For years, each product at Runners’ lab has passed their expert eye before entering the shop: Eddy D’Hondt and Natasja Vansteenkiste have been responsible for all our products for more than a decade. We would like to introduce them.
Eddy D’Hondt and Natasja Vansteenkiste have been a strong team for years. Not only because of their shared role as purchasing managers at Runners’ lab, but they have also shared their joys and sorrows outside of work, being husband and wife. We leave it to them to explain how they got involved in this adventure.
Eddy: “As a little boy, you dream of becoming an astronaut. As a teenager with a somewhat rebellious side, I never expected to end up as a purchasing manager at a running store. I just went from adventure to adventure, looking for a new challenge like other adolescents. I am glad that I got in touch with an adventurer like Jempi in the late 1980s. I was looking for a summer job and came across an advertisement for what was then known as Runners Service. They were looking for someone who could work with a computer and who loved sports. At the time, a computer was still very exotic, and especially the combination of IT skills with sports knowledge was quite uncommon.
"Jempi and I instantly hit it off. I had never heard of ‘sports orthopaedics’ before, but Jempi asked me if I wanted to take the course so I could support both the shop and the store. And so I did. It was just one of the many things that I have learned thanks to him because through the job I also discovered the international sports fairs, I had the opportunity to make international contacts, became more assertive, gained more business insight, etc. It was a great learning experience that has shaped me into who I am today. After the training, I had to serve in the army for a year, but even then Jempi sometimes came to get me out of my weekend shift so I could help out in the store on Saturdays. In 1992, just after my compulsory military service, I received an offer that I could not refuse. I had the opportunity to represent the sports brand Saucony in the Benelux. For thirteen years, I worked for them and helped them grow, because, in my early days, they only had one customer: Runners’ lab. When Jempi asked me to come back, I couldn’t disappoint him. My respect for him was (and is) great. That is why I put him in contact with Natasja.”
Natasja: “When Jempi asked Eddy to return to Runners’ lab, I was just at a crossroads in my career. Eddy thought a job as a purchasing manager was the right thing for me. I had studied biomechanics at school, but I didn’t really have a broad background in the industry. I knew nothing about shoes. Eddy convinced me and promised to support me if I needed any help, so I started working at Runners’ lab in 2004. In contrast to Eddy, who was an avid marathon runner and still has the fastest Belgian time of all Marathon Majors to his name, I am less passionate about running. I don’t have that connection, although Eddy always kept me running. I once ran the Antwerp 10 Miles, the 20 km of Brussels and the Hood to Coast relay. I was more fascinated by the sport of climbing, but I did feel comfortable around all those passionate runners. I thought it was an advantage because I could view everything from a distance.”
Eventually, Eddy also gave in and rejoined the team. The couple was now in charge of product purchasing, which is still the case today. Eddy’s worldwide contacts and strong vision of the different products and the running industry were a great added value to the company. When Eddy speaks, people listen with interest, both within the team and far beyond.
Eddy: “I watched Runners’ lab grow and saw opportunities. I said I would return to the store if I could convince Jempi to start up a new branch in Ghent. And so I went to him in 2005 with my Powerpoint and financial plan. He immediately understood it, so it didn’t take me long to decide to come back. At the time, Natasja was already in charge of the purchase of all the textiles, shoes and accessories, which meant she worked long hours. Because I came back, I was able to relieve her of some of her workloads.”
Natasja: “With Eddy’s return, my job became much more bearable for me. We divided the tasks well and when I look back over the past fifteen years, our collaboration has always gone very smoothly. In the beginning, I was afraid it would be difficult at times, but I didn’t have to worry. We had already worked together at Saucony for a while but I left because work was always a topic at home. That experience may have helped us avoid pitfalls. We complement each other well. Eddy can be a bit impatient and restless at times, while I am the opposite.”
Eddy and Natasja both started in the small branch in Beveren where they had an all-around function. Before embarking on a more professional approach, their versatility was put to the test.
Natasja: “I don’t think about it very often anymore, but I cherish fond memories of the period in Beveren. It was very small and there were only about ten employees, so everyone had several jobs. The small surface area didn’t leave us many possibilities, so our dining table was literally used for everything. I myself also took on various tasks: I made the purchase, did the unpacking, laid out the store properly, helped the customers and also did the inventory. Inventory in particular was quite a challenge because we did not yet have stock management programs as we know it today. If we wanted to order something, we had to look up the purchase history in the files or even worse, we had to start counting our stock and write it down on a piece of paper. It was one unstructured mess. Fortunately, the one thing I didn’t have to worry about was bookkeeping and purchasing sports bras, because that was Lut’s responsibility. She was very important to me. Lut is a really hard worker. Unbelievable. Luckily, she had a separate room where she could do her invoicing, but she didn’t like to be alone. That’s why she decided to remove part of the wall to be more involved with us.”
Eddy: “I remember that we also took our first marketing steps at that time. There was hardly any digital world back then, so Koen and I still had to go to the print shop with a simple, self-designed leaflet with our own photos. Koen also gradually expanded the website, so year after year we started to work more professionally. It would blow your mind if you’d compare it with today’s digital platform. Digital is now the standard, but that was certainly wasn’t then.”
Over the years, their job content and working methods have grown along with the size of the company and the shifts in the market. Fortunately, changes often also bring opportunities. In this respect, the corona crisis was, oddly enough, a welcome challenge for them.
Natasja: “Now that we have five times the staff we had then, everyone has a more specific task within the company. My job nevertheless remains very diverse. Besides placing orders, Eddy and I regularly answer questions from consumers, communicate with suppliers and we negotiate with the brands. I really enjoy the latter. It’s a challenge because you have to be prepared to enter into discussions and be assertive. You have to dare to do that. I also walk around the store a lot to make sure everything is hanging properly. I can’t stand it when a jacket is hanging open or a pair of shorts are crooked, another thing I learned from Lut. It all has to hang straight.”
Eddy: “The biggest change over the years is the placing of orders. In the past, brands would set aside stock for you that you could reorder when your pre-orders ran out. That is no longer possible. If you haven’t ordered it in advance, you won’t have the products you want in time. The brands now place the risks entirely with the shops so they don’t remain stuck with the stock themselves. COVID-19 made this even more difficult, but luckily, we both had the reflex to proactively find solutions to prepare for possible shortages. Our job was made more difficult, but in retrospect, maybe we needed to be challenged. Because of this strange year, we were able to escape from the routine and look for new impulses.”
Natasja: “After all these years, it was indeed perhaps a bit too ’easy ’and monotonous. This year was certainly a turning point. The digital world became more important with the closing of the stores and that opened up possibilities. We were able to reach a wider audience and had more freedom to seek out new brands. Lately, we have seen a shift in the type of running clothes. Articles such as tights have become much more fashionable as they have entered the fashion scene. They are more intertwined in the fashion world and try to emphasise the aesthetic aspect. Runners want to look good when they go to the gym. In the past, a model of an article remained the same for years, but now people are constantly playing around with fits, motifs, colours ...”
Eddy: “There are certainly changes in my field as well, thanks to internationalisation. We used to have different kinds of sports shoes. Eventually, we stopped doing that and started specialising in running and walking shoes, because that is the core of our DNA. During negotiations or difficult choices, I will always refer back to our DNA and our roots. Shoes have to be functional, solid, technical and suitable for running, without too much unnecessary extra’s that you see more and more today. That does not mean that we do not offer more exclusive products, on the contrary. We like exclusivity. It makes us strong and it allows us to make a statement to the outside world. There is nothing more fun than being able to offer what no one else has and by doing so we can distinguish ourselves.”
Anyone who knows Eddy knows that he cannot hide his passion. Day in, day out, he is busy with his job and everything around it. Even when he and Natasja go abroad, the connection with running is never far away. Even abroad, he always finds new insights.
Eddy: “When I go abroad, for business or personal purposes, I always want to know about the running culture in that country. I find it interesting how people look at running because running is not universally the same everywhere in the world. For example, in 2016 I was in Seattle, the city home to Amazon, Microsoft and many other high-tech companies. I remember there was a small, old running shop over there without any digital set-up whatsoever. And yet it was the main running shop there. One wonders why. It shows once again that the human aspect is also very important. I believe that if you can combine the human aspect with a bit of high-tech, as we do with our foot scan, you have found the perfect match. We therefore try to convey to our advisers how important it is that they show genuine interest in everyone client who visits us. We have to fight for the customer and must never take it for granted that they will come to us. We have to earn every customer.”
Despite his sometimes critical side, both Eddy and Natasja can look back with great pride on what they and the company itself have accomplished in recent years.
Natasja: “What makes it particularly special is that Runners’ lab has grown out of a non-commercial environment. Most of our branches are not located in traditional shopping areas. That makes it extra special that we are doing so well, although that also means that we always have to go the extra mile. I am very proud of the fact that we have grown so much.”
Eddy: “I still watch in admiration how Koen has evolved from timid athlete to decisive CEO every day. His drive, winning mentality, quick thinking and integrity make him one of the most successful CEOs in our business. I think it’s magnificent how I had the opportunity to contribute to the growth of Runners’ lab, first under an adventurous like Jempi and then under a manager like Koen. I am also very proud that every product that has left here, and there are plenty, has been supplied by us.”
He was one of our first employees, has a pair of magic hands and knows everything about a shoe and its sole: Patrick Merckx is the beating heart of our workshop and knows the company inside out. Time to introduce him to you.
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."
Runners Service Lab was founded in 1980. 40 years later, the small electronics store in Beveren-Waas has developed into a thriving running specialist store that currently bears the name runners lab.