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How Curves Fitness Centers Became one of the Fastest Growing Franchises Ever

FranchiseHelp sat down with Gary Heavin, founder of Curves Fitness Centers and Health Clubs to talk about his entrepreneurial journey. A millionaire at 25 but bankrupt by 30, Gary shares with FranchiseHelp readers the tough lessons that helped him to bounce back and earn a place on Newsweek's recent list of "Most Successful Almost Failures" along with business legends like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Curves Franchises have over 9,000 centers around the globe and we hear straight from the man who started it all.

Read below for the transcript!

[Matt Wilson, FranchiseHelp]: Hello everybody and welcome. My name is Matt Wilson and we are here at I'm here with Gary Heavin, CEO of the Curves Franchise, joining us from Texas over Skype. I'm really excited to have him really. A really well-documented story on his startup and how he became one of the most successful franchises in the world. Gary, thanks for coming out and spending a little time with us today.

[Gary Heavin, Curves]: Thanks, Matt. I'm glad to be here with you today and with your listeners.

MW: No problem. So you had a story come out in Newsweek as one of the, as an almost failure. I'd love to hear a little bit more about how Curves started out and some problems that you had early on and how you were able to overcome them.

GH: Okay. I'd be glad to talk about it. That article, by the way, surprised me. I went and interviewed. It showed up on my Google Alert, and to be listed in the company of Walt Disney and Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and J.K. Rowling was a stunning, is probably, I was stunned and honored. I'm not sure I'm worthy of that.

MW: I can imagine.

GH: What a great thing. I think I was only one of two that were still alive. So that added another dimension to it, being a living legend. I enjoyed it and appreciated it, but I've got to tell I don't know that I deserve to be there. The story of Curves is really quite interesting. It was not a get rich quick story or being lucky or those sorts of things. It was more of a story of learning from your mistakes, being persistent, not repeating those mistakes, until you finally run out of doing the wrong things and you're kind of stuck with just the right things that work. You know I had my first women's health club when I was 20. I didn't have any experience but I loved helping people. I loved being around women. I found I was pretty good at running women's gyms. At 25, I had six locations and made our financial statement. As I continued to expand and then I went into men's business, I began to make a lot of those mistakes that comes with inexperience and with youthfulness. I found myself at age 30 bankrupt and lost it all. The story of Curves is really learning from those mistakes. For example, a women's gym environment is best run by somebody that owns it, somebody that lives in that community, somebody that can care only like an owner can care.

MW: Okay. That makes sense.

GH: Yeah. So when I went back into the marketplace, I realized that franchising was a much better vehicle to care for these women in these small communities that we create, because franchising put an owner in that marketplace. There were a number of other mistakes I made. Another one was that men have places to exercise. Men don't care if women look at their butts while their working out. It was women that didn't have a place to go, women who were intimidated by the men, women who didn't have two hours to spend at the gym. So I stayed focused on what I knew and what I knew where the needs were. I was careful to stay on message, to stay focused on what we did really well, where the need was great. Those were all lessons learned the hard way. My wife and I opened the first Curves in 1992, with $10,000 that we had saved. The plan was we needed 100 members to break even. If we didn't have that 100 members in 90 days, we would refund the members' money and go get a job, and God forbid that. We liked what we were doing. We actually hit the 100 members in two days.

MW: Wow, impressive. Impressive. And what's it like owning a women's gym?

GH: You have to balance compassion and business sense. You really can't be everything for everybody and still make a profit. On the other hand, you can't be all about business. You've got to be caring and also productive at the same time. It's tough because we attract a lot of women to Curves that are nurses or caregivers, and that's a good thing. But you also have to lead your staff and get the work done, get the business done so that we can pay the bills. Balancing those two things is really a lot of the challenge you have in being a successful Curves operator, and me as a CEO trying to teach them how to balance business with caring.

MW: Sure. I read your "Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneurial Soul" segment. You talked about the loss of your mother when you were very young. How's that translated into pursuing your passion and helping women with their health and fitness?

GH: I found myself pre-med in college at 17 and then owning a women's health club at 20, but I've got to tell you, it wasn't until I was 40 years old, when I had been doing women's health for 20 years at that time, before I had the epiphany. I was teaching a group of women a weight loss session, about 100 women, and I caught myself subconsciously scanning the crowd for the face of my mother. I realized that for all those years what my life had been about. I was trying to heal women. I was trying to prevent what happened to me at age 13 and finding her, having died in her sleep, to prevent that in other people's lives. The other side of that was I realized when I was 40 years old what my destiny was to be, that I was going to heal women. That was the year that we franchised Curves. Consequences of that, 4 million women now made their way to the gym because of Curves and are living better and longer lives.

MW: Wow. So, now the franchisees, I can only assume that they are mostly women. But do you have male franchisees too who are living on what you're trying to do?

GH: About 95% of the franchisees are owned and operated by women.

GH: Husbands are often involved but they're the primary operators. I'd say about 5% are owned and operated by men. I was a guy who did a pretty good job of running a women's health club, so there's a lot of us out there. Women, even though it's supposed to be this women only environment, if a man is there with the right attitude and for the right reasons, there's actually some degree of benefit having a guy there. I was good at it, and we have a lot of franchisees who are guys that are good at it too.

MW: Okay. When you are looking at the business owners, what are some of the things that you look for, and how does that differ between the male business owner and women business owner? What are these things that you look for, and are you finding any trends?

GH: You know it's funny. I wish there was a personality test we could give every potential franchisee that would predict some degree of success. I'm a pretty good judge of character, and I'm a people person. But I've got to tell you, I'm a lousy judge of who makes a good franchisee or not. It's amazing. We have franchisees that are 80 years old that are just bright and passionate and skilled. We have franchisees that are 18 years old that are enthusiastic and energetic. So I quit predicting a long time ago. I think my goal is to make sure they're not going into debt to buy Curves and that they're coming in for the right reasons. We tend to shy away from people that are going to be investors.

MW: Okay.

[Gary Heavin, Curves]: We want people that are going to run it themselves. And again, there are two kinds of people. There's the caregivers and then there's the, I call them, the accountants. You have to be a little bit of both if you're going to be an effective Curves owner.

MW: Okay. And then, from all your hardships, starting these businesses, how can joining, buying a franchise, how can becoming a franchisee really help you mitigate that risk of running a business?

GH: I'm probably a great example for that. I was passionate about something, but there was nobody out there to learn from. So I had to make all the mistakes myself. Yeah, I was a millionaire at 25, but then I was bankrupt at 30. Why learn the hard way? If there's a franchise model out there that's doing something that you can get excited about, a system that's already figured out all the wrong ways, if there's a franchise that's doing something that you'd like to do and it shares your values, it's a bargain and I don't care what it costs, because those lessons you learn the hard way cost too much and take too long. That's the beauty of franchising. You can learn from somebody else's mistake.

MW: Gary, those are wise words of advice. There are so many people out there trying to learn right now. Why not learn from someone who has 9,000 Curves centers? That's pretty amazing. Gary, thanks a lot for taking the time to talk to us on FranchiseHelp today. Anything else you want to leave our readers with?

GH: Yeah. Let me leave them with a thought or two. I know the economy's tough out there. People are fearful. Douglas MacArthur said that, "Security is the ability to produce." This is the time to open your own business. This is the time to take responsibility for yourself, for circumstances and make your own opportunities. I would encourage people, instead of being paralyzed by fear or hanging onto a job that's going nowhere, that they might dare to dream that now that they could be responsible and make their own way. There are so few people that are willing to believe in themselves. I would encourage people to believe that they do have what it takes. Matt, thanks for spending this time with me. I look forward to meeting you one day.

MW: Gary, I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Our thanks to Gary for this frank and open interview. If his story piqued your interest in running a fitness business of your own, we invite you to explore FranchiseHelp's profiles of fitness and gym franchise opportunities.

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