Body builder Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2010

Henry Dabish and his staff have introduced Powerhouse Gym into new markets by creating relationships and brand awareness like any other large company. But there is a twist: At Powerhouse Gym, the market comes to them.

Dabish, president, CEO and second-generation member of the company’s founding family, makes Powerhouse Gym’s headquarters and corporately owned stores in Michigan a must-see destination for anyone who wants to own and operate a gym in any area of the world.

“We used to have an approval process where we qualified the individual or group we were working with,” Dabish says. “Now we do the introductions face to face. Over time, we’ll interact with the person or group via phone calls and e-mails, but we felt those initial introductions, where we really get to know who we’re working with, have been really important. So we handle those in person.”

It doesn’t matter where in the world you want to build a Powerhouse Gym franchise. You need to make the trip to Michigan to learn the company ropes in a hands-on environment and, most importantly, gain a firsthand knowledge of the company culture and values.

“Recently, we had a group that wanted to buy the franchise rights in Bahrain and Qatar,” Dabish says. “We had them come to the U.S. and stay here for about three and a half weeks. They trained in our corporate gyms, and we got to know them very well. We’re now very comfortable with that relationship. They’ve seen how we operate in Michigan and now they’re going to take that model into their market.”

It’s one example of a larger plan to keep the culture consistent throughout the Powerhouse Gym footprint. To build a consistent culture, first you need to clearly define what it is your company stands for. Then you need to find the people, both at the corporate level and in the field, who will embrace and promote that culture to other employees and to customers.

Dabish has had to develop and promote that consistency of culture as Powerhouse Gym — which generated $288 million in 2008 revenue — has expanded both domestically and around the globe.

Look for businesspeople

Whether you’re recruiting people to help grow your business or people are seeking you out for an opportunity to further their careers, you need to find out not only if they’re a good match for your company, but if they’re even a good match to run their own business or business segment.

The first requirement on your list should be to find good businesspeople, but wrapped up in that statement is a great deal of meaning.

A good businessperson has the financial backing to make the endeavor a success and the willingness to embrace and promote your brand and culture. A good businessperson also recognizes the level of commitment that you will need to build and maintain the business in a new market.

“We have to make sure that we provide the right leadership, that the owners at each club have the right character traits and leadership qualities, that they’re going to provide the kind of culture at their health club,” Dabish says. “We try to do the same thing on the corporate level to all of our executive-level employees and create a trickle-down effect that goes from top to bottom.

“A lot of people as they’re getting into a business think that they can come and go as they please. But really owning a business is more responsibility than being an employee somewhere. You are the one who has to be self-motivated and driven, you’re the one who has to care about the success or failure of the business, you’re the one who has to hold your staff accountable and yourself accountable.”

As you’re getting to know a potential field-level manager or franchisee, you need to gauge their aptitude in dealing with customers, leading employees, managing finances and marketing to a new audience. The best way to do that is to turn them loose in a work environment for a few shifts.

Dabish gives all potential franchisees a test drive in a situational environment by having them work shifts in each of the different gym models that Powerhouse runs and franchises. It’s similar to the education Dabish received as a teenage employee working for his dad and uncle, who founded Powerhouse Gym in 1975.

“When I started in the business when I was 15, I did most of the jobs and eventually worked my way up to owning my own business,” Dabish says. “With that in mind, we like to bring new people to our corporate office and spend a few days with them, get them out into some of our different gym models so they can see how each of them run. We let them work a couple of shifts in each of our gyms so we can see them in action and so they can make sure it’s the right fit, something that they’re comfortable with.

“You want them to know exactly what they’re getting into prior to making the decision to get involved. That’s why you need to have every manager learning how to do pretty much every job and have every responsibility within a business.”

When possible, Dabish likes to promote from within. Internal candidates are already trained in your cultural principles and business model, which means capable internal candidates generally have the easiest transition into a management-level role.

It might not work in every situation. In some situations, particularly as you grow your business abroad, you might need to bring outsiders into your ranks. But you should still work to keep the talent pipeline stocked so that you can take advantage of the opportunities you do have to promote from within.

Dabish and his staff try to hire people who are overqualified for their initial position within the company. If the new hires excel in their initial position, Dabish and his team can accelerate their ascension through the ranks.

It comes down to finding a cultural fit first, then technical skills. Finding a cultural fit is often of greater importance than finding a purely skill-based fit. Skills can be taught; values usually cannot.

“Really the character and people skills need to be first,” Dabish says. “You need people who are good at working with and serving individuals, people who feel really good about themselves and are self-motivated. If you project energy, if you find someone who is energetic and motivated, having a good time and enjoying what they do, people can see that. It feeds into your business, and then into your customers.

“That’s why you want to try and hire a more qualified individual and put the time and effort into training them, make sure they are committed to the company for the long term, not just a six-month or one-year run. If you find those people that you’re willing to train and promote, that means you’re hiring the right people, people who are essentially overqualified for the position they began in. It gives you a better talent pool all around.”

Reinforce the culture

Once you’ve hired the right people and forged relationships with the right partners who can help you grow your business, you need to continue to promote your culture through regular communication and interaction.

Dabish and his corporate leadership team promote the culture throughout the Powerhouse Gym organization through twice-yearly meetings that bring executives and franchisees together. Upper management reinforces the cultural principles of the organization and franchisees share what has been working at their respective locations as well as areas that need improvement.

In essence, it’s a giant information-sharing session focused on the culture and promoting best practices.

“The first half of the day is really our corporate office addressing everyone in attendance,” Dabish says. “Then we break up after lunch and have individual workshops where we share ideas and share best practices. It’s one of the ways we stay in constant communication with our network. If someone in Tampa has a new product or a new service that has taken off, if there is an exercise class in California that is working well, if there is a new sales promotion that really seems to work, we want to share it with the entire network.

“That is one of the main benefits of keeping everyone involved in a communication network. Everyone is able to stay connected with each other and with the corporate office. If you own multiple stores, management needs to stay in constant contact with the managers of those locations. If it’s a franchise situation like we’re in, you need to stay in touch with those store owners on a regular basis. The key is to maintain constant communication and keep networking with each other.”

If you have the opportunity to bring your managers together, whether in person or via electronic media, you need to make the most of the opportunity. That means having a clearly focused vision for the future and a process for how to achieve that vision. Without a clear focus, no one in the room will be able to focus their efforts in the right direction.

“A focused vision should be one of your main goals,” Dabish says. “You need to have your executive-level people focused on a common task. If you have a formal goal that you are launching with a common purpose and mission and you get your team to buy in to that purpose or goal, that’s what makes things work. People have to buy in to what you’re preaching. You have to practice what you preach in order for it to work.”

The final key aspect of focusing people on a uniform set of goals is to create a sense of familiarity among your company’s decision-makers. Dabish picked up an idea from some employees who used to work for the Ford Motor Co., and it’s helped build positive relationships among managers before they even sit down to talk shop at a company meeting.

“We have a welcome reception at our company meetings,” he says. “During those receptions, people get to know each other and put a name with the face. That way, the following day when we start to talk business, people have already gotten to know each other a little bit and have gotten a chance to speak with each other. We’ve been doing that for the past four years. It’s an opportunity not only for our owners to speak with each other but with vendors. And a lot of times, it’s the first chance our corporate office managers have to meet with people from other locations.

“You can get to know each other in a formal setting, but it can also be a great help to break out for cocktails or hors d’oeuvres in a more casual setting. Many times, that’s the best way to get to know the people you’re going to be working with.”

How to reach: Powerhouse Gym, (248) 476-2888 or