Jo Ann Walk-Ferguson, who helped open the first GNC store in Columbus three decades ago, has retired. The store remains open in Leigh Mall. Photo by: Zach Odom/Dispatch Staff
August 27, 2014 10:44:59 AM
Thirty years ago, after working a series of small jobs, often multiple ones at a time, Jo Ann Walk-Ferguson helped open the GNC in Leigh Mall in Columbus.
Now, she has retired.
Ferguson sold the stores at the end of June. The Columbus location was the single longest operating franchise of more than 7,000 in the world. Ferguson also owned the Starkville GNC location for more than 20 years.
"I hated to give them up, but I knew it was time," she told The Dispatch on Tuesday. "I want to thank all my wonderful customers for the past years and I hope they'll support GNC in the future."
She began what would be her final career during her second stint in Columbus.
She, her first husband, Robert Walk, and three children arrived here in 1973 when he was stationed at Columbus Air Force Base. They left in 1980 but returned two years later.
"After you get into the town and start getting involved in different things, it's home," Ferguson said.
When the GNC location in Columbus opened, Ferguson was a manager for five years. The company then opened up options to managers to franchise. Ferguson did so, but experienced some difficulties at first. The Pennsylvania native said her strong northern accent immediately clued customers in that she wasn't originally from Columbus, and she felt she had to work harder to establish rapport.
It was also her first time running her own business.
"I had to step up to the plate and do a lot more to be able to make the business work," she said. "I really trained myself in a lot of ways."
A year after her first husband's death in 1992, GNC corporate executives asked her about her interest in owning the Starkville GNC location, which at the time was in a shopping center where a Lowe's home improvement store now sits. She had customers at the Columbus store provide their zip codes when they purchased items to see if there was enough traffic from Starkville for the move to be worth her time before agreeing. Ferguson credited her daughter-in-law with helping to keep the Columbus store running while she re-opened the Starkville location.
"I was very hesitant because I was alone and I had no help at the time," Ferguson said.
Ten years later, the lease ran out in Starkville. She picked up and moved across the street to a new shopping center on Highway 12. Before she re-opened, though, she put in a smoothie bar.
"When we opened up, it took off, and it took off very well," she said. "It was just a great location."
During that time, she remarried Howard Ferguson, who she said helped her until retirement.
Jo Ann Walk-Ferguson credited her success as a business owner to sticking with her personal motto: Faith, family, friends, fellowship and fun.
"That's the rule I have always lived by," she said. "I always feel like that was really what got me where I am today. Life has been really good to me, but I've had to work really hard. It was very sad the day I had to leave, but then again, I knew it was coming...GNC was always behind me. My husband and I were very pleased with their support for us, and I think we were good franchises for them."
Throughout her time in Columbus, Ferguson has been a member of Annunciation Catholic Church and numerous local civic groups and professional organizations. The American Business Woman's Association named her the organization's "Woman of the Year" in 2004.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
1. Photos: Market Street 2015 COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. A closer look at the Lowndes Co. bond issue COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. First Baptist Church dedicates new children's building STARKVILLE & OKTIBBEHA COUNTY
5. Slimantics: Market Street's hidden gems COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY