A true friendship is a priceless gift. For Stefan Jakobsen and Normon Thibault, co-owners of Frontrunners in Nanaimo, BC, a bond of over 20 years is one that keeps on giving, not only to each other, but to the entire community of loyal runners in the west coast city.
Stefan and Normon met as students at the University of Victoria. Stefan – looking to expand his focus beyond just the sport he’d grown up with, swimming – started to transition into triathlons, in which Normon had been competing for most of his life. “We would all hang out at the McKinnon Gym on campus between classes,” Stefan remembers. “I saw triathlons as a refreshing change, and it just looked like a great group of people to get involved with.”
They’d also both started working at the Frontrunners in Victoria while in school, and began to notice that a lot of people were travelling down island from Nanaimo just to visit the store. So Norm had an idea.
And it’s no coincidence that it was out on the trail that a plan was hatched.
“It started when I heard an inspiring CBC interview with the founders of Roots,” Normon says. “The next day I was running with Stefan out at Elk Lake, and I started the first kilometer telling him their story. Then I said, ‘I’m going to go to Nanaimo and open a running store. I’ll give you to the end of the 10K to decide if you’re coming or not.’”
Sure enough, 10 kilometres – and some sincere gut check – is all it took. As they set out, though, it became clear that the two friends would take a different path than most retailers. “Selling shoes is not at the top of the pyramid,” Norm says of their business philosophy. “Helping people stay active is. And if we put that at the top, and you can work down from there, everything will fall into place.”
“Normon and I knew what it meant to be a part of community,” Stefan adds. “And we knew if we created that environment, sales would follow. We’re not business people, we’re community people.”
It’s safe to say, their M.O. is working. It’s evident in the pride they take in their staff. “Stefan and I are only one piece of the puzzle,” Norm says. “Our staff are the biggest piece. Everyone who walks into our store gets treated the way our staff would want to be treated. While there can be initial intimidation [in approaching a specialty store], it disappears once they’re through the doors.”
And you can see their influence out in the growing running community of Nanaimo. “When we first moved here, we were like, ‘Where does everyone run?’” Normon laughs, even recalling a run one night when a city bus pulled over and asked him if he needed a ride! Since starting Frontrunners, however, they’ve seen all kinds of run groups develop, from trail running, to women-specific, to fundraising groups – most of which got their start at their Tuesday drop-in runs, a weekly tradition still going strong.
“It’s been cool to see,” Stefan says. “What we’ve gained from sport has carried over into work. It’s friendships and good people leading good lifestyles. That’s what Frontrunners is really about.”