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HEST Fitness adds final touches for re-launch under returning founder Albert Kessler

Ready to leap again into the retail fray, HEST founder Albert Kessler puts the finishing touches on three stores for full launch. What are his plans as HEST approaches its 30th anniversary in 2011?

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Busy in the last few weeks remodeling, stocking and unpacking, HEST Fitness founder Albert Kessler’s re-launched HEST Fitness stores in Texas will officially open the week of April 5, although they have already been open — and selling — during the primping stage.

“We have all the trucks coming around this week. We’re stocking,” Kessler told SNEWS®, occasionally interrupting himself to offer directions or consult with staff in the buzzing office. “All stores will be selling product next week.”

Kessler decided to step back into retail after selling his 26-year-old retail business in 2007 and watching the chain crumble and fall. He bought the name back from owners, The Fitness Group, who had started shuttering stores in early 2009 and, by mid-January, was working the phones and his industry network to get some of the closed chain back up and running. (Click here to see a Jan. 18, 2010, story, “Gaps in Northeast, Texas retail won’t last long: Albert Kessler back, Joe Gulino jumps in,” and click here to see a story about the sudden shut-down in another story the same day, “Questions, few answers, in shuttering of The Fitness Group’s retail holdings nationwide.”)

With the remodeling completed at the McAllen store and the Corpus Christi store, where the headquarters and warehouse will be located and where HEST’s first store was located 29 years ago, and final tweaks being done to the San Antonio store, HEST Fitness is ready to roll.

During the last few weeks of stocking and building equipment, Kessler said, they left the doors open so customers or potential customers could still walk in and say, “Hi,” or inquire about equipment.

“It’s amazing how many people are coming back,” he said, noting the Corpus store was already doing good sales even during construction. “As fast as we can build it, we’re selling it.”

Former managers Brad Thompson, Corpus; Dee Reyna, McAllen; and Dee Anderson, San Antonio, are back in place at their stores; long-time HEST employee Joseph Gonzalez, regional manager, is still there; and Paula Kessler is running the administration. It could seem like a flashback but with fewer stores. Part of what prompted Albert Kessler to step back in was, in fact, calls from former employees, he told SNEWS in January.

When Kessler said he walked the floor at the IHRSA show earlier in March, he was told by suppliers to keep the name despite some damage in the last few years. So the name and logo stay put. Like we said … flashback.

Brands lined up so far include Precor, BH Fitness, First Degree Fitness, Star Trac, BodyCraft, Torque, Powerblock and GoFit. Brands he will sell commercially are still pending, he said.

“We’re getting there,” he said. He has been meeting with website developers to get the site re-launched soon, too; now, there is just a message at noting it is back.

His plans for this year still include adding a store or at least starting to plan for one in Austin. Eventually, he said he sees himself topping out at six stores with the current three, two in Austin and a second store in San Antonio. The current market won’t bear more, he said.

Nevertheless, Kessler said they are excited to be back and to get a positive response.

“We’ve had a great response in all the markets,” he said. “We’ve had the phones going for nearly three months, and we’ve so far had no irate customers.”

The business will be back in time to celebrate its 30th anniversary in 2011. (For a look at what Kessler told us for our “25 Years of Fitness” feature in the 2009 SNEWS magazine and to see photos, click here to access all the features archives. Scroll to retailer photos and to retailer profiles to find HEST.)

The NEW, old HEST Fitness can be reached at 361-814-7200.

–Therese Iknoian