Chuck Runyon, CEO & Co-Founder of Self Esteem Brands
Self Esteem Brands
Over 4,000 people have tattoos of the Anytime Fitness running man logo. But as Chuck Runyon tells it, those tattoos aren’t about the Anytime Fitness brand but instead it’s a statement of the personal transformation that each individual has experienced. Chuck is the co-founder and CEO of Self Esteem Brands, one of the top 25 franchise systems in the world and the parent company of Anytime Fitness, Waxing the City, Basecamp Fitness, and The Bar Method. We sat down to talk about the history of Self Esteem Brands, how they have built a franchise platform, and why they ended up building a full-time tattoo studio in their headquarters.
Dave Knox: How did Self Esteem grow from your first Anytime Fitness to the breadth you have today?
Chuck Runyon: In 2002, we opened our first Anytime Fitness in a town called Cambridge, Minnesota about 45 minutes east of the Twin Cities. For the first six years, we were really a fitness company. We were fitness guys teaching people how to run fitness clubs. But as we’re growing, we kept investing in these capabilities and we’re becoming more franchise-centric, really learning the franchise industry. When we started in franchising, we had very little if any experience in franchising, and so over the course of 10 years as we’re building Anytime Fitness, we’re also building platforms in real estate, lending, construction, support, legal that now can be used with other franchise brands.
It is around 2012 that we came to the realization that we have a franchising platform that can be leveraged for other brands. That’s when we made our first acquisition of Waxing the City, which was a small body waxing brand based out of Denver. In the last 18 months, we have acquired The Bar Method, which has about 123 units and Basecamp, which is a small high intensity interval training brand based out of California. Today we consider ourselves more of a franchise company than a fitness company. We’ve had to pay our dues over 10 years and still today learning the very best capabilities of franchising. We are on a mission here to make sure that we can provide accessibility and wellness to people all around the world.
Knox: When you acquired those new brands, what made them stand out as good fits for Self Esteem?
Runyon: We are founder-conscious and all three of the brands had a strong founder influence. We loved the passion and the belief system of the founders of those three businesses, but they were looking to grow and scale, which is where Self Esteem Brands came in. From a value prop, they have distinctive offerings. Basecamp is the best workout in the shortest amount of time in the HIIT world today. Bar Method is absolutely the highest consumer rating when it comes to those bar classes. Then Waxing the City had a wonderful approach with their approach to waxing and their technique is second to none. In addition to founder passion, we want these differentiating experiences for the consumer. When we find that, it’s a wonderful partnership between a founder’s passion and our platform.
Knox: In addition to being one of the top 25 franchise systems in the world, you are also the only one with a presence on all seven continents. How did Anytime Fitness end up with a presence on a luxury expedition vessel in Antarctica?
Runyon: Five years ago, Anytime Fitness had just opened our fifth continent and I knew that Africa was going to be inevitable after that. So we just set the goal to get to all seven. Thanks to the ingenuity of one of our team members we found a shipbuilder based out of Chile that was building a new 300-foot expedition ship. We pitched them the idea of having an Anytime Fitness club on the ship and they loved it. As a result, during the six summer months, we have an Anytime Fitness roaming around Antarctica. Only a few months prior to that first ship voyage, our Anytime Fitness club had opened in Morocco in North Africa. As a result, in 2019, we were the first and only franchise brand in history to have operating units on all seven continents. That club in Antarctica may not provide much ROI financially but it does provide a great signature brand statement that says anyone, anytime, anywhere.
Knox: On that brand statement, one of the cool things about the brand is that 4,000 Anytime Fitness members have the symbolic running man logo tattooed on their bodies. How did that start and why do you think Anytime Fitness has cultivated such a strong commitment from your members?
Runyon: We built our new headquarters about four years ago and we have a full-time tattoo room. I think we might be the only corporate headquarters in the world that has its own tattoo room. If someone around the world gets a tattoo in their community and it has to do it Anytime Fitness, our owner sends us a picture, they send a reason why, and they send a receipt. We reimburse for it.
Quite honestly, it’s really not so much about our brand, even though they have that symbol on their skin. It is all about their personal transformation, like, “I love the new me, and I don’t want to go back to being the old me. I’ve lost a hundred pounds,” or, “I’ve run my first triathlon,” or, “I just love who I am.” It’s always a sign of self-love and self-respect and because they love this new version of themselves.
We’re a part of it because maybe our coach, our club helped them locally transform their life, but it’s always a profoundly personal story. Oftentimes, our owners or our coaches who get the tattoo say two things, either, “I helped this person achieve something they could never do before and I’m very proud of that,” or, “The values of this organization align so deeply with my values that I want to put this on my skin.”
In all the stories I’ve heard, I want you to think about this. I’ve never heard a franchisee saying that, “I did this because I made so much money,” or, “I did this because you have the best treadmills.” It’s always a profound transformation story and something about self-love and self-respect and them really liking the new person that they are. It’s really less about us and more about their work and their achievement and the value that they believe in. We’re very proud of that. The more work we do, the more people change their lives. It just feels good to know that at the end of the day, we’re bringing help to communities and help to people. Your health is either an asset or liability, and once you turn it into an asset, it can propel you forward in so many ways.
Knox: How are you working to grow the size of the fitness and wellness industry as a whole?
Runyon: If you think about people who are active members in the fitness space, it is really only about 20% of the US adults, so one out of five people who are members of some type of club or studio. There’s this incredible white space opportunity with those who are at home, maybe sitting on the couch, maybe intimidated or just lack that motivation. I think what those people need is a gym or a studio that cares about them, that will take the time to understand them, personalize the experience, provides them education, motivation, welcome them, meet them where they are at, and then introduce them to a healthier lifestyle.
Our brands are trying to get far better at making sure we are very welcoming. We’re warm. We’re inclusive. We can have the emotional intelligence, the people skills to help understand people unlock where they want to go and meet them where they are. Sure, we have technology, we have apps, we have operating systems, we have all that stuff that we want to continue to get better at, but we’re also trying to place a great deal of importance on emotional intelligence and just caring for people, understanding them, helping them see that this, although it may appear intimidating, they can do this, they have the capability to do this.
We use the terms coaching and connection quite a bit and so much of that is based on emotional intelligence and skills. We’re doubling down on more of those soft skills because, in the behavior change business, you need someone who can hold you accountable, you need someone who cares, you need someone who’s willing to listen. I don’t think that’s ever going to go out of style here for the next 10 years. In fact, people are so consumed with information, they’re looking for someone they can trust, and I think at our local units, we have passionate franchisees who care for them and are going to guide them on their journey.
Knox: Self Esteem Brands recently unveiled new digital offerings to bring fitness and wellness content into people’s homes – can you tell me more about it?
Runyon: Yes – Anytime Fitness, Basecamp Fitness, and The Bar Method – now all have new content series available online to access free at anytime, anywhere by anyone. We know that Americans and people around the world depend on our brands to keep them healthy. We believe now is the time to respond to the needs of people around the globe who are self-isolating as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Each of our fitness brands has developed a new series of free online coaching, training and content that will allow people stay home and still access the workouts as well as fitness, nutrition and wellness advice that they crave. The digital offerings have been a part of the evolution of our business that had to be accelerated due to the current global pandemic. Our franchisees are independent, small business owners who care deeply about their communities.
Our new virtual offering for Anytime Fitness is a series of content that includes quick and easy-to-access workouts, training, coaching, and health and wellness advice from certified health coaches, accessible every weekday. You can watch the workouts live weekdays at 8:30 a.m. CT on Facebook and can also find them on the Anytime Fitness YouTube channel. For anyone who wants curated workout playlists they can access our Anytime Fitness Spotify channel. Additionally, Basecamp Fitness is providing a series of high intensity workouts that anyone can enjoy at home and on-the-go, accessible on Instagram. Lastly, The Bar Method is offering a taste of signature technique from expertly trained instructors meant to deliver a challenging yet graceful workout that will build long, lean, sculpted muscles and a feeling of personal strength, confidence and poise. These techniques are available on Facebook. Coaching members virtually and this content series are ways for our franchisees to keep supporting their friends and neighbors.