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by Ryan Freebing
Mike Bires is the owner of Nutrition Faktory, Munch Meals, Ambition Threads, and a host of other start-up companies in the Nashville area. He’s seen tremendous growth in a short period of time, opening 11 Nutrition Faktory stores in less than 16 months. But it didn’t always start out that way.
Mike grew up in a small town in northern Ohio with roughly only 13,000 people with a dad who worked his tail off at Ford Motor Company to provide for him and his sister. At a young age, Mike followed in his dad’s footsteps by getting a job at the local plastics factory hoping to save money for college. He started as a temp but a year later they interviewed over 100 temps for just 3 full-time openings, and Mike was one of them. “When I got that job, I thought, I’ve just gotten my dream job and I’m still thankful to have had that experience,” Mike remembers with a laugh.
“I have been fortunate my entire life,” Mike recalls, “and it started there at that factory. The supervisor at the plastics factory took me under his wing, and I tried my best to be a sponge, learning everything I could about the business.”
“Early on, I started breaking records on the factory floor, getting good feedback from my superiors and it looked like I was going to be there for the long haul, but one day I overheard a conversation about how the business was being run and it made me think a little differently. Essentially, even though I was doing great work, busting my ass and putting in long hours, if some of the guys in the ‘front-office’ weren’t, I could lose my job. So I quit and went to school. I didn’t want someone else’s actions controlling my destiny.”
“To earn some extra money while I was in school, I went to work at a local health food store and was blessed to have another great boss and mentor. The owner, Barry, taught me everything he knew about the industry.”
“Funny enough, people respected Barry so much that while I was still learning, when a customer asked about a particular supplement, I would just say, ‘Well this is what Barry recommends and they were good,” Mike laughs.
“I’ll never forget the one day an elderly woman walked into the store and was looking for something to help with her arthritis pain. I could tell she was in pretty bad shape. So I told her, ‘Well this is what Barry recommends.’ And I sold her a few items.”
“About a month later, the same woman came back into the store and asked specifically for me. Barry was shocked because no one had ever done that before. The woman said she was feeling much better, thanked me for the recommendation I had made and said that I had ‘changed her life.’ She had been going through a rough time and said she felt excited to get out of bed again. This was crazy to me that I could change someone’s life for the positive by simply ‘doing my job!’ This was the moment I fell in love with the industry.”
“Shortly after, Barry was so impressed with my willingness to take ownership and learn the business that he asked me if I wanted to help open another store. I was honored, said yes and within a few months this new store was already breaking sales records. A few months later, I bought the store that I had built and a few months after that I bought all of Barry’s stores. I was in my mid 20s and owned three nutrition stores in Ohio.”
“Eventually I decided to test what I had learned and packed up and moved to Southern California. It was a big culture shock, but I settled in soon and opened my own supplement store in SoCal. My goal right out of the gate was to sell national brand products at wholesale prices.”
“After some early success, I became good friends with the CEO of a top chain of nutrition stores in SoCal. He offered me the VP of Operations position over all of his stores in Southern California. I was ecstatic and I learned a ton about the industry while running 30+ locations, and I eventually became interested in the ‘brand’ side of the industry. Luckily I had great relationships in the industry and I became National Sales Director of a top brand.”
“This was another amazing experience as I learned so much about building a company and a brand. I also traveled all over and got to visit the top retailers in all of the top cities. It was great to be able to learn from the best retailers across the country. But again, I wanted more out of my career and I wanted to be a part of building a special culture.”
“At this point, I had to ask myself what I really wanted out of life and a job, so I quit in 2014, not really having a plan in place. All I knew was that I wanted the freedom and stability to work closer to my family in Ohio while controlling my own destiny and building my legacy.”
“So in October of 2014, I sat down with two of my closest friends to discuss working together on a brand, Motiv8 Performance. We started with one product and slowly grew from there. At lot of supplement companies were focused on the NPC and bodybuilding world, which is a great, hard-working group of people. But not many were offering products to people that also needed them, the ‘everyday’ person. We celebrated everyday people that were transforming their lives and were willing to share their stories with us. This resonated throughout social media so much that we had contestants from TV’s The Biggest Loser and American Ninja Warrior join our team. It was a great time.”
“I eventually found Nashville because one of Motiv8’s top retailers was based in this area, Mid 10 Nutrition. We came out to visit them and my girlfriend, Sonia, fell in love with the city and said ‘Let’s move here’ very nonchalantly one night,” Mike recalls. “Two months later, in December of 2016, we packed up and found a place in Murfreesboro.”
“When I got here, I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to do more to give back to my community. I noticed it was hard to find the top vitamin and supplement brands at low pricing here in Tennessee.”
“Given my experience, I opened a supplement store in Murfreesboro called Nutrition Faktory. I was buying direct from all the brand owners that had become my friends from my days in southern California, so our prices were much lower than the local competition and we even beat internet pricing.”
“Then on Black Friday 2017, I had someone come in and want to open a Nutrition Faktory store of their own. I loved the idea and our first franchise location opened in Smyrna in May 2018. Then our third store in Hendersonville opened in June 2018. Our fourth store was an acquisition of Mid 10 Nutrition in July of 2018 in Nashville. Then came Cool Springs shortly after in December and Cookeville in January 2019. We were really on the move.”
“Since then, I’ve met so many great people that I felt I could help which has led to other successful business ventures such as, Munch Meals, Ambition Threads, Ruck Nutrition, and the Protein Shack Shop. All have seen significant growth in just a short period of time. I owe all of that to the support of my team and the people that originally launched each business.”
“Overall my experience here in Middle Tennessee has been nothing short of unbelievable. Tennesseans are the best people I’ve ever met and they are the reason that we have built something so special in such a short period of time. I can’t wait to see what’s next, but I know this is crazy ride is just beginning.”
Throughout his time in Nashville, Mike has used his experience to better his community and those around him, whether they be in or outside of the supplement industry.
“We just want to be known as one of the better companies in town that surrounds itself with good people. The rest will take care of itself. That’s why we like to offer unique giveaways to our customers like Titans football tickets or we will take all of our ambassadors to a Predators hockey game. We’re a community, just like the rest of the fitness industry in Nashville and that’s what makes us grow. We want to offer the best service and best pricing to the best people we can.”
Like most of us, back in 2014 Thomas Stephenson was a typical 21-year-old. He loved playing sports and being active, was focused on school, and was anxious to show the world his talents and ambition. In many ways, Thomas had his whole life ahead of him. A cycling enthusiast and triathlon competitor, Thomas was in his final semester at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He had just finished managing a number of political campaigns for the election cycle that November. Despite big plans for a bright future, Thomas’s life would change on December 11th.
On December 11th, 2014, Thomas was involved in a fatal car accident when his truck was struck head-on by an oncoming vehicle on I-840, south of Nashville, Tennessee. Thomas’s truck burst into flames and flipped down the interstate the entire length of a football field before coming to a stop.
“Clearly in shock but conscious, my first instinct was to check my surroundings and see if I could get myself out of the car. When I tried to move, I realized much of my lower has been crushed during the collision and wasn’t cooperating,” Thomas recalls. A full diagnosis would later reveal Thomas had shattered his spinal column, crushed both feet and ankles, as well as sustained a broken femur, sternum, and clavicle.
“Thankfully, a good Samaritan, whom I still speak with to this day, helped pull me from the wreckage moments before my truck was fully engulfed in flames.” At 21 years old, Thomas had suddenly gone from a healthy and active triathlete to a trauma victim.
Thomas was immediately transported by LifeFlight to Vanderbilt University Medical Center where he underwent surgery to fuse his spinal column, a separate surgery to put a titanium rod through his femur and subsequent reconstructive surgeries on his feet and ankles. After the surgeries, Thomas was told by his doctors that his life would never be the same. “They told me I would never run, play sports or be active again. It was safe to say my budding triathlon career was over, and I would never be able to cycle again,” Thomas recalls.
In the coming months, Thomas’s injuries were so severe that he would struggle to stand or walk. The pain and swelling through his feet and ankles would continue and he would feel excruciating pain when he would sit for extended periods of time. Thomas’s life would be dramatically different from now on, and he would spend the next few months undergoing rehabilitation in the form of physical therapy.
While Thomas was in the hospital, his legs had atrophied considerably, so his rehabilitation focused mainly on moving his legs and feet to regain normal levels of muscle mass. Thomas recalls, “I just tried to take it day by day. I remember thinking, ‘Would there ever be a time when I would be back to normal again?’”
The stress of the physical therapy would not be the only pain Thomas would feel day in and day out though. Thomas was suffering from emotional trauma as well. “I remember feeling helpless, different, and also hopeless some days. I would feel inadequate at times too. Like things would never be the same again.”
To add to an already intense emotional situation, by the time Thomas left the rehabilitation facility and had gotten back home to Bowling Green for his Spring semester, his insurance-paid physical therapy visits were running out. Thomas’s recovery was incomplete, and he had no choice but to pay for the remainder of his physical therapy out-of-pocket.
“Luckily, I was blessed with a family that could afford to pay for the remainder of my physical therapy. Not everyone is this fortunate unfortunately,” Thomas admits. “Because my family was somewhat financially stable, I never had to concern myself with the stresses of not being able to pay for recovery. I can’t imagine someone having to go through this, on top of an already emotional situation.”
As his physical therapy sessions continued, Thomas continued to progress. He was building back lost muscle and was able to support his body weight, and finally, after countless bouts of hard work, frustration, and determination, Thomas hit his biggest milestone. Thomas was able to stand again.
Feeling accomplished, Thomas’s attitude soon changed, and he would go on to progress even further in the coming months, but learning quickly that he needed to begin athletic and strength training to focus on movement, endurance, and flexibility if he was going to see even more progress.
Today, thanks to ongoing therapy and strength training, Thomas is even more active than ever and was even able to achieve a life-long goal of becoming an Ironman triathlete in 2018. It takes great tenacity to fight through constant mental, physical, and emotional pain and come out on the right end.
Through his fight, Thomas realized that not everyone has the same resources he had access to during his recovery. Wanting to help, Thomas created TENNACITY, a non-profit organization designed to help trauma survivors lead active and fulfilling lifestyles. Thomas knows full well what it feels like to face the reality that your life may never be the same after a tragic accident such as his own, and he’s determined to make sure no one has to feel this type of trauma nor that anyone should have to bare it alone.
TENNACITY recently launched and will help facilitate access to physical therapy and strength conditioning for trauma survivors who may not have the financial resources or access to recovery.
As this article is being written, Thomas and a friend are planning a 24-hour ride through the Natchez Trace Parkway on October 26th. The end of this ride will coincide with a celebration and the launch of TENNACITY at Fieldstone Park in Franklin. This will be Thomas’s first 24-hour ride. “And hopefully my last,” he admits with a laugh. A fitting start to a bright foundation.