking lot, handing out 50% sales flyers to deter customers from entering his shop. The competition was cut-throat, but Ted didn’t panic. Instead, he focused on his customers, always putting their needs first. Two years later, Athlete’s Corner went into bankruptcy and closed their doors, as his sales grew steadily.
His biggest first year success, was a discovery he made at a trade show looking at summer products. “I see these kids on sneakers running around the hotel conference center, then they lifted their toes and they started gliding across the carpet, I thought what was that?” He was informed that the kids were wearing ‘Heelys’ (shoes with wheels), and so he ordered 12 pairs, and even got a pair for himself, zipping around the store. “Fast forward six months later, our first year in business we did $100k in heely sales.” This allowed him to pay off his private investors, as well as the commercial business loan in less than a year.
With all of the positive things happening, the first few years of the business were still the hardest. Ted’s Shoe and Sport quadrupled their first year projections, which was great, but keeping up with the rapid growth was a challenge. Ted worked primarily alone from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week for three straight years. Ted found himself in the back room of his shop, experiencing anxiety attacks. “I was burning out fast, but I was really fortunate to find my ambassador, Trevor, he and I ran the company together for those early years.” His business was not the only thing growing, as he and his wife, Heather, welcomed a baby girl, Mackenzie and soon after, a son, Matthew. Looking back at those times, Ted reflects, “I don’t know how we did it all, but we found a way to do it. Deep faith, I had to just trust in that.”
It was a cold winter evening, when an older couple walked into Ted’s shop. They explained that they were new in town, and had just moved in from Cleveland. They talked like old friends about footwear and the biomechanics of the foot. They were impressed with Ted’s knowledge and enthusiasm for his craft. She also happened to be the new Podiatrist in town, and became a huge supporter of his business, often referring five to ten patients a day to Ted’s store. “She was the key in helping me get my business off the ground. We wanted to be a fit and sit store, evaluate the ankle and the stride and fitting the foot like it deserves to be fit.” This was the differentiator from the online or big box stores, this quality of service.
Next chapter: Vision for Ted’s
Ted has since started a local running group, where folks meet a couple days a week to hit the trails or pavement. “It’s morphed into a nice community.” He also puts on six road races per year, and supports non-profits. “Being connected to the community, to me, is the only way we’ll be successful.” Philanthropy is near and dear to Ted’s heart. With the money made at the Clarence Del Mar Marathon, which he helps race direct, he, along with the Keene Elm City Rotary Club established a move everyday cause, called the Sneaker Project. It’s aimed at childhood health and wellness. This club delivers a brand new pair of sneakers to every 2nd grader throughout Cheshire County, in thirty seven different schools. That’s over 1,000 pairs of sneaks! “That involvement and coming up with those big thinking ideas of the community coming together for movement, to me, is invaluable.”
When Ted isn’t at the shop, you can find him with his family, nordic skiing, or riding the singletrack trails around his house. He spends eleven hours a week in the bike saddle, “I love to suffer, and to climb and get to a space where the heart rate is sustained at a high level, I love that release.”
For nearly 20 years, Ted’s shop has been a staple in downtown Keene. His customers are greeted with a warm atmosphere, and Ted’s trademark enthusiasm. As for his future plans for his business, he’s just getting warmed up. “We have to be able to continue to provide a consistent experience where our customers come back. My hope is that I can do this for another twenty years.”