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A Mentor to Many: Joe Pepe Steps into the Franchisee Spotlight

When Joe Pepe went to his dad in the early 1980s looking to borrow money to open his first women’s weight loss center, his father couldn’t say yes fast enough. But Pepe will profess that it was never that first family loan that set him up for success – it was the unwavering support of his father that led him to where he is today. That support Pepe knew early in life has been sustained by his business partners, his wife and his family. In return, Pepe has served as a mentor to a host of Planet Fitness® franchisees, providing them with guidance and years of wisdom. 

“The best thing my father ever gave me wasn’t the MG,” said Pepe, referring to the car his dad offered him before he left for college. “It was that he believed in me because that lasts a lifetime. I always say to people, ‘When you can believe in someone or someone believes in you, it’s so powerful.’”

Few know that support like Pepe’s business partner, CJ Bouchard. After Pepe left weight loss centers and after a stint in the tanning industry, he opened a World Gym where Bouchard was a trainer in the early 1990s. After a decade at World Gym, Bouchard left to open his own clubs in North Carolina.

Less than a year later, Bouchard gave Pepe a call, and he had a proposition – become his partner and Pepe could have 70 percent of the business.

“I had just opened up my first location but I wanted to do more, and I really needed somebody I could trust and who I knew was financially set and willing to move forward,” reflected Bouchard. “He told me he wouldn’t do it for 70 percent; he would only do it 50/50 because he felt that, in the future, I would resent the fact that I gave him 70 percent of the business. We’re 50 percent partners. He never thought once of having 51 percent.”

Stories like this can be found all across the PF® system, attesting to the mentorship and kindness Pepe offers to everyone he meets.

“The impact Joe has had on me as a franchisee and business owner has been incredible and life-changing,” added Chris Klebba, franchisee with Klebba Group.

Klebba was given Pepe’s contact information by a mutual business associate when he was first exploring the Planet Fitness brand. When he called roughly a decade ago, Pepe answered, and the friendship has strengthened ever since.

“He was gracious with his time and shared openly everything from deep in his operations and all of his best practices with no expectation of anything in return. Since that day, he has continued to be a mentor, friend and advisor to me, my family and my team,” said Klebba. “He even traveled here to Michigan at no charge to help our team with extremely valuable advice on customer service. Stories like that go on throughout our 10 plus-year relationship.”

Bouchard said he could easily name another 30 people in the Planet Fitness system who became involved in the brand because of Pepe.

“I’m not just saying this because he is my partner, but I don’t believe that Planet Fitness would be where it is today without his involvement at the very beginning,” said Bouchard. “He’s engaged, he loves what he does, and he’s very much in tune with the industry.”

Read our conversation with Pepe below to learn more about his business and how he views the PF brand.


Name: Joe Pepe 

Company Name: Planet Fitness of Raleigh

Number of Clubs: 13, two under development

States your clubs operate in: North Carolina


How did you become a Planet Fitness franchisee?

We knew LA Fitness was coming to town, and what if we weren’t a Planet Fitness? Someone else would eventually be one. When you put those two things together, Planet Fitness and LA Fitness, our conventional club would have had a very, very difficult time surviving. We didn’t like the process of changing over. It wasn’t fun. I mean, we were changing culture overnight, but the best decision prevailed. It’s kind of like necessity is the mother of invention. When you’re dealt some things, you say, “OK, this is the situation. How are we going to handle this, and what are we going to do? We can’t do nothing; that’s not going to work.” And, if we weren’t Planet Fitness, we were still going to be a low-cost provider, but we’re happy to do it with Planet. It’s been a wonderful ride so far.

How did you meet your business partners?

First of all, Ron, who does the real estate, is my nephew and became my partner in 1993 in World Gym and now works for Exaltare. Chuck, I had signed him up at a health club when I was working years and years ago when he was probably 16 or 17 years old. He grew, and little by little, we brought him aboard. He had been my partner up until the time we finally sold four years ago. CJ was a trainer and nutrition guide in my gym for about 10 or 11 years, so I knew CJ well. He was a model person and a wonderful trainer. All of the things you look for – he has strong character, strong integrity, very honest, very humble, good operations guy. CJ is my partner now, and we have a wonderful relationship. I say to people, partnerships are like marriages. There’s a lot of compromising and a lot of change that may happen along the way.

In your opinion, what stands out about the Planet Fitness brand?

You have the things that stick out physically. It’s the purple, the yellow, and I think most people that know anything about fitness when they see purple and yellow they start to think of Planet Fitness. The physical presence of it is there. Obviously, the logical things are $10 and all that stuff that goes with the market.

Once you get into the real layers of what it is, Planet has wonderful franchisees – very smart, intelligent, bright people that are always willing to help each other. We take knowledge that we have and we help someone else. We share it with them. Sometimes you need people to talk to. I think that has a lot to do with success because these people have moved the Planet system forward as it needed to be. We couldn’t build yesterday’s clubs and be successful. That takes franchisees and people willing to step out of that comfort circle, and in order to get positive change, you’ve got to be stepping out. Clubs got bigger. They got better. We invest a lot more money in what a club looks like. There’s a lot more time we spend finding a great location. We’ve learned through the years – and are continuing to learn – how to keep the model evolving and positively changing. So, what I see with Planet goes beyond physically what you see.

What was your motivation for bringing franchisees on board and what kind of advice did you give them as a mentor when they were starting out?

As corny as this may sound, I love helping people. I saw people in the World Gym system and the Gold’s Gym system really struggling and working hard because the market was shrinking. I’ve brought people in, and I answer their questions straight up. I help these people because I like doing that. We’ve done a lot of sharing of wisdom, and that’s what I think is good about the franchise. I think there is a lot of trust now because I’ve already told them the truth. It’s scary when you convince someone to shut down because all they know is the members that they have, and you know the members they have aren’t going to be really happy through stage 1 of the transformation. People take their gyms personally, and they should. I walked them right through the procedure we went through. If you don’t do this, you’re going to have a Planet near you or something that’s like it, and you’re not going to be really happy. Planet changed the industry. It really did. I believe if you want to get what you want, help other people get what they want as long as it’s good stuff.

What is the best piece of business advice you have ever received?

A lot. It came from miscellaneous people. One is, when you go to open your business, whether it is a gym or any other business, try to learn every possible thing you could learn about it. Take copious notes, and do that for five months. What you just learned won’t become obsolete. It will become a minimal part of your success. Another thing I have heard from really successful people is to be humble, and I always try to practice that. I always try to tell people to be humble because things can be taken away tomorrow. Shared vision is another one. It could be someone buying an ice cream store or whatever – if they come to you, share your wisdom with them. It’s not like it’s etched in stone that it is the right thing to do, but when you share your wisdom, people take to it. A big thing, too, is change. Absolutely embrace change. People say they like change and they’re OK with it, but I find that most people aren’t because change is scary. Change is an unknown, but there isn’t any business out there that has been around for 10 or 15 years that hasn’t changed.

Looking ahead, what are you top three business goals for the company?

I don’t know if there’s three of them. We have 15 clubs, so my quick answer is we want to get to 20 clubs. How are we going to do it? We’re looking to open up two to four this next year.

Customer service is a huge factor and people say, “Well, is that a goal?” Yes. Customer service is always a goal. It’s a goal I call the infinity goal or education with no graduation, meaning you are always striving to get better.


What is the biggest industry change that you have seen since you started? 

The biggest industry change might be Planet because it changed the industry. Years ago, we put up a gym in a warehouse; now there’s no such thing. We look for A-plus locations. Planet would have told you 15 years ago that their model size, their best size and their most powerful size was 12,000 square feet, and now it’s 20, 25, 30,000 and God knows where it’s going. How we outfit and the money we spend on it are totally different. Your customer base. Everything.

Tell us a little bit about your family.

I have a great family. They make me smile like crazy. My wife, Mary Ellen, is awesome. She was always there to be supportive, and I tell anyone who is going into business that support is critical. I have three sons all grown up, wonderful kids, top of their class. One went to Georgetown and he’s an attorney. One went to Seton Hall and has started another business in Raleigh, North Carolina, called Zaniac; it’s a learning center-type of business. One went to Wesleyan and Columbia University, where he received his MBA, and he is president of the 21 clubs in Connecticut. I have two granddaughters, Stella and Caroline. I couldn’t have a more perfect family.

Outside of the gym world, what are your personal interests?

I love to play golf. I love to workout. I’m so comfortable in a gym. It’s like a home away from home. I love to run. I love to read biographies. I love to read a lot of leadership-type books and people that we don’t really think of as leaders, like some of the football coaches of the world and what motivated them to become a coach.

If I weren’t a franchisee, I would be …

That’s actually the toughest question. My first, honest, impulsive answer is I don’t know. It would be something in the fitness world. If it took me out of the fitness world all together, it might be real estate because I enjoy that. It would have to be helping someone be better.

Planet Fitness Provides Lifetime Membership for 12 News’ Week of Wishes

An engagement ring, a dinosaur cake and a gym membership were among gifts that the Channel 12 News “Week of Wishes” program gave out on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and a Planet Fitness® in Glendale, Arizona, was among local businesses helping provide those products and services to the community.

Over 16 local businesses came together to grant the wishes that 12 News collected from community residents. One resident, Maria Flores, wished for a gym membership because she has a bad knee that she wanted to strengthen but couldn’t afford a membership.

“She wished for a membership that would offer fitness instructing to help her get started on a healthier lifestyle, which we offer at no charge,” explained JEG-Fit AZ franchisee Kevin Kelly. “To know that something as small as a free gym membership can really make an impact on an individual’s life is a great feeling.”

Todd Schliewen, a local sales manager with 12 News, called the PF® location asking about current deals and fitness instructing packages.

“Once he asked if we would be able to help out in any way, the Planet Fitness team immediately reached out and offered our assistance with a free lifetime Black Card membership,” added Kelly. “It’s a phenomenal feeling to be able to help this individual on her path to a healthier lifestyle. The Planet Fitness Glendale staff is excited to welcome in our new member and cannot wait to get her set up with a meeting with our fitness instructor, Jordan Huguez, to get her personal program designed for her. We are also looking forward to showing her around our facility and showing off our ‘judgement free’ environment.”

Black Duck Partners Chip in for the Warrior of Wellness’ Slim Down Challenge

For the fifth year in row, the Warrior of Wellness organization is hosting a six-month weight loss challenge for residents in Wisconsin’s Chippewa Valley, or anywhere else for that matter. The Slim Down Challenge, previously known as the Chippewa Valley Challenge, is being hosted through DietBet this year and commenced on Jan. 9.

Participants have until July 8 to lose 10 percent of their body weight, and through the use of the DietBet app, they can report their progress through monthly weigh-ins that can be done from anywhere. Each competitor must pay a fee to enter each round of the contest, but if they reach that month’s weight loss goal, they split the pot.

Planet Fitness® franchisee Black Duck Partners wants to keep participants motivated long after the end of the competition and has donated a one-year Black Card membership for the contestant who loses the largest percentage of his or her body weight.

“A local club manager was approached by a patron asking if we would be interested in helping out,” said Brice Scholz, marketing coordinator for Black Duck Partners. “This is the first time we have participated, but we look forward to working with Warrior of Wellness in future years.”

GNT Holdings Partners with TECHFIT to Get Kids Up and Active

GNT-7Students in Fort Mill, South Carolina, are playing their way to a healthier lifestyle, and a local Planet Fitness® wants in on the action.

Over the summer, five teachers from Springfield Middle School attended a one-week training at the College of Charleston in order to bring a program to their school that embodies the convergence of science and technology with a fitness focus.

TECHFIT, which stands for Teaching Engineering Concepts to Harness Future Innovators and Technologists, is funded by a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and is in its second year. The program, which aims to spark interest in the STEM fields, revolves around teachers and students creating technology-based fitness games.

Springfield Middle School, which boasts roughly 60 TECHFIT students, has coded and designed two games, one a spinoff of Monopoly and the other of Battleship. These “exergames” are designed to be life-size games dedicated to getting people up and having fun.

“At GNT, we felt that this program was a great fit for us in our local community and our desire to help people,” said GNT Holdings franchisee Gerald Kennedy. “According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, 17 percent of children in the Unites States are obese, and overweight children have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults. We want to get children involved in fitness at a younger age when it is easier to develop fitness as a habit.”

One of the teachers working with the TECHFIT program reached out to the local GNT Holdings Planet Fitness club hoping to get help paying for T-shirts and transportation to a competition. The club donated $1,500 to cover the entire cost for both program needs.

GNT-12“It was extremely helpful to have to funds from Planet Fitness. Because of their generosity, we did not have to ask students to provide funds for the competition. This allowed students to participate and travel without the strain of finances,” said Laura Merk, one of the Springfield Middle School teachers working on the program. “Additionally, it helped us all focus on the task at hand and allowed us to spend more time using the technology and learning about fitness. It is rare and was particularly valuable that our time could completely be devoted to our goals instead of fundraising and collecting money.”

In addition to the funds for shirts and transportation, Planet Fitness also donated some branded goodies such as a drawstring bag and water bottle.

The TECHFIT students met two times a week after school until 4:45. The trained teachers first used that time to teach the students programming, coding, fitness concepts and fitness activities, but soon the time transitioned to students actually creating the programs and animations.

In Exercise Empire, the Monopoly-inspired game, a large dice is rolled and players move around the room with the corresponding number of spaces. Once they land on a space, they must follow the instructions for the space – typically a set amount of pushups, situps, stretches and other common exercises. In this game “free parking” means you get to take a water break, and “going to jail” entails holding a plank until your sentence is up.

In the second game, Tech-Ship, one team tries to keep a member of the other team from knocking down their bowling pins. In both games, points are tabulated by a machine programmed by the students.

“TECHFIT was an extremely successful club at Springfield Middle School this year,” said Merk. “I highly recommend TECHFIT to any middle school or any program that teaches technology concepts and fun fitness concepts. It is really a great opportunity.”

GNT-10The school sent two teams to the College of Charleston to showcase their games and compete against six other South Carolina middle school teams. Although the Springfield Middle School students did not claim first place, they did receive an award for excellence in math and data and another award of excellence in graphics.

“Our students did a phenomenal job presenting at the competition at the College of Charleston. They confidently explained our games, the programming and all of the components of our after school club without hesitation. It was an incredible opportunity for students to showcase their efforts and hard work in front of college professors with doctoral degrees in technology,” said Merk. “One of the judges even commented that our middle school students breeze through the programming concepts in which college students struggle to explain. Our students were also able to see other school’s games and gained ideas of how to incorporate technology in different ways.”

The National Science Foundation’s grant for TECHFIT is managed through professors at Purdue University and the College of Charleston.

“As a company, we feel it is important to not only give back to our local communities, but to make connections with the people in those communities,” said Kennedy. “We consistently look for opportunities to make connections when giving back, and TECHFIT was a great opportunity for us to help bring fitness to the local community.”


Anchor Management Wins Myrtle Beach Herald’s Reader’s Choice Award

Planet Fitness was named the best fitness center by the readers of the Myrtle Beach Harold.

Planet Fitness was named the best fitness center by the readers of the Myrtle Beach Herald.

On Feb. 24, Anchor Management Group was awarded the 2017 Reader’s Choice Award from the Myrtle Beach Herald.

Operations Manager Joseph Pilotte describes the location as “a win for us since opening.” He explains that when franchisee Alex Choquette first opened the location, there were only a few other gyms, and they were mostly “smaller mom and pop style operations.” He said there was nothing else like Planet Fitness® on the block.

“When we arrived, we were more affordable, larger and of course, something entirely different from other gyms,” said Pilotte.

Today, the fitness scene in Myrtle Beach has grown and so has Anchor Management’s competition. The location competes with other gyms in the area such as Gold’s Gym, Sky Fitness, Core Fitness and Anytime Fitness. However, Pilotte notes that “none of these gyms compare with PF’s price point, value and environment.”

Pilotte said awards like these are a great thing to showcase on the accent wall within the club and hopes that members can “stumble across it to see a snapshot into the history of the great service the club provides.”

“I’m hoping we can win awards like these every year,” said Pilotte. “Recognition within the community we serve is always revered. It really means a lot to us providing a consistent experience each and every visit – day after day, year over year.”