It's one thing to whip up workout after workout for your clients. It's another to own and operate a fitness business. Creating the vision, raising money, finding the location, building out the space, branding, purchasing, creating of systems, recruiting and training employees, budgeting, projecting growth, dealing with the competition, marketing, creating the experience and deciding to take the risk make even the most passionate trainers assume the fetal position.
I'm not here to squash aspirations or spread gloom and doom, but the scenario of new businesses failing rings true throughout any industry. The great news is that today there are more options than ever to get started in the fitness business. The small studio is the fastest-growing segment in the fitness industry, and there are options and opportunity for both the independent owner and franchisee.
Working with a franchise and independently owning a studio both have their successes and setbacks, which two savvy and successful trainers, Cliff Latham of College Station, Texas, and Brian Calkins of Cincinnati, Ohio, went through when making the decision to "franchise or not." Whichever you decide, commit to success, and let failure offer insight.
Cliff Latham (www.clifflatham.com) has over 22 years experience as a fitness and weight loss expert, university professor and strength and track and field coach, where he was named eight-time Conference Coach of the Year. From 1992-2000, Cliff coached several world- and Olympic-level track and field athletes, including a gold medalist in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Cliff has trained over 2,650 clients, utilizing his advanced exercise physiology and sports nutrition degrees along with lessons learned from completion of the Ironman Triathlon, five sub-3 marathons, over 120 triathlons and experience with over 1,300 collegiate athletes. He is also President of Cutting Edge Seminars, a corporate consulting and training company that specializes in stress recovery and wellness applications promoting productivity, premier health, energy and life balance. Cliff currently runs a Fitness Together franchise in College Station, Texas.
Brian Calkins (www.briancalkins.com) has been helping Cincinnatians safely and effectively lose weight and feel great since 1999. In June of 2004, Brian was honored as one of the nation's top 50 personal trainers by the American Association of Personal Trainers, and in August 2005, his personal training approach was featured in The Wall Street Journal. Having worked with hundreds of individuals, Brian has developed a warm, motivating and enthusiastic style and approach to fitness that has helped many people weed through all the weight loss and fitness hype and learn what really works. He is a fitness presenter and author of various fitness publications, including Burn Body-Fat the Right Way!, and co-author of The Power of Champions. Brian works exclusively as the President of HealthStyle Fitness, Inc., a private training studio in Cincinnati, Ohio.
What was happening with your studio when you decided to consider a franchise?
Brian: My business was doing relatively well with five years of consistent growth at the time, so I considered converting my studio into a franchise. I was, however, very inexperienced with hiring and managing trainers, and I was struggling to strike a balance between being a trainer myself, managing a staff, marketing, sales and developing systems to run my business effectively. And competition was becoming more intense with six training studios within a two-mile radius of our location.
Cliff: Our studio had always been strong financially, as we were voted by a local magazine to be the number-one trainers in the area for several years in a row and had a great following. But I knew that our systems and marketing weren't as strong as they could be, so I began searching out options that would help us streamline that area of our business. I stumbled across several franchise options, and as I did my homework, I met several other business owners within a particular franchise that had been in my same situation. Realizing their growth once they became a franchise, I began some soul-searching and made a decision. Look, owning a personal training business isn't rocket science, but I didn't want to spend the next five years making the same mistakes, when I could learn it in a fifth of the time with a franchise. The speed to growth and success can be so much more rapid with proven systems and a template on which to expand and grow.
What was the investigation process like?
Cliff: I made a lot of phone calls, asked other franchise owners a lot of questions and then made a trip to Discovery Day, which helped answer one question: "Why would I pay six percent of my gross revenues each month to a franchise?" It's an important question to have answered and one that was provided once I made the trip.
Brian: I really enjoyed the investigation phase in considering a studio conversion. I spoke with a lot of owners who were current franchisees as well as studio owners who converted an existing training business to a franchise. I spent an entire day at the headquarters of the company I considered becoming a franchisee with and enjoyed meeting the staff. I was very stimulated by what they had to offer. In fact, flying back to Cincinnati after my visit, I felt confident that I would convert HealthStyle Fitness into a franchise with the company.
What were the deciding factors to go or not to go with a franchise?
Brian: My decision not to convert my studio was a tough one. I was surely excited about the possibility of having a turn-key operation, well-designed systems and the support of a huge corporation. Ultimately, though, I felt a void in my entrepreneurial drive as I visualized and reflected upon my studio becoming a franchise. My long-term vision felt constrained with potential future options that I may not be able pursue due to contractual commitments to the franchisor.
Cliff: I spoke with a franchise owner who had been in the same situation as I, and he very quickly had not only seen an increase in significant revenues within a month but had been able to streamline his systems in such a way that he was able to work on improved customer service and continued growth. When an owner is bogged down in the day-to-day operations, you quickly get to a point where it becomes not only impossible to grow but impossible to maintain the same level of service that you once did.
What are the benefits of your decision?
Brian: The benefits have been significant. I understood that I had to do something different to grow my business; being stagnant wasn't an option. In lieu of converting my studio, I redoubled my commitment to creating systems for my studio, to becoming a better manager, to creating fresh programs and marketing efforts. And although I continue to develop and refine the operations of my studio, in the year following my decision not to become a franchise, our revenue doubled. And I expect continual growth this year. I have certainly made mistakes along the way, primarily due to inexperience, but these mistakes have become the catalysts for me to develop new business and management skills.
Cliff: For me, it was being able to sleep at night, knowing that my trainers were happy, my clients were thrilled and I wasn't worrying about how to implement this or market that or any other of the hundreds of decisions that are provided with a franchise.
What have been the disadvantages?
Brian: There have been times that I would have benefited from being able to contact the franchisor or other experienced franchisee for guidance in areas that I was inexperienced.
Cliff: You have to pay six percent of your gross each month to the franchise. But if I flip it around the other way, there are at least four to five different situations each month that, because of the franchise systems or support, the six percent pays for itself. I also think potential franchise owners worry about not having latitude in many of their own business decisions, but we are individually able to create much of what we do to fit our own clientele and market.
Knowing what you now know, did you make the right decision?
Cliff: For me at the time, absolutely. With my goals for future growth, it would take me 20 years to do what we will be able to accomplish in the next five.
Brian: Without question, I made the right decision. I do feel franchises offer tremendous benefit, but having grown up in a family of entrepreneurs, creating my own systematic business provides a lot of stimulation.
Where do you predict you would be now if you (Brian) went with the franchise or you (Cliff) kept your private studio?
Brian: I inherently feel that my studio would have benefited in the short run from the support of systems, but I would likely have felt restricted in my entrepreneurial creativity after a few years.
Cliff: Since we were already successful, I am sure we still would be; however, we more than doubled our gross revenues and profits within a few months once we became a franchise. We did this all without losing a client in the transition. Now my trainers are on paths to own their own studios if they wish, clients continue to join us and stay for an average of 10 months, and revenues continue to stay strong month after month. Financially, it was a good decision. For our studio, it was a great decision.
I was fortunate to speak to both Cliff and Brian during their decision processes, and I hope you get the impression that quite a lot of investigation went into making the choice that was professionally and personally right for them. Although their choices were ultimately different, both are enjoying high levels of professional growth and success. If the question to franchise or not is one you are looking for answers to, do your homework, determine which aligns best with your personality and business philosophies, and trust your instinct.
Kelli Calabrese is the editor of Personal Fitness Professional magazine and is the International Master Trainer for Adventure Boot Camp â€” the largest boot camp program in the world. She is the coach of Argyle Adventure Boot Camp and the co-author of Personal Training Prosperity. For more information, go to www.ArgyleBootCamp.com, www.AdventureBootCamp.com orwww.CalabreseConsulting.com.