The fitness industry has proliferated since 1985, when Victor and Lynne Brick first rented racquetball courts to teach aerobics classes. But it’s an industry rife with failed and unprofitable clubs, one that lenders fear, and it’s historically a young person’s enterprise. I sat down with the couple to learn how the former trauma nurse (Lynne) and gym coach (Victor) have turned their passion into Brick Bodies, a regional fitness corporation that outperforms its industry.
I read on AthleticBusiness.com that the fitness industry has about a 50 percent attrition rate, meaning that clubs have to replace half their members every year just to stay even. What’s your experience, and how do you try to manage this?
Victor Brick: Our retention rate is 65 percent, which we think is due to providing affordable value. Also, we have incredible people working for us. A primary reason people join a club is sociability, so we focus on small-group training where people make friends. And we monitor this on a daily basis, looking at key performance indicators to see where there are trends.
But you have 26 locations. Are those trends the same at one club as at the others?
VB: It varies by location. So we take baselines at all of them, and then attack those baselines. Each club has its own goals.
We are just coming out of a recession. Isn’t fitness one of those things that people drop when times are tough?
Lynne Brick: Actually, during the recession we’ve thrived. What’s happened is people don’t compromise on health and fitness. We’ve attacked this aggressively, acquiring 19 clubs in the last five years, adding 135,000 members [the acquisition was of standing Planet Fitness-brand clubs]. As some have said, you make your best money in a bad economy.
That’s a lot to take on. Any fear of cannibalization or saturation?
VB: We play to win in a market that is fragmented. We have two women-only locations, five coed clubs under the Brick brand, and then the budget-priced Planet Fitness clubs, which have their own members and following.
We see that a lot of clubs do away with pools, which I assume is because the facilities costs are high. But you continue to be a full-service club, with all the expenses that go with it. Why?
LB: Pools end up providing an important revenue stream. As the baby boomers age, a pool is a must, because water provides good exercise for people with joint issues. But there is a lot of room in the industry for the pared-down, “bootcamp”-style clubs, too.
What is your pricing? I know a lot of clubs keep this somewhat a secret.
VB: Today we believe in transparency. We charge most members with one-club passes $20 on a biweekly basis, because that’s how most of them get paid. It’s affordable—it shouldn’t be painful to belong to a club.
So give us the summary of what compelled you to start a fitness club chain?
LB: We rented out racquetball court space to teach aerobics. I was teaching 20 classes per week and then became pregnant. We then decided to get serious about this and bought an existing club. Victor’s parents loaned us the money.
VB: It was our love of fitness. In the beginning there were a lot of challenges, and at times we considered quitting. But now we know that an oak tree ain’t nothing but an acorn that stood it’s ground.
How do fitness people become business people?
VB: Usually through the school of hard knocks. Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. We have also assembled a terrific team. We have a great COO for Brick Bodies, Chuck Cavolo, a great COO for Planet Fitness, Jerry Woods, and a great CFO, Glenn Norris.
A lot of stress must come with running one club, let alone 25 clubs.
VB: We could have gone bankrupt at least five times. But when you go through that, you realize you can always start over again. You lose the fear.
You are cited for your accomplishments by both the business community and within your industry, with honors from Fitness magazine, Smart CEO magazine, the Baltimore County Chamber of Commerce, and Ernst and Young. Why did they recognize you, other than for your successes?
LB: In each case, they said it was because of community contributions, how we are “inextricably woven into the fabric of the community”—by sponsoring events, supporting local charities, working with local businesses to improve the health of their employees, and generally promoting health and fitness. Like Steve Jobs said, we try to “put a dent in the universe.”
That sounds largely philanthropic. How does that translate into building business?
VB: This is my favorite business story. We just opened a new, $8 million flagship club in January of 2013. We got the loan from CFG Community Bank, because we had long-standing relationships with two people there, Nancy Bell and Ellen Fish. They knew we were as good as our word. In business, you have two things: your word and your reputation. You lose either one and you are through.
You’re both in your late 50s, and you have kids in the business. How do you stay fit, stay married to each other—for 34 years now—and where will this business be in 10 years?
LB: We still have to be role models, even with a busy schedule. We both believe in quality training, which means shorter, more intense workouts. Victor does mostly bodyweight. I am doing more Qi Gong and Yoga, plus teaching cardio and strength classes.
VB: Working as a family involves respect—including knowing when to turn off talking about business. In 10 years we hope our kids and the management team will be running 100 clubs, while we might run a world-class health retreat somewhere, while speaking, lecturing, and traveling.