Ken and Sharree Ryder Step Into the Franchisee Spotlight

Name(s): Ken and Sharree Ryder

Company Name: PF Hampton Roads

Number of clubs: 10

States your clubs operate in: Virginia and North Carolina

How did you become a PF® franchisee?

Ken: We owned a World Gym, and we sold it in 2004 and swore we would never own another gym as long as we lived. We were really just glad to get out from under it. As part of that sales agreement, we had a noncompete that we couldn’t do another gym within 25 miles of our area.

In September 2006, we were visiting some friends in Florida, and my friend took me into the Planet Fitness® in Ormond Beach, Florida, and wanted me to see this new gym that had opened up and get my opinion because we were thinking at $10 a month you can’t make any money. We walked in, and in just five minutes of conversation with the owner, I realized how brilliant the business model was. I told Sharree that I wanted to go back in the gym business. She wanted to have me drug tested. We knew Joe Pepe from the old World Gym days and someone told me that Joe had converted his World Gyms to Planet Fitness. I immediately called Joe and said, “OK, Joe, tell me about this thing.” A couple of days later, we flew up to Connecticut and Joe took us around to all his clubs. Immediately, Sharree was sold on how great the model was.

At that point, we took all our life’s savings, cashed out our retirement plans, took the equity out of our house, and because we couldn’t do northern Virginia, we looked at other areas and decided on Virginia Beach. We packed up in January 2007 and moved into our camper in Virginia Beach in the middle of winter. For the first year, we put all our groceries and everything on credit cards because we were completely out of cash. Then finally by January 2008, the club finally started making money. We were sweating bullets for a while though.

If you have business partners, how did you meet?

Ken: We have small minority partners in just a couple of our clubs. For the most part, it’s just our family. The first gym, like I said, it took everything Sharree and I had to get that one open. When the opportunity came along to open the second and third gyms, we had an old family friend who basically bought a 20 percent share of the next two gyms.

Tell us a little about yourself and the company’s background.

Ken: Sharree and I both had sales backgrounds – she had been in sales for some time, and I had my gym in Manassas for 12 years. I opened the first one in 1992. I had been a competitive lifter and wanted to have my own gym. After 12 years, I realized I never wanted to do that again.

When we first opened the gym, she and I went out and did all the guerilla marketing. We took fliers out to the malls, whatever it took to drive some traffic into the gym. When we went to talk to Joe in Connecticut, everybody up there knew about Planet Fitness. They would do a grand opening and have lines out the door. That was not the case in Virginia. Nobody knew about Planet Fitness. They thought it was a gimmick or some kind of scam – “Yeah, right, $10 a month.” It was really difficult to get people to sign up in the early days.

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

Ken: I think the simplicity. They do keep it simple; it’s the old KISS principle. The thing that I think a lot of people miss is the importance of the Judgement Free Zone®, the fact that we do cater to the 85 percent of the people who normally wouldn’t go to a gym; they aren’t hardcore people. Those are the people we focus on, and that, I think, is really the secret sauce in Planet Fitness. It’s creating that environment that is comfortable to the average, everyday person who is going to come in and feel like, “Hey, this is the place for me,” because most gyms are really intimidating places.

Going forward, what are the top three business goals for the company?

Ken: At this point, I know we are trying to do some more real estate purchases. We feel like we have a unique situation being able to anchor with a 25,000-square-foot gym; we have been able to leverage that position to do some real estate purchases. That is one of the near-term goals that we are looking at.

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

Sharree: I can tell you right now that, for him, it’s passive income.
Ken: Finding or creating strands of passive income. Making a business or your money work for you instead of you having to work all the time. We only have 24 hours in a day, so how can you leverage that time? Trying to figure out ways to create passive income was something that really resonated with me.

What do you feel is the biggest challenge currently facing franchisees?

Ken: I think themselves. If you’re a franchisee, you have decided to buy into this franchise system. I think a lot of people, they want to take advantage of a lot of great things franchising has to offer, but yet they don’t want to follow the system, they want to do their own thing. It’s like, “Look, you chose not to be the Lone Ranger for a reason.” I think it’s important to follow the system that got you here. That’s a frustration for me. When you see a system that is this amazing – it’s an incredible business opportunity, I don’t understand people wanting to come in and make wholesale changes to a system that’s been so successful.
Sharree: I do think it’s our decisions sometimes, but I think branding is a big challenge. Some people just don’t brand their clubs and I think you are making a big mistake. You are opening yourself up to competition.

What advice would you share with other franchisees?

Ken: I would like to plead with franchisees to follow the system, follow the model. It has a proven track record. I think if people would follow the model they would be amazed at the success.
Sharree: For me, the most important thing about the model is the Judgement Free Zone, making sure your environment really is conducive to that and inviting and clean and friendly. I’m telling you right now – it sounds goofy – but every time somebody walks in they should be greeted with hello and goodbye by every single staff member. I think that is critical to ward off competition.

What is the biggest industry change since you started?

Ken: This sounds really cliché, but I think Planet Fitness has been a game changer for the fitness industry. Right now, it’s “What is the hot thing right now? Is it CrossFit? Or is it Zumba?” It’s basically just more of the same. For years, we were always chasing the next program. We can joke around; old gym owners will talk about one year the slide was the thing. Then the following year our storage rooms were just full of slides and nobody wanted to do that anymore. We had these storage rooms full of stuff because we would chase the next gimmick. I feel like the fitness industry, in a lot of ways, is still chasing the next trend, and Planet Fitness has been a game changer.

Tell us about your family.

Ken: Sharree and I have two children, Mike and Amanda, and they are in the business. In fact, they pretty much run the day-to-day operations for us. Mike has been with us since the beginning. He has been with us 10 years, and Amanda has been with us eight years.

Tell us about your personal interests.

Ken: For me, my main passion is music. I have a band. I am trying to learn to play golf, but I don’t have much of a gift for that though.

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

Ken: I would probably be in the health and fitness business somewhere, somehow. Sharree and I, once we sold our gym, we had some weight loss centers and we had some ladies-only clubs. We have been kind of dabbling in the health and fitness arena for a long time, so I am sure we would be doing something in that space. But I am very, very glad we found Planet Fitness.