18 DECEMBER 2020   l   NEWS

40 years Runners' lab | From timid professional athlete to confident manager

Koen Wilssens was barely 28 years old when his father asked him to take over the manager position of Runners' lab. However, he did not hesitate for a second. “In life, you have to dare to take the jump, even if you don't know where you will land."

First of all, Koen grew up between running shoes, and with the genes of his father Jempi, he found the passion for running from an early age. It was written in the stars that he would take over the company. The first 28 years of his life, Koen watched how his father passionately put Runners' lab on the map. Later in life, it would be his turn to let the thriving running specialist store continue to flourish.

"According to my father, I was conceived on the opening day of the branch in Beveren," Koen began. "Roughly nine months later, I came into the world. Obviously, I have few memories of the early years of Runners' lab, but from the age of three, I started to experience everything more consciously. I still remember helping to put laces in the shoes at that age to make sure that the advisors wouldn't spend too much time. Now that's hard to imagine, but in the past, shoes came in without laces, you see. During the first years, the store was located at our house and we had to walk through the store to get to our living room. Patrick, our first employee, used to eat lunch with us in the kitchen. All this shows how intertwined my childhood was with the company. In my teenage years, however, I took more distance from the store and I didn't pay too much attention to it. Still, I was really into athletics, so there was always a certain interest in running shoes and spikes. From the age of seventeen, I knew that I wanted to join the company."

Professional career

It was not just a ‘minor’ passion for the sport. At the age of seventeen, Koen was admitted to the 'Topsportschool' to pursue a professional career in athletics. He made it to the World Athletics Cross Country Championships and two European Championships for Under 23. In his own country, he won several Belgian titles, mainly on his favourite discipline: the 3,000m steeplechase. Later he showed that he was good on the road as well. In 2009 he even won the Antwerp 10 Miles.

"When I was nineteen, I had three options: going to college, looking for a job or I could continue in athletics as a professional athlete. Thanks to my father's shop, I had a safety net, which allowed me to go for the latter option. Both my father and I were convinced that the experience I would gain as a professional athlete would be beneficial for me later in the store. When I now look back on those five years of being a professional athlete, I still have the feeling that I did not make the most of it. Afterwards, I did miss being able to join forces with other athletes and their coaching team, but a professional sports career was mentally too demanding for me. I was very competitive and put a lot of pressure on myself. I was too focused on my career and had no other outlet. In retrospect, I should perhaps have chosen to study part-time or start earlier in the business. Nevertheless, I do not regret my career as a professional athlete in the least. I was able to discover a lot and visited places I otherwise would not have seen."

First steps in the business

oen took his first real steps in the business as a consultant on the advice of a sports psychologist. As a consultant, he went through the entire process of the business, which not only was a crucial outlet for him, but it also encouraged him to come out of his comfort zone.

"I had always been too busy with my own professional sports career. My consulting work took me out of the world that was familiar to me, and shifted my attention more to the outside world, to other people and their environment. In my early twenties, I wasn't the person I am today at all. I was very introverted and communicating with other people didn't come easy to me. Those first weeks in the store were hell for me. I was afraid people would judge me. In that respect, the job as a consultant has been very helpful to me. It stimulated me to perfect my people skills because you cannot advise a client without knowing about his or her background. At such times, showing genuine interest and having a conversation with the client is crucial. In the meantime, I've changed a lot, luckily, but at networking events, I still notice that I have trouble approaching complete strangers. When I look back on my period as a consultant, I realise that, except for those first weeks, I have always enjoyed being in the store. It's great to help customers and get them to exercise. Inspiring people is the best thing there is. If you can motivate a customer in such a way that they are eager to exercise when they leave the shop, then you know you have made a difference, which is a beautiful thing.”

Taking up the baton

Koen did not hesitate for a second when he was asked to take over the business. The once introverted professional athlete who had grown into an efficient consultant immediately seized this unique opportunity. Steadily, he grew into a people manager.

"I am very impulsive, so I never doubted taking over the business. As much as I enjoy working as a consultant, and as much as I like helping in the store when necessary, my current role suits me much better. As a consultant, you must have enthusiasm for the biomechanical aspects, which I am less passionate about compared to my father.
I realise that we can make a difference with this biomechanical approach, so I do value its importance. Nevertheless, my heart is more with motivating people and watching them grow. The position I hold now lends itself much better to do that. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing consultants blossom and conveying their passion to our clients. Unfortunately, I can no longer be everywhere at the same time and I see fewer advisers from other branches. That's why I decided to appoint a coordinator in every store a few years ago. I think it's important to continue my own style and not to be the stereotypical authoritarian boss. The new coordinators have to act more as a coach, someone who can ensure that people get stimulated and perform better. This decision is probably a result of my athlete experience. Over the years, I have found that you do not motivate anyone by focusing on the difficulties or by putting too much pressure on them. That's why I will never pressure my employees to perform to the maximum. They should do their job with honour, but I do not demand that they strive for perfection. That is not only impossible, but this kind of corporate pressure is also unhealthy, and we want to see our employees happy."

Important lessons

As a business manager, Koen is still reaping the benefits of his professional sports career. The experience he gained as an athlete and the lessons he learned from that period are useful every day.

"My career as an athlete has taught me a great deal in several aspects. The most important thing I learned is that it's immensely important to dare to ask for advice and to be surrounded by people with expertise. I am now trying to do that in the shops by putting the right people in the right place. By giving them the freedom to do their job, they learn to develop and grow faster. Another thing I have learned is that you should never force yourself to start working from a fixed plan. As an athlete, I drew up an elaborate plan of goals I wanted to achieve or championships I wanted to reach in the following years. Unfortunately, that didn't always work out, and the pressure became too high. So, don't put me in a straitjacket where I have to follow excels or tables, because I won't function. I feel much better about letting go of a plan and instead, taking the opportunities that I come across along the way."

"Making people run injury-free and inspiring them"

The absence of a concrete plan does not mean in the least that Koen does not pursue a clear vision. On the contrary, he knows where he wants to take the company. The values his father held dear have not changed throughout the years.

"Letting people run injury-free and inspiring them, that's what we've been striving for since 1980. I always ensure that my ideas match this vision and then I take the chance. Here surfaces my impulsive side again. My father had the same thing. Our motto is that in life, you have to dare to take the jump, even when you don't know where you will end up. We are not going to find out first whether the landing site is safe. We see an opportunity and we jump. In my opinion, that is a good quality for a CEO, because otherwise you live and feel too constrained and you miss out on opportunities. In my view, an entrepreneur has to jump twenty times. Those twenty times will result in fifteen great choices and five bad experiences. Don't see those five times as a failure, but as a valuable moment to learn from your mistakes. If you surround yourself with the right people who take help you improve at such a moment, you can only come out stronger at the end of the day."

Teamwork makes the dream work

The vision of runners' lab to dare to take the leap into the unknown has already resulted in four physical and one online store in Flanders. Just give it some time, and we might have a fifth store in the future. That would be anything but an accounting move, according to Koen.

"We have a great team and offer a great service, so my goal is to make Runners' lab accessible to everyone. That's the sole reason why we want to add new stores and expand our company. Becoming rich and competing with other brands has never been our objective. I have never considered profit when working out a new strategy. In the eleven years that I have been at the helm of the company, I have never lost any sleep over a loss of sales, purchase errors or a bad daily turnover. The only thing I might worry about is personnel matters because my staff is the most important thing to me. I have blind faith in my employees, so I am confident that everything will continue to run smoothly, even if I am not there for a while. By giving the team confidence and freedom, and conveying my own positive mindset to them, I believe their strengths will develop to their full potential. If every team member can be the best version of themselves, it can only be beneficial for the customer, " Koen concludes.

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