Rick Pannell was a high school swimming champion from Muhlenberg County who came to the University of Kentucky on scholarship and earned a business degree. While coaching teams after graduation in 1982, he saw a business opportunity.
Because there were no swim shops in Lexington, competitive swimmers had to go to Cincinnati or Nashville to find good suits, goggles and accessories. So Pannell started selling them out of his car.
“I can remember going from pool to pool and popping the trunk,” he said. “I felt like the ice cream guy.”
As the business grew, Pannell moved from his trunk to his apartment and, in 1989, a small shop in Hanover Towers apartments on East Main Street. He moved to Clay Avenue and soon afterward to Fayette Place Shopping Center on Nicholasville Road.
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Pannell Swim Shop has prospered for 32 years by finding a special niche: serving competitive swim teams across Kentucky and in other states at all levels: club, high school and college.
In 2004, Pannell bought some land across Tiverton Way from his shop and built a new store building, with extra space to rent. That move planted the seeds for his next career.
Last month, Pannell sold Pannell Swim Shop to Tom Viney, a longtime customer from Georgetown who has been working with him for a year to learn the business. Pannell earlier had sold or closed retail stores he opened in Louisville, Ft. Thomas and Nashville.
While continuing to consult with Viney on the transition, Pannell has launched Team Pannell with his wife, longtime Lexington real estate agent Whitney Pannell, at Keller Williams Realty.
“Other than swimming, real estate is about all I know,” said Pannell, 56. His mother was a Realtor, and his father worked for the Muhlenberg County PVA. His wife’s father also was a Realtor.
Viney, 41, grew up in Georgetown and ran track at Western Kentucky University. He wasn’t a competitive swimmer, but his siblings were, so he got to know Pannell and his shop.
After graduation, Viney worked in technology for Lexmark, health care companies and as an independent consultant. Four years ago, while living in Louisville, he considered opening a retail sporting goods store and sought Pannell’s advice.
“I always wanted to get closer to focusing on a business that revolved around health, wellness and strong community engagement,” said Viney, who with his teenage daughter, Allie, founded Serve, a non-profit organization that serves free meals each Wednesday evening in a downtown parking lot behind the Kentucky Theatre.
Viney decided against opening the Louisville store. But a couple of years ago, as Pannell was thinking about making the move to real estate, he reached out to Viney to see if he might be interested in buying Pannell Swim Shop.
“It was too good to pass up,” Viney said. “I wanted to come in and learn from Rick.”
Viney got into swimming eight years ago when he started doing triathlons. He plans to add some triathlon accessories to the shop’s inventory. But his main focus will continue to be serving the needs of swim teams.
“It’s such a niche business,” said Pannell, who works with high school teams through a relationship with the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, and many collegiate teams, including the UK team on which he once competed.
Since Pannell went to the London Olympics in 2012, which had the first Olympic open-water swimming events, the store has sponsored the Murky Mile at Cave Run Lake. This year’s fifth annual event will be Aug. 26 and have a half-mile family fun swim, the mile race and a 2.4-mile Ironman event.
Viney said he expects Internet sales to play a bigger role in the company’s business. With the ability to ship orders directly from manufacturers, Pannell Swim Shop can quickly get purchases to customers anywhere in the country. That can range from goggles to high-tech competitive swim suits, which cost $300 or $400.
“You can do business anywhere now,” Pannell said. “A California customer today is like a Lansdowne customer in the 1980s.”
Viney also sees growth opportunities in catering to the growing senior population. People are staying active longer, and swimming and water aerobics have become a popular forms of exercise. Pannell thinks that’s a good strategy.
“We’ve tried to cover all the bases and be a complete aquatics store,” he said. “If you just focused on one angle of this business it would be very difficult to succeed.”