LA CROSSE, Wis. — It started out as a class assignment: Come up with a business plan.
“It was just a small, little weekly project that we did,” said Tyler Heinz, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
But that modest plan has proven to have some legs.
Heinz, at age 23, is set next month to open Grand Bluff Running, a specialty store in downtown La Crosse.
It’s a business that will meld his longtime passion for running and his desire to be his own boss.
Though he doesn’t look the part of a rebel, Heinz said he once had trouble dealing with authority.
“I realized fairly young I wanted to go my own route,” he said. “I had my own way of doing things and didn’t like anyone telling me what to do.”
Maybe that’s why running, an individual sport, so appealed to him. He credits it with keeping him from perhaps sliding into more serious problems in late middle school — he refocused, he said, when told he risked being held out of a track meet due to behavior.
“Running’s always been the one dependable, trustworthy thing in my life,” Heinz said.
His dad, Todd, had instilled that desire to run from a young age, as part of the Indianhead Track Club while growing up in Eau Claire, where they moved when Heinz was 5.
Heinz was strong enough in track at Eau Claire Memorial — he set school records in the 800 and 1,600 and in cross country — to earn a partial scholarship to Montana State University in Bozeman in 2009, but family matters, along with the expense to attend an out-of-state college even with the scholarship, drew him back.
“It was great out in Montana,” Heinz said. “But you don’t really realize the cost of education until you have that hanging over your head.”
But he took note at the time that Bozeman had a running specialty store, something Eau Claire and La Crosse lacked. Anyone out here who wants that level of equipment had to turn to the Internet or make the drive to the Twin Cities or Madison, he said.
He kept that thought while majoring in marketing and Spanish at UW-L. Then came the assignment in late 2010 that “didn’t start off as all that serious,” he said.
His instructors encouraged him to continue running with the plan. He credits Terri Urbanek and Anne Hlavacka of the UW-L Small Business Development Center with helping him further develop and refine the concept, along with the Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization.
“They were just so encouraging,” Heinz said. “Instead of asking why, they’d say, ‘Why not?’”
Urbanek, the center’s business/outreach specialist, said most who come in are from off-campus, not students.
“I think he just worked very hard at figuring out what would work here ... based on the research he did and the information he had,” Urbanek said.
Calling around to running stores nationwide to do that research also landed Heinz a four-month paid internship last summer with Big River Running Co., which has four stores in the St. Louis area.
“I was basically an apprentice in the business,” Heinz said. “It was great.”
His store plan ended up solid enough to merit a $20,000 startup loan in February from the La Crosse County Economic Development Fund. The concept is in step with the county’s desire to promote La Crosse “as a region that’s rich in outdoor activity,” said Brian Fukuda, the county’s community development specialist.
“I think that speaks a lot to Tyler’s credit, that he could convince a committee that he could make this work,” Fukuda said.
“He obviously has a passion for this.”
He could have set up shop in Eau Claire but wanted to remain in La Crosse, partly for fiancee Kate Ebert, a Mayo Clinic Health System community health educator who wants to continue her education here, and partly because it’s such an ideal spot for running.
The marsh trail, riverfront and bluff climbs “seemed like the perfect location,” Heinz said.
“Just the activity level, the passion people here have for the outdoors, activity and fitness.”
His store will offer custom fitting, starting with a free, slow-motion video gait analysis, along with a wide array of shoes and running apparel and equipment.
“It’s about getting them into the correct shoe that’s going to keep them healthy, get them out there excited to run,” Heinz said.
Considering La Crosse is the longtime host of the state high school track and field championships, Heinz said he’s surprised someone hasn’t started a specialty running store here before now. He also noted the local River City Running Club that organized activities long before he began hosting his Monday night group runs.
And La Crosse has a more vibrant downtown than Eau Claire, one well-suited for a store like his, Heinz said.
“Everybody is so downtown-centric here,” he said.
His dad has been here numerous weekends helping set up shop; they both built the benches and shelves, Heinz said. On one day, they had almost 15 people in the former salon, scrubbing hair dye and other stains out of the hardwood floor.
And he’s had Ebert, who he’s dated since their sophomore year at Memorial. She was the original reason for going to Montana, and both studied in Spain, though at different times.
“We’ve been through a lot together. So it’s really been good to have her along for this ride,” Heinz said.
The store is set to open March 24, with the official grand opening five days later. In all, this will be a busy spring for Heinz, with graduation and a wedding coming in May.
He’ll have an intern initially at the store, plus Ebert when available, and hopes to add a couple part-time employees in the coming months.
Any small business, Urbanek noted, has an element of risk. Heinz knows that, adding, “I’m not necessarily the biggest risk-taker in the world.”
But he’s confident this venture will have staying power.
“I think it’ll work out pretty well,” Heinz said.
“I can take it in the direction I see fit and motivate my employees to share the passion with me.”