How Jim Snow and Gold’s Gym confronted an attack by discount competitors Featured

8:00pm EDT August 31, 2012
How Jim Snow and Gold’s Gym confronted an attack by discount competitors

When Jim Snow became president of Gold’s Gym International three years ago, he stepped into a tough challenge. The recession was in full swing, and retailers were closing left and right, leaving behind a glut of cheap, readily available retail space. This void presented a ripe opportunity for operators of tiny, low-overhead gyms offering super-low-priced monthly memberships.

The discount gyms were feasting on the opportunity, thereby cutting into the market share of many of GGI’s smaller gyms, in some cases deeply.

“It was pretty clear; when I arrived, I started holding meetings with all of my stakeholders to learn about the business environment, and this was one of the key threats to the business that everybody was searching for an answer to,” says Snow, who took the helm at Gold’s Gym International in 2009 after having worked for five years as regional vice president at Omni Hotels, a sister company of Gold’s.

In its many years of existence, Gold’s has carved out its territory as an operator and franchisor of full-service gyms: large facilities covering 40,000 to 60,000 square feet that offer a wide array of fitness services and amenities. The company, which has 700 gyms and more than 3 million members worldwide, has always fared well in the full-service segment of the fitness market.

In more recent times, GGI has also begun operating and franchising fitness-only gyms — midsize facilities covering 20,000 to 25,000 square feet that offer fewer services and amenities than the full-size gyms, at somewhat lower membership rates. These fitness-only facilities were the ones that were feeling the pinch from the rise of the discount microgyms when Snow came aboard.

“Our full-service gyms are really made up of two kinds of gyms,” Snow says. “We have the big full-service gyms with all the amenities: pools, basketball courts, group exercise programs, etc. And as we looked at the marketplace, we saw that these gyms continue to compete very well because they offer so much value.

“But then we have a segment of fitness-only gyms that are in that 25,000-square-foot range. They don’t have the basketball courts, the racquetball courts, the pools, those kinds of things. They were more susceptible to this new low-cost discount gym that was coming into the marketplace.”

The discount operators were opening scads of smaller gyms — 8,000 to 15,000 square feet — in areas near GGI’s fitness-only gyms. And because the microgyms operate on lower overhead and can therefore afford to offer super-low membership rates, they began luring Gold’s customers away.

“In those markets where they built the discount gyms, there was a lot of attrition,” Snow says. “We started feeling the effects of the low-cost gyms on our product. Sometimes it was as much as 25, 30 percent of the volume. That can be pretty significant to an operator, especially an independent operator or franchisee who’s got their entire life on the line and is personally guaranteed against everything.”

The proliferation of discount gyms had begun a couple of years before Snow joined GGI, and the company hadn’t taken any action to counter it.

“This started happening in ’07, ’08, and it grew from there,” Snow says. “I came in October of ’09, and it had not been addressed. So it was a pressing priority. It was critical that we resolve this problem.”

Weigh risks, benefits

Snow and his leadership team began looking at the idea of creating a new type of gym to compete directly with the discount microgyms that were cutting into Gold’s market share. There were pros and cons to be weighed. The weigh-in became a prolonged process. Eventually the pros prevailed.

“Once we decided to consider this opportunity, we pulled my team together,” Snow says. “My stakeholders in this were the GGI team, the senior executive team, the management team, the franchisees and the board of directors at our parent company, TRT Holdings.”

Adding a new product line to Gold’s traditional full-service line of gyms would be a major shift for a company that hadn’t changed its offerings much since its birth in Venice Beach, Calif., in 1965.

“Nothing had been added to our gym line in 45 years,” Snow says. “We’d been the same company offering the same product, basically, for a very long time. So this would be a major change in direction. We had to think it through: Should we compete in this low-cost, high-growth segment?”

There were significant risks to take into account.

“We had potential risks to GGI that we needed to work through and get everybody comfortable with, and I needed buy-in from the senior team here,” Snow says. “One of the major risks was possible damage to the brand. Not all line extensions work.

“So we went through a pretty long and arduous process of understanding this line extension before we jumped into it, because our brand is the most valuable asset we own. The Gold’s Gym brand has been around a long time. It’s a storied company. It has tremendous value, and you don’t want to damage that brand by making a mistake.”

The company also had to weigh whether it had the financial resources and manpower it would need to put a new brand into the marketplace.

“You don’t just go out and launch a brand,” Snow says. “It takes a tremendous amount of work from everybody and financial commitment. There were many questions that needed answers. Did we have the internal talent required to do it? Could we build these gyms? Could we put them up quickly? There were a lot of pieces to the puzzle when you start looking at launching a new brand like this. So we had got a lot going on here, because we’ve got a lot of divisions, and this would be a major undertaking by Gold’s if we decided to move forward with it.”

On the other side of the ledger, GGI’s leadership team also determined that the potential upside was significant.

“It seemed like an interesting opportunity,” Snow says. “As a full-service gym owner and operator, as well as a major franchiser, the low-cost gym seemed to provide a lot of advantages to our brand.”

Among those advantages: A new line of low-cost gyms would enable GGI to quickly increase its distribution of gyms across the country because the gyms could be built quickly. The gyms would be relatively easy to run, requiring only about half the management team that a full-service gym needs. In addition, they were projected to become profitable quickly.

“In the end we determined, after we’d gone through this process, that there were enough potential advantages and the risks were low enough that it warranted proceeding,” Snows says.

Lay out the plan

The next steps involved conducting consumer research studies, creating the new brand’s concept and image, creating financial models with best- and worst-case scenarios for the new line of gyms, getting the company’s franchisees on board with the new concept, and then, ultimately, presenting the idea to the company’s board of directors. It was a yearlong process in all.

“We presented it to the board of directors in the late fall of 2010,” Snow says. “We had a finance analyst who had completed a compelling set of financial models, and we presented those to the board. And the board, after quite a bit of discussion, agreed to fund the Gold’s Gym Express development on a beta-test basis. That gave us the funding mechanism we needed to move forward, to build between six and eight Express gyms.”

Over the next year, GGI wound up building six Express gyms in a variety of markets around the country to test the concept. The Express gyms offer Basic Memberships for $9.99 and Gold Memberships for $19.99 a month, as compared to the $30 to $50 monthly memberships at GGI’s full-sized gyms. All the Express gyms have performed well in their test markets.

“The beta-test gyms are performing much better than our original models projected,” Snow says. “One of the things we look at is upsell percentage: the percentage of customers who buy the Gold Membership instead of the Basic Membership because of the extra benefits that come with it, like tanning, massage, half-price drinks, and unlimited guest passes.

“Our models projected that these test gyms would have an upsell percentage of about 20 percent. We ended up with an upsell percentage over 50 percent — much higher, obviously, than we thought we would experience, and also much higher than the industry average.

“Our projections are at least a year ahead of schedule in terms of what we thought these test gyms would do. They break even much faster than we thought they would, and they’re growing to maturity very quickly, much quicker than we had projected in our pro formas. Also, they’re ranked right at the top of all of Gold’s Gyms in terms of service and customer satisfaction — and that’s coming right out of the chute.”

Based on these test-gym results, GGI decided this past spring to move forward full-throttle with development of the Gold’s Gym Express line of small, low-cost gyms.

“In the last couple of months, we made the financial commitment to move forward and to build up to 50 new Express gyms in 2013,” Snow says. “That’s where we’re at right now. We have 30 to 40 leases that we’re working on. My guess is we’ll build 10 in the first quarter of 2013 alone. And we’ve got a few gyms that will have leases done this year; we’ll probably get another six to eight done this year. Then we’ll probably get an additional 25 to 50 done next year. Our franchising division has about 30 gyms lined up right now for new franchisees.

“We’ll probably end up with between 50 and 100 Express gyms by the end of ’13, including those that will be in the pipeline. So we feel good about that. It’s right in line with our projections.”

Proceed with caution

Asked what advice he would give executives faced with similar challenges posed by low-cost competitors moving in and grabbing market share, Snow says it’s important to avoid the knee-jerk reaction of simply lowering your price and your standards to meet the competition head-on.

“Don’t jump to conclusions about discounting until you’ve researched and understood all the possibilities available to you,” Snow says. “Discounting is typically the first reaction that everybody has, and it’s typically one of the worst things you can do. Your services and your product line are based on certain things you did when you built the product to maintain certain margins.

“So just going and cutting your rates and allowing your product to stand as is, while this will probably drive some volume, will destroy your margins. And it will be very difficult to ever come back from that.”

Snow also recommends that if an executive is considering introducing a new product line that will affect the company’s overall brand, it’s crucial to avoid getting ahead of yourself and hurrying the process.

“There are times when you would like to move faster as a leader,” Snow says. “But it’s difficult to move fast until your internal teams have bought in. You can’t go forward without them. Now, not everybody is going to jump on board right away. But as long as they jump on board once the decision is made, you’ll be OK.”

In the end, as with most important tasks that businesses face, teamwork and group sacrifice were key elements that enabled Gold’s Gym International to successfully grapple with the tough competitive challenge it faced.

“There’s no problem that we would cross here in this company that any one person believes they have the perfect answer to,” Snow says. “We operate as a team. It’s a team environment. The team works together to help work through problems. We use the leadership and knowledge and expertise from all our people coming from different backgrounds to help us make the right decisions and move forward.”

HOW TO REACH: Gold’s Gym International, (972) 444-8527, www.goldsgym.com

THE SNOW FILE

Jim Snow

President

Gold’s Gym International

Born: Manhattan, Kansas

Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing, Kansas State University

What important business leadership lessons did you learn during your time in school that you use today?

My marketing classes helped me understand the value of consumer studies, customer focus and the need to drive top-line revenues. Today, my primary role is to balance revenues, customer service, and the owners’ priorities. And everything starts with revenue. You’ve got to look for it everywhere and drive it incessantly.

What was your first job, and what important business leadership lessons did you learn from it?

One of my first jobs coming out of college was with Marriott Corp. Marriott gave me an excellent basis of training for my future career. One of the things they taught is that they expect their managers to work hard and perform at a very high level. I took that credo and told myself I’m always going to be the hardest working person I know, and I’ve tried to do that throughout my career.

Do you have an overriding business philosophy that you use to guide you?

You’ve got to have a dynamic culture that supports your associates. And you’ve got to have an organization that takes the needs of the customers into account, and a mentality that doing those things will take care of your owner’s requirements.

What traits do you think are most important for an executive to have in order to be a successful leader?

You’ve got to be transparent. You’ve got to be courageous enough to go the uncomfortable route when you don’t have complete buy-in. You’ve got to be confident in your direction. You’ve got to think big. And you’ve got to be willing to swing the bat.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Be aggressive and set the expectations very high for your company.