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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Winning the Race

Even after moving away from bicycles, Scott Gilles’ family business still is coming in first.

In Evansville and beyond, the name Gilles was synonymous with bicycles for decades. The family-owned business dates to 1942, when the late Simon Gilles and his wife, Agnes, opened a home-based shop selling and repairing Schwinns.

The company today is in the hands of Scott Gilles, their grandson and a third-generation owner. Scott joined the business in 1980 under his dad, Bill, and took it over 15 years later. But it’s hardly the same.

Historical photo of Gilles Bicycle Shop provided by Scott Gilles

With Gilles Cycling having pedaled off into the sunset, the online-based Fitness & Exercise Solutions carries on. The company supplies large and small customers throughout the Midwest and upper South with stationary cardio and strength equipment used to stay healthy.

Any business must change with the times. For the Gilles family, it required a gradual shift from two-wheelers, despite the longtime association. Adaption also meant embracing the online marketplace and shuttering walk-in stores.

The company honors its legacy in bicycles, with memorabilia decorating its office on Eastside Park Road. Scott’s wife, Christine, still is an avid cyclist.

“She decorates them, and we’ve (done) all the bike tours, in the wine country and all that,” Scott says. “We’re still pretty attached to the bike side of things because that’s our history.”

But it’s only a hobby these days. From a modern business perspective, Gilles says, bicycles and bike gear are “no longer a part of our livelihood.”

HITTING THE ROAD

A custom five-seat bicycle made by Simon Gilles was used by University of Evansville students during a Memorial Day parade. Photo provided by Scott Gilles

The company that has survived for 82 years began like so many others do — with a dream.

“My dad just had a vision that he wanted a bike store,” says Bill, 90.

It was based at the family home at 39 W. Columbia St. Simon Gilles had his showroom in the front part, with repairs and the residence in the rear. Its reputation for selling quality Schwinn bikes quickly spread. Riding bikes bought at Gilles Bicycle Shop was a part of countless Evansville area childhoods — and adulthoods — from 1942 forward.

Bill did not join the family business immediately. He held other jobs in his adult years but eventually succeeded his dad as owner on “June 21, 1971,” Bill still recalls.
It was full steam ahead from there.

The U.S. saw a bicycle boom throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and the Gilles name remained at the forefront. The Evansville company “was a top 50 Sch- winn dealer year after year” and cracked the top 10 as recently as 1999, according to a 2012 story in Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.

It was time for the Gilles family to look beyond Evansville. Bill Gilles had grown the company to Owensboro and Madisonville, Kentucky. The company’s flagship shop, meanwhile, eventually landed on South Green River Road.

In the 1980s, Schwinn came out with an Airdyne model stationary bike that was promoted often by popular syndicated radio host Paul Harvey, who was known as a master salesman. The Gilleses couldn’t keep the Airdyne in stock.

“We sold everything we could get our hands on,” Scott recalls. “We were allocated only so many, like 700 a year. We sold everything we could get, plus if dealers weren’t selling theirs, we would be buying theirs.”

Bikes were indeed booming, but challenges were on the way.

RIDING UPHILL

The company’s growth continued after Scott succeeded his dad in 1995 — stores opened in Terre Haute, West Lafayette, Bloomington, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Under Scott’s direction, Gilles Cycling became Gilles Fitness and made its first foray beyond bicycles into other fitness equipment, which became trendy as calendars flipped to the 1990s and bike sales began to drop.

Photo by Zach Straw

But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, followed by the Great Recession of 2008, changed everything. Consumer spending on bikes and fitness equipment plummeted following both events.

The company began selling its stores outside Evansville, which by that time were only in Indiana cities. As Scott explains, the time had come to live simpler.

As the brick-and-mortar shops closed, “I missed the actual customers coming in,” he says. “We had some really loyal customers. But you still have to deal with all the issues and the problems. And when you have 110 employees, you generally have about 90 problems a day.”

The company’s business model changed, and Scott says it happened out of necessity.

“It was just really hard to make money in all the different cities,” he says. “In 2008, the economy turned on us, the banks were squeezing everybody … we weren’t selling the volume we used to.”

A SHINY NEW MODEL

The internet, however, provided a shot in the arm.

Photo by Zach Straw

In 2013, Gilles Fitness morphed into Fitness & Exercise Solutions. The company today has no public showroom, and it markets online to almost exclusively commercial clients throughout Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

The product portfolio includes ellipticals, stationary bikes, treadmills, steppers, and other cardio machines, plus abdominal machines, benches, dual circuit pieces, free weights, functional trainers, home gyms, and more.

Scott’s son, Grant, is a sales representative, and his daughter, Amanda Whetstine, also is part of the company — representing its fourth generation.

Still based in Evansville, as it has been since 1942, Fitness & Exercise Solutions sells to apartment developments, senior living facilities, health clubs, country clubs, schools, and offices.

Historic photo provided by Scott Gilles

Fitness & Exercise Solutions also services what it sells. Scott says the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact wasn’t so bad for sales — many people invested in home-based amenities at that time — but it challenged the service aspect of the business.

Bill is proud of the business that his father got off the ground, that he helped flourish, and that his son successfully navigated through changing times.

“If you look at all the ups and downs, the hills and valleys that we went through, it still was a great journey,” Bill says. “I mean, it has been phenomenal.”

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