COLUMBIA — It's practically cliche to say that a person doesn’t own a business; a business owns a person.
So the fact that Tony Marrero had a workday recently that began at 5 a.m. and ended at 1 a.m. the next day isn’t a surprise. There have been lots of days like that since he took over responsibility for running SoccerPro, a store at 2525 Bernadette Drive, and its online operation.
Since SoccerPro, which sells soccer merchandise and equipment, launched six years ago, much has changed. The business began with Marrero and his former partner, Curtis Stelzer, and now employs 16 people. It’s bursting out of its storage facility, which manages 6,000 pairs of shoes and other merchandise.
Sales Associate Sean Berry puts this inventory into perspective: “A truckload every day during the week.”
That's one reason Marrero will soon move the business to a new 9,000- square-foot site near Cosmopolitan Park that will house its retail and warehouse facilities. The site should also help bring in clientele; the store at Bernadette Square gets five to 10 walk-in customers a day.
SoccerPro was built to compete online: 95 percent of the company’s revenue comes from Internet sales.
Social media have allowed SoccerPro to interact with fans from around the world. The staff members regularly connect with more than 7,000 fans on Facebook, post on Twitter and share opinions on all things soccer at its blog, SoccerProse.com.
A colorful map on the back wall of Marrero's office is speckled with push pins representing every country SoccerPro has ever shipped to including, Tasmania, Cyprus and the United Arab Emirates.
“We want to be relevant to our customers,” Marrero said. “We are just like they are — we love the game, we’re players, we’re fans.”
Longtime friendship and love of soccer inspired business
Marrero maintains that his is “still a small business.”
“Everybody here can do different things,” he said. " I was pressing jerseys and making coffee this morning, and this weekend I have to pick up toilet paper and paper towels, and I’m also at a very high level strategically looking at our marketing and operations.”
He and Stelzer launched the SoccerPro retail store in spring 2004. Marrero followed with the SoccerPro website a few months later.
Business began slowly for the physical store, which opened in the location We B Smokin currently occupies in the Bernadette Square strip mall. But the store’s customer base grew steadily because there is a significant soccer community in Columbia, Marrero said.
Marrero and Stelzer were part of that community. They grew up in Columbia, and both played soccer. During high school, they worked at a local soccer store called Soccer Kick, which later closed. Stelzer went on to play professional indoor soccer while Marrero pursued a degree at Texas Christian University in business.
Eight years ago, after a stint as an online marketing entrepreneur in Fort Worth, Texas, Marrero returned to Columbia with his family. Realizing that Columbia didn’t have a soccer store specializing in high-end merchandise, Marrero and Stelzer decided to go into business together.
They wanted to cater to soccer enthusiasts of all ages. “I think it’s kind of fun,” Marrero said. “I really enjoyed as a kid going into a soccer store. You got to see all the soccer gear, shoes and balls, your favorite jerseys.”
‘There are no soccer emergencies’
In the beginning, with just Marrero and Stelzer running the 1,100-square-foot store on their own, it was hard work and long hours.
Marrero said that launching a website was always a part of his initial plan and that he knew the online market had potential.
But Marrero still remembers the thrill of a sale in the early days. “I was doing the website and would pack and ship orders on my lap at my desk,” Marrero said. “Every time an order came in, we would yell, ‘Order!’”
While sales at the Bernadette Drive store eventually leveled off, revenue from the website doubled in each of the the first four years. The site now receives 350,000 to 400,000 visitors on average per month.
Customer Service Representative Kim Olmstead has worked for the company for two years and said that customers seem to like a personal touch. “Mostly they compliment us on the fact that it’s a live person answering the phone,” Olmstead said.
Soccer events such as the World Cup provide a big boost. The most successful day in the company’s history came on June 23, when American player Landon Donovan scored the game-wining goal in a match against Algeria. “It was like a gunshot when he scored the goal, and it was like, ‘Orders!’” Marrero said.
Olmstead admires Marrero's calm demeanor. “Some days it’s a little crazy around here,” she said. “If we get too excited he tells us, ‘There are no soccer emergencies.’”
But Marrero said the company’s expansion hasn’t changed his hands-on approach. “I look at every order that comes through, every day,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun for me still.”
Economy takes its toll
But, like many other American retail operations, the company felt the financial crunch, seeing inventory decrease because of a lack of credit from lenders. The partners realized they needed to change to stay afloat.
That realization led to a July 2009 merger with St. Louis-based Soccer Master. “We needed stability, structure and a sound relationship with our manufacturers and other vendors to help us operate,” Marrero said.
Soccer Master, a family-owned companyoperating six stores nationwide, acquired SoccerPro as its online division.
Shortly after the merger Stelzer left the company and moved to California. Marrero continues to run the online division of SoccerPro. His ambitions for the company are high. He hopes to triple the business in three or four years, in part through the launch of its updated website.
Marrero’s sure of one thing: SoccerPro belongs in Columbia. “As long as I’m the director of operations, we’ll be here in Columbia,” he said.