I knew Eric Buckner before he was Mister 10Fit, the founder, brains, and brawn of the 10 Fitness empire in central Arkansas.
The advantage of knowing big shots before they are big is that you witness behavior and hear stories with which you can embarrass them later.
You see things such as Eric running the Little Rock marathon in a Superman suit.
You hear stories ~ he once supplied dog pretzels dipped in chocolate bark for a Sunday school Christmas party. (The statute of limitations has run on that one.)
You hear other stories ~ he once challenged his 70-year-old grandmother to arm-wrestle. He was a squirt then, about 10. “I was thinking I was tough,” he says, “because I had beaten people at school.”
First, however, Eric had to teach Nanny how to arm wrestle. “She didn’t know what it was.”
Then Nanny beat him.
“She spent a lot of time hoeing the garden,” he says.
Most of my conversations with Eric before he was Mister 10Fit were at the top of my driveway, often late at night. For a while before he married Julie, Eric lived with his grandparents in the house across the street from mine, which was about five houses east of his parents’ house.
It was during one of those late-night top-of-the-driveway conversations that he talked about his idea for a high-quality low-fee gym. That was nine gyms and nine years ago.
Eric, who was born in Jonesboro and grew up there, studied business at the University of Florida, with minors in economics and turf grass.
“I thought I wanted to build golf courses,” he says. But a summer job at a golf course taught him that a golf course requires much manual labor, and that the money isn’t in the golf, anyway, but in the real estate that surrounds golf courses.
With the ink on his business-degree diploma still wet, Eric went to work as an assistant manager at the Wal-Green at Markham and Bowman in Little Rock. After 15 months at that, he spent five months selling life insurance. Then he worked at Hank’s Fine Furniture, until the company eliminated his department.
“I was so discouraged with employment failures that I decided to do my own thing,” he says.
The short version is that at the age of 24, Eric bought Bowman’s Fitness Club, and grew from there.
“The low-dollar membership was gaining traction with Planet Fitness,” he says. “I watched them from afar. Then I did my own version of it.”
He opened his first 10 Fitness in September 2007 in North Little Rock.
Now he has nine gyms: the original in North Little Rock; two in Little Rock; one in Maumelle; two in Conway, one in Bryant; one in his hometown of Jonesboro; and one in Springfield, Missouri.
The name, 10 Fitness, reflects the monthly fee for the basic no frills 12-month membership.
“I thought a name that was short and simple would make us look bigger than we actually were,” he says. “Most people around here don’t even realize it’s a local business. Most people think it’s national.”
His biggest gym is the 40,000 square-foot former K-mart at University and Colonel Glen; the total size of his nine gyms is about 200,000 square feet.
The cost to open a new gym is about $1.5 million: “Usually half a million in equipment, another fifty-thousand in miscellaneous stuff.”
The build-out ~ converting an old Walmart or Harvest grocery into a gym ~ can cost a million dollars.
The treadmill is the most popular of the cardio machines, of which he has about 500. The 150,000 or so members he has enrolled over the past nine years have run and pedaled millions of miles to nowhere, unless you considered improved heart rate a destination.
He is considering other locations but nothing is definite.
“I think I’ve got short man syndrome,” he says. “I never think what I’ve done is good. I spend more time thinking why we aren’t farther along. I love building gyms. I feel like we’re just now starting to figure this thing out.”
Eric likes to tell the story of how he met Julie, the woman from Owensville, Missouri, that he would marry. “She wandered into my first gym and left me her number,” he says, and then tells the rest: “It was kind of a referral deal. We knew some of the same people. They told her about me. She got the courage up to leave me her number. I knew the mutual friend. I asked, ‘Do I want to call this person?’”
He did, and he did. They married in 2009.
Before the birth of their first daughter, Julie Buckner controlled the quality of their gyms, inspecting the equipment and dressing rooms to ensure they were clean.
Their second daughter was born in July.
When Eric called his parents, John and Linda, to announce the birth of their fourth granddaughter and to tell them her name is Heidi Claire, John replied:
“I declare? What kind of name is that?”