Getting A Bang Out Of The Fitness "boom"

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

These two entrepreneurs keep exploding onto the fitness scene.

When you walk into Nitro Fitness, the first thing you notice is the size of the place. If a huge megaplex full of machines and buff guys with glistening pecs and bulging biceps comes to mind, think again. Owners Chuck Rappe and Larry Bedell already have been down that road; now they've moved on to focus on the needs of baby boomers. Instead of a megaplex, the gym is small and streamlined, with two rows of stations and average guys working out on non-traditional stations. Nitro Fitness is designed for the man who has little time to work out. The circuit-training program is 30 minutes, and there's no waiting around for machines, so guys can fit in their exercise before work, at lunch or on the way home. Rappe and Bedell want to prepare the baby boomers for the activities of everyday life, so they can lug boxes, pick up their grandchildren and yank the lawnmower pull without injuring themselves or waking up with sore muscles on Monday morning. Rappe and Bedell chose machines that focus on the core muscles - the ones between the rib cage and the knees - that are also called stabilizer muscles and help with balance. They also are the ones that men tend to neglect. "If men are going to lift weights, they most likely are going to focus on the biceps, triceps, chest, quads and hamstrings," Bedell said. "What they tend to ignore, however, are the core muscles. These machines are designed with those muscles in mind." The Circuit Members spend 40 seconds at a station; they rest for 20 seconds, then move to the next machine. Two large stoplights signal when it's time to leave one station and when it's time to begin the next one. The weight stacks are color coded so that members know easily which weight amount they are ready to lift. Members check their heart rate at every fourth machine. The goal is to exercise at 70 percent of maximum, which is the most efficient for burning fat. The gym is open and well-lit with many windows. Rappe and Bedell designed the layout so that it is easy for one person on duty to continue the relationship with members working out while also enrolling new members, consulting and training. Those relationships are important to Rappe and Bedell, and are one of their keys to success. "Sixty percent of the time we spend in the first year is spent with members in their first 90 days," Bedell said. "We help them with breathing, movement, position, form, heart rate checks and how to calculate their target zone." They also offer nutrition consulting and meal plans. Bedell resisted calling what Nitro Fitness offers a "lifestyle change," preferring to say they sneak in small changes of exercise and diet without hassles. "We make it easy to where the only change is to add exercise, cut down a little on the bad stuff like sugar and fat and get a little more protein," Bedell said. According to Bedell, the average member is losing 2-5 pounds a week. But more important, he said, is the way they feel when they leave. They feel good and relaxed, because they have not had to deal with the stresses of a big club, such as large crowds and blaring music. At Nitro Fitness, the radio is tuned to 101 the Fox, and the volume is set at a comfortable level. "They park, and in 30 seconds, they can be exercising," Bedell said. "And 32 minutes later, they are back to their car and on to something else." Broad Demographic Although the guys are targeting baby boomers such as themselves, they have been surprised at the variety of members their gym has attracted. Rappe said they expected to see guys in the 30-60 age range, with the largest group being guys in their 40s and 50s who are a little overweight. They have found that their members' ages range from 19-73, and they come from all walks of life. "We have a marathon runner who comes here to work out," Bedell added. "He wants to supplement his running by making his body move in ways it normally wouldn't, and help strengthen those core muscles." Although their current target market is the average, middle-aged guy, Rappe and Bedell are no strangers to the bodybuilding box gym. Rappe is a former bodybuilder who, in 1982, came to Kansas City at the age of 24. At that time, Gold's Gym was just getting its licensing program started. "I think we were 13th in the country when we opened the gym in Mission," Rappe said. He went on to open four more franchises. During that time he met Bedell, who he brought in as a partner in 1989.

Cutting Edge The two are always thinking about the next wave in fitness. During the Gold's Gym years, they listened to women when they talked about why they were uncomfortable working out there. They talked to the wives and girlfriends of the male members to find out what would make their dream gyms. They held focus groups and interviewed female friends and acquaintances. "We kept an eye on the trends," Rappe said. "When interest in bodybuilding started to fade, we realized there were no great female fitness centers." Rappe said that most fitness centers for women focused on aerobics classes and Jazzercise, not strength training. The two decided it was time to fill that void and sold the Gold's Gym franchises. Out of their research was born Omaha New Lady Fitness and Club LaFemme in Kansas City. Rappe said they bought professional-grade equipment and offered a wide range of classes, personal trainers and even child-care services before such services were popular. "We had cameras in the nursery and monitors throughout the gym so that the women could see their child from wherever they were," Rappe said. But even while they were giving women their dream fitness club, Rappe and Bedell were already making plans to move forward. "For one thing, we couldn't roll up our sleeves and really get involved on the fitness floor because the women were uncomfortable with men around," Rappe said. But even more important was the fact that they themselves didn't have the perfect place to work out. They had outgrown their bodybuilding days, so they weren't comfortable working out in their old stomping grounds. Also, they had grown their business to 12 locations in five and a half years, which kept them extremely busy.

The Perfect Gym One day, Bedell said, they left the office to go work out, driving to a gym just a few miles away. By the time they fought traffic, found a parking space, navigated the large gym and waited in line for machines, they spent two hours for a 45-minute workout. "We thought, there's got to be a better way," Rappe said. That's when they started laying the groundwork for their current brainchild. They opened Nitro Fitness on Sept. 7.

Back Office Bedell and Rappe were able to bring a lot of knowledge to Nitro Fitness that they learned through trial and error with their previous fitness clubs. Much of the back-end membership, accounting and payroll systems, as well as marketing and advertising plans, have benefited from their previous experience. "We have built clubs efficiently so that we can sell the memberships for $29.95 a month," Bedell said. "We want this to be affordable for anybody." They also want the fitness center to provide opportunities for others who have a passion for fitness. The had considered finding partners in town and opening more fitness centers themselves, but their real goal is to turn Nitro Fitness into a successful franchise company. "To do it ourselves would be time-consuming," Bedell said. "We would be doing our customers a disservice because we wouldn't be able to take care of the baby boomers as fast if we opened up on our own with partners." They have also designed the fitness center so that an owner/operator can run the business with the help of two part-time people. "We have taken all the guesswork out of the business," Bedell said. "We wanted the average person to be able to afford to open a franchise." A Woman's Touch Nevertheless, opening Nitro Fitness hasn't been a piece of cake. The challenge for Rappe and Bedell was deciding to serve this tough market at all, Rappe said. He said nobody else was focusing on the baby boomers because they are a tougher group to get in the door, to sell to and to motivate. "If you don't offer them exactly what they're looking for, they'll say 'No thank you,'" Rappe said. But they did receive some help from an unexpected place. "We discovered that women drove the family unit more than we anticipated," Bedell said. After eliminating objections and stripping away excuses, they asked how potential members found out about the facility or why they walked in the door. Rappe said common answers were: "My wife dropped me off, gave me the checkbook and told me to join." "My wife was leaving Curves, saw this place and told me to stop by." "My wife gave me the brochure." Marketing So far, Bedell and Rappe have relied mostly on the storefront, direct mail and brochures. They also have a red H1 Army Hummer with the company logo on the sides and back, which they hope will attract attention and direct men to the Web site. The two also have visited members of the Lenexa Chamber of Commerce, as well as businesses up and down 87th Street. They believe that one-on-one contact is important, as well as coop advertising and exchanging flyers. They also are planning a marketing push for the first of the year with New Year's resolutions. "Lose weight/increase fitness" is one of the top five resolutions for men. After looking at their past experiences, it's easy to see that Bedell and Rappe could have opened any type of fitness center they wanted, but it came down to their obvious passion for fitness. "We wanted to be where we could help people the most and help the most people," Bedell said.

Entrepreneurs: Chuck Rappe and Larry Bedell Company Name: Nitro Fitness 12980 W. 87th St. Pkwy. Lenexa, KS 66215 (913) 227-0077

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12760 W. 87th St. Pkwy., #108
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