Cardinal Cadence Spring/Summer 2012

Making fitness his business

Rod Rice with fitness equipment in his storeA drive to provide his wife and family with a better economic life than the one he grew up with has propelled Rod Rice ’66 through a series of smart career moves and ultimately to entrepreneurial success as the founder and chief executive officer of a chain of fitness equipment retail outlets.

Launched in a leased storefront in Beaumont in 1981, Fitness Expo now owns a warehouse outside New Orleans along with four stores in Louisiana and one in Jackson, Miss. Each store serves retail customers looking for cardio and strength-training equipment and provides a base for the corporation’s strong commercial division. Fitness and wellness centers at universities, hospitals, hotels, apartment complexes, police departments and more have come to rely on Fitness Expo for quality equipment and service.

“We’ve had people who wanted us to franchise, but I never considered it seriously. It’s the only way you could ever go public, and our industry is not compatible with public ownership, it seems to me,” said Rice, who majored in accounting at Lamar. “It’s a very personal, contact-oriented business. You not only have to have good equipment, but you have to have good people. Customers have to have confidence that you’re going to do a good job, and you’re going to stay in business.”

Rice started Fitness Expo after his own frustrating effort to build a home gym for his son, who developed an interest in weightlifting in junior high. Even on business trips to major metropolitan areas on the West Coast, Rice had trouble finding retail suppliers for fitness equipment because no specialty fitness stores existed. He ended up having things made by a welder in Austin.

“I got this idea that if I wanted it, someone else might, too,” Rice said. His research led him to manufacturers who sold equipment to hospitals and gyms, and he worked to convince them to stray from their distributor-based model and sell to him. “I spent a lot of time trying to get them to let me sell their products in Beaumont.”

Opening Fitness Expo also fulfilled Rice’s wish to open a business with his two children, to whom he and his wife, Norma, are very close. After graduating from Lamar, their daughter, Georgia Rice ’82, struggled to find a teaching job that did not involve special education, which she did not feel was a good fit. Their son, Rodney Rice, spent a semester at Lamar, but was more interested in working than in pursuing his education at that time.

“I had the business knowledge, but I also had two really hard-working kids who dedicated a lot of their early years to helping build what we did,” Rice said. He attributes the success of the business to the combination of assets the family brought together. Rice provided the initial idea, knowledge he gained from his Lamar education and experience as a working professional, and his investment of necessary capital to get started. His daughter provided meticulous, mistake-free oversight of the books although her degree was in education rather than accounting. His son was a natural salesman with an outgoing personality and an interest in the fitness industry.

In the early years, they all sacrificed. Rice kept his job at Gulf Consolidated initially and drew no salary from Fitness Expo. He limited his children’s pay to accumulate additional capital to invest in the business. As they tested the Beaumont market, Rice also studied nearby areas with larger populations and no competition in the fledgling fitness industry where they could grow their business. He settled on the Interstate 10 and Interstate 20 corridors, from Beaumont to Mobile, Ala., and Shreveport, La., to Jackson, Miss. That decision prompted the family to move to Mandeville, La., in the mid-1980s and later to close the Beaumont store, which did not perform as well as their other locations.

The work ethic required to make Fitness Expo successful already was well established in Rice’s character. He and Norma met one summer while he was working at a service station in Kountze near the movie theater her father ran. He was 17. She was 15. If he couldn’t afford the 16-cent admission charge, she sometimes let him into the movies for free.

“Her mom and dad had a house, a car, a telephone, television, refrigerator, all the things we didn’t have in my family,” Rice recalled. “I’ll never forget telling some of my friends, ‘I’m dating a rich girl.’”

Years later, he measured success by Norma’s childhood home that had amenities like a bathtub and air conditioning, things missing in the company town, company houses he grew up with in nearby Honey Island. Her family home was 950 square feet.

Wanting to provide for Norma and their family, Rice set out to build a better life. He hitchhiked to Hull-Daisetta High School his senior year, so he could graduate from an accredited school. The small school he previously attended in Honey Island, a lumber company town, was unaccredited and offered few resources. Then he enlisted in the Army, hoping to get the GI Bill to pay for college. Unfortunately, that did not happen because he served during a 10-year lapse in the GI Bill. He and Norma married while he was in the Army and had their children early in their marriage. When he completed his military service, he enrolled full time at Lamar at age 25, taking classes during the day and working full time at night at Gulf States Utilities. One semester, he even added a part-time job as an insurance investigator.

“Without Lamar, I don’t know what I would be doing these days,” Rice said. “Lamar was a place you go and learn and improve your quality of life.”

He settled on an accounting major through a process of elimination. Becoming an attorney or doctor did not make his list because those would require professional school in another city. He would have liked to coach, but that did not have enough job security and might require moving from city to city. He honed in on business and decided that accounting offered the best option for job prospects.

“I started out with a lot of obstacles, but I was so interested in learning that it wasn’t difficult for me,” said Rice, who completed his degree in three and a half years. He recalled several professors who made an impression, including J.D. Landes, dean of the School of Business, Ray Drenan in sociology, Wesley Norton in history, David Taylor in marketing, and Isabelle Allen and Clarine Branom in English. Branom failed him on one paper for misspelling “its” as “it’s” eight times. He hasn’t made that mistake since. H.A. Barlow provided a strong background to prepare accounting students for the CPA examination. Rice remembers Barlow’s dedication as instrumental to his and other Lamar students’ success in becoming CPAs. Charles Partin in economics told students, as Rice recalls, “I don’t care if you get a degree from Harvard or Lamar University; you can learn just as much here, and you can be just as successful. I agree with him totally on that.”

Rice said he feels fortunate to consider himself successful by several measures. At 74, he has maintained good health, working out regularly in a well-equipped gym at his new home in Madisonville, La., and swimming in the enclosed pool he had built with a swim current. After graduating from Lamar, he enjoyed a successful 10-year career with the Internal Revenue Service before moving on to an executive position with Gulf Consolidated. That job allowed him to continue learning how to conduct business and how to treat people by observing the example set by respected colleagues like Rudy Williams, father of Lamar University First Lady Susan (Williams) Simmons ’68. Rice cited Williams as a tremendous influence by showing that building relationships is an essential investment in any business.

Perhaps most important to Rice is the success he has found in his marriage and family. He and Norma celebrated their 54th anniversary in 2011 and enjoy listening to live music, traveling and spending time with family together. The business he built with his children allowed his daughter to retire young, and his son continues to take on increased responsibility in overseeing operations. Two of his eight grandchildren already work for the company. Rice feels confident that his six younger grandchildren and three great-grandchildren will have more options and broader opportunities than he did as a result of his successes, due in part to his hard work and strong educational foundation.

“You have to have a lot of luck to go along with everything else, but you have to do a lot of planning,” Rice said. “I’m already seeing some of the results of what I worked for. I’m seeing it coming down the line.”

by Beth Gallaspy

May 2012