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.