157 Building an Authentic Culture in Your Fitness Business

157 Building an Authentic Culture in Your Fitness Business

How do you stand out against the already established fitness businesses out there? What makes your fitness business different? In this episode, we will talk about building an authentic culture in your fitness business.

Fitness has become a steady trend for most people. As more and more are interested in movement and working out to maintain a healthy lifestyle, entrepreneurs want to jump the gun and start their business.

What may be the tricky part is selling what’s unique to your establishment that clients can’t find elsewhere. Is it the state-of-the-art facilities you have invested in? The rock star team members and staff you developed? While all these are critical, they are part of the most vital part of your business – your fitness and gym culture.

How does a gym culture exist in the fitness space? And how does it help fitness businesses? This episode’s guest speaker, Jan Spaticcia, explains how.

About Jan Spaticchia

Jan was the founder and executive chairman of Empowered Brands, whose flagship business is énergie Fitness, the largest and fastest growing fitness franchise group in the UK.

He was also the executive vice chairman at Be Military Fit (BMF) with Bear Grylls. BMF is a program considered the pioneer of outdoor, group fitness programs, expanding its sessions from one park in its first year to 140 across the country, with franchises abroad.

Jan had over 30 years of experience in the health, wellness and fitness industry. His first foray into the fitness industry started at 18, when he answered an ad for gym managers in his hometown of Cheshire. He then managed a hotel gym upon completion of his training. His business acumen impressed one of the clients he asked Jan to help set up what would become the Bourton Mill Health Club Buckingham.

For many years, he helped set up fitness clubs for other people, but finally launched his own chain called HiLife. However, internal conflicts led him to leave the company.

He eventually founded énergie Fitness, and oversaw its expansion locally and abroad.

A visionary, he had helped establish brands thanks to his business acumen and sought-after leadership skills. He was also a renowned international motivational speaker, known for his expertise in change management, entrepreneurship and business development.

énergie Fitness

Jan recalled establishing  énergie fitness in 2003 in his dining room. At the time, while fitness business franchising was thriving in the US, Australia and New Zealand, it was mostly unheard of in the UK. Together with his business partner, Peter Sage, Jan sought to rapidly expand énergie, even purchasing a few HiLife franchises.

In 2004, a year after its launch, énergie had grown to 17 franchises and expanded near shore, in Ireland, by acquiring the Jackie Skelly Fitness chains in 2010.

As founder and chairman, he catapulted énergie to become the fastest-growing and largest low-cost fitness franchise in the UK. During his tenure as chief executive, he spearheaded the growth of the company, with more than 100 clubs across five territories, 150,000 thousand members and about 2 million visitors annually, and close to £30m in network turnover.

The Company Culture You Want

When asked the question, “How do you actually determine what culture you want within your business?” Jan opined that authenticity should be important. He believed that culture starts with a fitness business owner’s clear vision and core values, and that from there, positive culture developed naturally, as it should come from the heart and soul.

Jan admits to being a follower of Jim Collins, an American author, researcher, and consultant, and his concept of “Good to Great”. He also used the Japanese company Sony Group as an example. He retold the story of its founders, and how, despite not knowing exactly which industry they would enter, their vision and purpose was to make anything “Made in Japan” stand for quality. Years on, this vision still stands, with Japanese products known to last.

Creating an effective fitness culture at your gym

A great fitness culture means your members will not find any physical activity outside your gym. Your culture can be combined in different ways, with varying aspects, but ultimately it is your brand and the experience you have as your customers interact with the various areas of your business.

Gain insight into the vision and mission of your fitness business

To determine and gain insight into the vision and target missions of your fitness business, Jan suggested asking deep questions from all possible stakeholders. These include not only the company’s shareholders, but also the team members, current and former club members, community members, suppliers, franchise owners, even your banking partners. Each stakeholder is critical in determining the essence of your fitness business culture.

For énergie, empowering people to transform their lives is at the core of their culture and comes in three levels:

First, they want to empower their franchisees to become successful, after spending significant money setting up their franchise. Énergie understands that some franchisees may be working in unfulfilling jobs or the wrong career paths, and are looking to make a big change.

Second, énergie wants to empower their staff to eventually have the tools to grow within the company, like a gym instructor being promoted to gym manager and eventual club owner.

Third, they want to empower their club members to transform their lives by meeting and exceeding their clients’ needs and expectations, despite being a low-cost fitness business.

Jan admitted that sometimes fitness businesses can lose track of the essence of their culture. One reason he cited is that nowadays, it has become easy to be like every other fitness business out there. That’s why it’s also important to revisit and ask questions not only to existing gym goers, but also to those who have never exercised before, or have never used any of their facilities. Asking the question, “What is it that would truly empower you?” has become a powerful tool for énergie, in sticking true to their culture and understanding what their current and potential customer base needs.

the challenge of Keeping an authentic fitness business culture 

Jan also admitted that keeping an authentic fitness business culture can be challenging, especially when it comes to numerous and rapid expansion efforts. He remembered a quote from Richard Branson that says, “The magic is to build a gigantic business that operates like a small business.”

He notes that being in the franchise business definitely works to their advantage, and their franchise owners are, more often than not, part of the community where the franchise is established, and are therefore passionately invested in the growth within that community. This provides a more authentic feel of their culture.

But with advantages also come disadvantages, especially in the fact that not everyone will understand what the culture of the business is about. Each franchise owner may have a different interpretation of the culture, and can therefore implement systems, training and policies in a different way.

He used the example of Hewlett-Packard (HP) to illustrate how to keep the culture into the franchise DNA. HP set up several regional offices instead of relying on a central office, not just for ease of customer base, but also for becoming part of the community. Its systems and policies reflect the headquarters’ while integrating into its locale, creating a tight, fit community.

How can you help your fitness business culture thrive?

Another critical aspect Jan pointed out is that the hiring process within the company–and within the franchises– is just as indispensable to the company culture to thrive. He suggested “hire for attitude” and “train for skill”. Many people believe that working for a “good to great” company works for everyone, but as Jim Collins puts it, working for a good to great company works for people who understand the meaning of a good to great culture. Some people might simply not fit or take to heart your company’s culture, but they may work elsewhere. This mentality also benefits people to fit in naturally into the company.

Getting the Team Together

Jan believes that bringing all your teams together is essential in further fostering your fitness business culture. These gatherings can be in business reviews to understand company growth and provide insights for growth, or simply in retreats and conferences.

But more than these quarterly or annual gatherings, for Jan, it’s critical that every staff, from the leadership team down to the frontline, live and breathe the culture. It’s in the everyday, mundane things, such as how they interact; how everyone is punctual; how meetings have agendas that attendees adhere to, that actually put the culture to great practice.

Two ways to measure your culture’s success

Jan believed there are hard measures and soft measures that help assess your fitness studio or health club’s culture’s success.

He noted that staff retention is one of the most important indicators–hard measures– of whether your culture works. Culture also translates to being a great place to work, so if staff members only stay with you for a short while, it may be time to take a hard look and focus on what’s not working. But if you often see people celebrating their work anniversaries, then you’ll know that they can’t imagine working elsewhere, and that they’re a great fit to the company.

Staff Retention Translates to Member Retention

While staff retention translates well into membership, it also translates to long membership retention. Jan took as an example his own business – while at the time of the interview énergie Fitness was only 14 years old. There were club members with them for more than 20 years, around the time their original club was built. This club was eventually acquired by énergie, and instead of looking elsewhere, some members simply stayed.

Develop a positive culture for your staff

Another measure of culture success Jan shared is how their staff behave and engage within the team. When people are a great fit and assimilate well into the company, they usually build their own community within that culture and protect it, while those who seemingly don’t fit sort themselves out.  Remember that your employees will work hard to create your company.

Three Tips for Building a Culture within a Fitness Business

To establish an authentic culture, Jan shared the following tips:

1. Ask deep and searching questions.

Whether you’re starting out, about to embark on your first franchise, or going bigger, ask all your stakeholders the deep, candid questions. The stakeholders include the leadership team, the staff, current and former members and suppliers, but also the ones within your community that have never been to your business. They will help you understand what you’re doing right. They will also likely have interesting input on what you’re doing wrong or haven’t done yet, to turn them into paying clients.

While asking the deep questions will give you great answers, Jan reminded business owners to be open to criticisms, and take them as room for growth. Be relentless in asking these questions, and take the brutal, honest truth at face-value.

2. Hire for attitude, train for skill.

Jan believes any business can hire anyone to do the work, as skills can be trained, but attitude is critical in the hiring process. It’s something that’s ingrained in a person. As a business owner, you must look for someone that you can envision working harmoniously with the rest of your team with their positive disposition, who can very well walk the talk about your company’s culture.

3. Live your culture, and live it honestly.

It’s one thing to preach and talk about culture with your team in meetings and social gatherings, but to be a walking example to your stakeholders is something that many business owners find challenging. Your company’s culture is something that you yourself have to live by every day.

How fitness owners can encourage team questions

team meeting where leader is encouraging

Finally, Jan shared tips on how a fitness business owner can encourage their team members to ask questions. If financials are not an issue, he suggested buying mailing lists so that stakeholders can be reached through mail or phone call. 

He also shared the two most effective methods that énergie uses to get his teams to ask questions. One is to organize workshops where members introduce the business owner to a friend who has never been a member of their fitness clubs. He suggested doing it outside the health club premises to avoid it looking like a sales pitch. The purpose of the gathering is to simply gather insights from non-customers to understand what they could do to convert them into paying clients. 

The second method Jan shared, and said to have surprisingly worked effectively, is packing bags at supermarkets. In this method, some of the énergie Fitness staff helped pack grocery bags at supermarket checkouts, and casually asked customers whether they had been a member of a fitness club before. Again, the staff made it clear they weren’t selling anything, just wanting to get some insights. And these activities provided some interesting, candid insights into what the community thinks and feels. 



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