Baltimore’s Charm City Run Chain Treads New Path

For Charm City Run, its 10th year in business was the right time to mix things up.

The five-door retailer, founded in 2002 by Josh and Kara Levinson, kicked things off last spring by opening its newest location, a showpiece space in downtown Baltimore. Charm City also overhauled the structure of its executive team and added new store managers to focus on day-to-day operations instead of the big picture.

The new structure has allowed the Levinsons to make an usual move: The couple and their three children are now spending a year traveling around the world, leaving the business in the hands of the store managers and the newly appointed corporate team, including a GM and a footwear buyer, both former managers.

“It’s been a huge transition year with a lot of learning as we go,” said GM Tom Mansfield, who has been with the company for eight years. He said the organizational changes have made Charm City Run more efficient. “As far as front-end operations, we’re better than we’ve ever been.”

And while not the norm, the setup makes sense for the chain, vendors said.

“[It] speaks to the culture of the store more than anything,” said Matt Weiss, eastern regional sales manager for Brooks Sports. “The running specialty channel is dominated by entrepreneurs who are there because they want to make all the decisions, so that’s what makes [Charm City Run] special.”

The original store spanned 2,200 square feet in a former bank in Baltimore’s Timonium suburb. That space was expanded two years later to encompass 3,900 square feet. Since then, more doors have been added in surrounding Maryland communities. In 2004, the retailer opened in Bel Air, followed by Annapolis in 2008 and Clarksville in 2010.

Levinson said sales for 2012 will be up nearly 25 percent including the new location, with same-store sales growth of 12 percent.

Charm City’s newest space, a 3,000-sq.-ft. shop in the McHenry Row development in South Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood, debuted in March.

According to Josh Levinson, he wasn’t initially keen on the idea of opening yet another store. But the location, which he termed a “junior Annapolis,” with a Harris Teeter grocery store, a Massage Envy and other retailers in the same complex, was too tempting to pass up.

“I had a passion for Baltimore. I grew up in Baltimore and I wanted to have a location in the city, on the water,” said Levinson, speaking by phone from Vietnam.

To fit with the downtown location, the company developed a new look for its interior, with a brick slat wall, a Saucony-sponsored indoor track, a re-creation of the store’s footprint logo on the ceiling and a Brooks-sponsored mural. For the first time, the company worked with a design firm to build out the space, and Levinson said he is happy with the result. “It’s a beautiful shop that’s done well and has a great vibe,” he said.

Brands carried at the stores include Brooks, Asics, Saucony, Mizuno, New Balance, Inov-8, The North Face and Newton, as well as hometown favorite Under Armour. And while each location previously did its buying individually, this year Brian Nasuta, formerly the store manager at Bel Air, took over the job for the chain.

The rapid store expansion and management changes have necessitated adding to staff, and Mansfield noted the retailer takes hiring seriously. “I’ve never done the hire-off-the-street approach,” he said. “We want people to come in and see if they like Charm City Run, see if it gels with them and that they get [us]. Then, we see if there’s an opportunity for them.”

Attracting and retaining the best people takes effort, Levinson added. “We overpay, we overbenefit and we’re proud to do it,” he said. “If you want great people, you don’t nickel and dime. A couple of thousand dollars for the right person is a great investment.”

That philosophy led the owners to consider their 11-month sabbatical. Levinson, who stays in touch with the team through email and Skype, said that taking time away from the store isn’t as much of a gamble as it sounds.

“Once you [open] that second location, you’ve lost control,” he said. “You have to put so much faith and trust in other people. Going to a second location was a much harder decision than going on vacation for a year. You just have to hire the best people you can and give them the best tools and then back away.”

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