LONDON – To London residents, it may be described as the gray brick building next to the train tracks on Maple Street.
But what locals may not realize is that it’s home to a multi-million-dollar company that has revolutionized the online fitness industry, earning a reputation over 18 years as a leading global brand and the ultimate go-to for any fitness fanatic.
Husband and wife duo Dave and Traci Tate founded EliteFTS in a spare bedroom of their Choctaw Lake home in 1998. The first year, they sold about $400 in products. Last year, sales reached about $8 million.
Not to mention, they’re on a first-name-basis with the global powerlifting community.
But despite the impressive statistics and reputation, this Madison County company isn’t about just sales – it’s embodied by values.
‘Powerlifting keeps you from getting picked on’
Dave Tate’s presence is impossible to ignore when he walks into a room.
As someone who “barely graduated high school,” Dave, 48, is now anything but a stuffy, designer-suit-wearing, espresso-sipping CEO. His passion for fitness is evident by the way he talks – non-stop.
He’s built for more than just flipping tractor tires; he’s built for motivational speaking.
Probably unlike any other break room in Madison County, at EliteFTS coffeemakers sit next to blenders and nutrition supplements – and a machine offering bags of M&Ms, potato chips or Cheetos is not in sight.
Taking a seat at the long table, the 300-pound, 30-year powerlifter bends over a bowl of blueberries and a wheaty-looking carb of some type. Dave begins to summarize how his business evolved from its humble Somerford Township roots to its cramped headquarters at 138 Maple St.
A Findlay native, Dave’s future didn’t immediately appear bright. His parents owned an appliance store, and he suffered from a learning disability. Due to a less-than-progressive public education system, he was placed in special education classes. As a result, he rebelled.
“I wasn’t always on a straight arrow,” he said.
That’s when his father took him down to the local powerlifting club. He was introduced to the trainers and immediately felt a fire in his belly.
“Those guys embraced me as a 13-year-old snot-nosed kid,” Dave recalled. Soon after, the teenager was benching 500 pounds.
“The other kids stopped picking on me when I got big,” he said.
He would stick with it for life.
Making a passion a career
While pursuing a degree in exercise science health at the University of Toledo, Dave met his wife, Traci, in the most likely of places – the college weight room. A powerlifter herself, Traci has also placed in national figure competitions.
The couple were married in 1995 and moved to the Columbus area to be closer to her parents. Dave also took the move as an opportunity to train at the renowned Westside Barbell Club.
As a competitor, he is an elite lifter in three weight classes, and his best lifts are a 935-pound squat, a 740-pound deadlift, and a 610-pound bench – a total of 2,205 pounds. He retired from competitions in 2005.
After working a slew of odd jobs – including one where he placed stickers over incorrect wording on fluorescent light bulbs for eight hours a day – Dave eventually scored a fitness job at The Capital Club in downtown Columbus. There, he trained attorneys, business owners and lobbyists, quickly boosting the club’s personal training sessions from bringing in $5,000 per year to $50,000.
His clients began asking for his recommendations on everything from equipment to nutrition. As a result, Tate would buy his favorite products in bulk and sell to his client with a small mark-up.
In return for the great fitness advice, the clients began sharing their own business advice.
At the same time, Dave felt stuck and income-capped at the club.
That’s when he discovered the Internet.
“I think when you discover the Internet for the first time you don’t leave for three days,” he joked.
But what he found when he looked up powerlifting websites was a lot of bad material. He offered to answer questions on a basic website.
But his business-savvy clients had a better idea.
“They said, ‘why don’t you start your own website?’” Dave explained.
So he did.
The company was officially founded in 1998 with a simple Q&A forum and the sale of a few products. The now-copyrighted name was shortened to EliteFTS from Elite Fitness Systems, thanks to the suggestion of online readers.
In 2000, elitefts.com was launched as its own website with an online store.
Near the same time, Traci was laid off from her job as an office manager. The Tates knew it was time to make a decision. Traci stepped into the role of co-owner and took charge of all financial responsibilities.
The company soon outgrew the Choctaw Lake home, and the decision was made to move to a property in downtown London and hire a few helping hands. Located next to Yauger Monument on South Main Street, the 800-square-foot space was initially risky with its $400-per-month rent payment and commercial Internet and phone bills.
But soon after the business outgrew that space, too.
That’s when the Tates moved to their current location on Maple Street.
Now, Team EliteFTS includes nearly 100 athletes, trainers, bloggers, coaches, advisers and experts. Making it onto elitefts.com is considered a stamp of approval in the industry.
They introduced their own brand in 2002, followed by an apparel line in 2006.
The site now receives 2.5 million to 3 million hits per month.
EliteFTS boasts nearly half a million followers on Facebook and 50,000 followers on Twitter. Dave has authored hundreds of blogs on the website – written in a casual tone sprinkled with strategically-placed curse words.
He also stars in many of the company’s fun, creative videos. Some clips make fun of the “gym bro,” while another features the six-minute story of the best “cheat meal” he’s ever eaten (spoiler alert: it was 13,000 calories).
On the sales side, the warehouse stocks about $1 million in merchandise at any given time. Products include everything imaginable: Strength equipment, bars and weights, apparel, accessories and supplements, among others.
Items are packaged on-site and shipped across the world.
“Yeah, we go through a lot of tape,” admits Lori Nutter, warehouse manager.
A ‘value-based’ company
What sets EliteFTS apart from other fitness companies is that it operates with a dual focus – distribution and education. About half of the company’s 13 full-time positions are media folks, with titles such as editor, photographer and videographer. Their jobs are focused toward providing free education.
Other employees work in sales, accounting and customer service.
Everything is linked to giving back, Dave said – giving back to the powerlifting guys who took him in as a teen, to the business clients who helped conceptualize the idea, to the powerlifting community in general.
More literally, the company gives back to charity. After a strong year in 2007, EliteFTS signed on as a donor to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To date, the Tates have granted about 50 wishes and given more than $370,000.
The couple now have two children – a 12-year-old boy and 13-year-old boy, one of whom is autistic. Dave says in his autobiography that being a father has made him a better business owner.
Challenges and the future
EliteFTS seems to be outgrowing its space – again.
Currently, the company operates in three buildings in its “compound” on Maple Street. The office is run from the gray brick building, whereas the 15,000-square-foot warehouse is a one-minute walk away.
The warehouse is difficult to heat, too small and not always the most convenient or safe, noted Traci, as she stepped onto a pallet over an ice patch on a recent chilly day.
Adjacent to the warehouse is what the Tates call “the show room” – a massive gym that only can be described as the ultimate toy room for a powerlifting fanatic. The weight room’s walls are covered in the photos of chiseled clients, as well as a few famous faces, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. In addition to hosting legendary underground strength sessions, powerlifters and bodybuilders rent out the show room for photo shoots during the Arnold Classic in Columbus. It’s not open to the public.
Traci hopes all operations can come under one roof in the future.
Would it be a building everyone in London knows about?
That doesn’t matter to the Tates.
“We don’t mind staying under the radar,” Dave said.
Reach Andrea Chaffin at 740-852-1616, ext. 1619, and on Twitter @AndeeWrites.