12 Business Lessons from Big Box Gyms

There are pivotal times in life when one decision alters your career path;. mine have been in 1994, 2000, 2007 and 2011. After twelve years of being involved with a larger multi-location fitness facility as an employee and vendor I moved my business to completely independent. Which oddly enough has opened more doors of opportunity.

In 2000, I thought that working as a Personal Trainer who specialized in rehabilitation, such as Fitness World for a few years would help launch my career.   

I became one of their top selling Personal Trainers and a Group Fitness Manager during seven years of employment before negotiating a strategic alliance that became Lifemoves. 

Before the merger Fitness World was a family run business with the original founder still very much involved. I am very grateful for the support I was given to open my own business within a business in 2007.  The idea was to test run a rehabilitation centre within a larger fitness centre with multiple locations however, this changed in December 2010.  Little did I know how long I would be involved with them or what I would learn. 

12 Lessons Learned While Working in a Big Box Gym

1. Large Companies Take Awhile to Get Simple Things Done

As a group fitness instructor it took me one year to get new equipment for our programs.  When there are multiple layers to go through, sometimes there are road blocks that occur. These road blocks prevent organizations from thriving or taking advantage of competitive opportunities.  As a company grows make sure that your employees have enough freedom with guidance to see their own initiatives completed.  Evaluate each project on its own merits, but don’t take so long that opportunities are missed.

2. Pay Attention to Your Numbers But Not So Much That You Lose Sight of People

We always had to know our daily numbers which lead to our projected figures and monthly revenues. Those without a business sense weren’t sure why it was important. If you don’t know what your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are or where they at for a particular time period you are unable to make necessary strategic adjustments.  Over the last few years I have figured that there are specific indicators of our performance that leads to revenue. Our income statement is merely a reflection of the actions we took to execute our strategies.

Part of what makes people want to work or participate in a great environment is the people. With the merger the energy of the gym shifted from something that was really friendly and family oriented to something more corporate.  I want  Lifemoves’ clients and staff to be part of a family whom feel as though we are all working together to get people moving for life. As a business owner I still have to manage our KPIs.

3. Managers are Not Always Leaders and Leaders are Not Always Managers

A manager has specific tasks to accomplish throughout the day and things to look after. Leaders take initiative, coach and guide people to become better at what they do. New Personal Trainers would approach me for guidance even though I was not their manager because I took the time to help them improve their teaching and business skills. With the merger there is now more coaching happening.

4. Freedom Manager Can Be Detrimental for Some While a Micromanager Can Be a Crazy Maker

There are two extremes of management – Freedom Manager and Micromanager Crazy Maker. As one manager told me “we are all adults, so we are capable of doing our jobs.” This is why we were all left to our own devices. Some people thrived while others who needed more coaching or guidelines eventually left. On the other side is the manager who is always taking over or always checking in without trusting that staff is actually doing their job properly.

Each employee requires their own level of management. I try to find their particular level that keeps them motivated, our clients happy and the business running smoothly. To survive as an employee I had to do my job, learn to let whatever the micro manger said slide off my shoulders and take initiative.

5. Listen to and Take Care of Your Clients and Staff

While we are unable to accommodate every client’s whim or whimsy clients want to know that they have at least been heard. Whether it is a complaint or commendation keep your eyes and ears open.  If there is action that can be taken to resolve an issue, don’t just brush them off. Take care of it.  If clients are paying for a premium service, such as Personal Training they want the extras like water.  Even in a down economy there are ways to cut costs without reducing the quality service you provide or how you take care of your staff.

6. Find Ways to Improve

If you want to thrive in a retracted economy, find ways to improve and add value. Now is the time to innovate and improve the quality of service so that clients remain clients, while they also sing your praises to their friends and family.  Taking away little perks from clients or staff only produces more grumbling.

7. Reward Current Clients and Staff

It took awhile, but I believe this is happening. Fitness World would have great promotions for new training clients, but not current ones. This created “a what about me?” attitude. Some of the promo packages now are fantastic. It took several years for Personal Trainers to be part of the bonus system, which we often complained about. Find ways to thank all your employees for their efforts and contributions.

8. Compete on Difference and Value Not Price

Lifemoves© is trying to figure out how we can best reward our clients without offering large discounts. You don’t hear of a Physiotherapist or Chiropractor offering to discount their services, so why should we? The concept is to give something extra instead. It has been our general policy not to discount.  Personal Trainers are paid on a percentage fee split – so with discounts they are paid less until the client renews. Clients who paid for packages with large discounts often had difficulty seeing the value of paying full rates.  This is why we pay employees a flat rate instead of percentage (it keeps payroll simple too) and don’t offer discounts or participate in GroupOn type services.

9.  During Times of Change People Will Often Look Out for Themselves

In times of change and turmoil some people end up protecting themselves. A merger takes a couple of years for the dust to settle and for others to adjust. Sales people are motivated by commissions. If there is the perception that their income is threatened they will sometimes be ruthless at protecting it.  If you are in a company going through a merger or big changes try to help each other out.

10. Communicate Clear Expectations

To avoid the above situation and others it is very important to make sure that everyone is communicating clearly during times of change. New staff in one department doesn’t always know what is happening on the other side and vice versa.  Keeping everyone involved in the loop will ease tension and prevent conflict from happening in the first place.

11. Have Checks and Balances but Keep Things Simple

It was clear during my tenure that there were multiple redundancies that had to be checked and balanced to ensure that everything was completed correctly. I still believe that this important, but how many steps are really needed is still questionable.   As my business grows it becomes increasingly complex, however I am conscientiously always trying to find ways to make it more efficient.  A system with redundant or unnecessary steps will cost you money.

12. Learn to Leverage Technology: Databases Are Great

In 2001 I developed an access database to track client sales and sessions; in 2006 I started to use a PDA for my calendar. It was in late 2007 when they were talking about moving to an electronic system.  How are you able to search client records in paper? Databases give you a lot of flexibility to manage a lot of information more easily.  When I found out about electronic management service providers in 2008, Lifemoves© made the leap.


There are many more lessons I learned throughout my twelve years, including that having systems is important to produce long-term results and  business growth.

I will miss Fitness World, as I have many fond memories and am thankful for everything that I have learned while there. 

I am looking forward to growing my company and continuing to Get People Moving for Life™

1 thought on “12 Business Lessons from Big Box Gyms

  1. Extremely well written article from an old (not so old) colleague of mine. Not to mention a rational and intelligent person that I highly respect. Way to go Alfred! 2 thumbs up on this one my friend ;-)Jean-MichelFounder Agilispeed.com

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