A reality TV appearance proves a ‘life-altering’ experience for the cofounders of Anytime Fitness
For years now, so-called “reality shows” on primetime TV have been engaged in an epic battling for viewers, and, surprisingly, a fair number of individuals associated with IHRSA-member clubs have been part of this heady, ongoing competition for viewers’ hearts and minds.
One reason for these shows’ popularity is the personal transformations that contestants often undergo. The experiences, which are often quite intense, make them different people, reshaping them psychologically in many cases, and physically in some.
For the participants, “reality,” as they experience it, will never be the same again. For the audience, the process can be fascinating and, often, touching to watch
In 2010 and 2011, for example, Marci Crozier, who’s worked for the two Franciscan Omni Health and Fitness centers in Chesterton and Schereville, Indiana, since 1982, and is now the company’s regional director of marketing and sales, spent six months as a contestant on Season 11 of NBC’s The Biggest Loser. She lost 171 pounds in the process. Her daughter, Courtney, her partner on the show, trained alongside her mother, while the two were sequestered for six months at a luxury ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains near Los Angele. She lost 76 pounds (See “The Biggest Winners,” March CBI, pg. 52.)
Ken Coleman, a personal trainer at the Cascade Athletic Clubs, in Portland, Oregon, and a motivational speaker, was one of the top three contestants on Season 3 of the show in 2006, weighing in at 358 pounds and leaving at 197.
Gary and Diane Heavin, the cofounders of Curves International, Inc., the world’s largest fitness franchise with nearly 10,000 clubs in more than 85 countries, left their comfortable home in a gated community to spend a week undercover in the crime- and drug-riddled Third Ward of Houston, Texas,, for an episode of ABC’s The Secret Millionaire. (See “Curves Cofounders Go Under Cover on Secret Millionaire,” June CBI, pg. 17.)
There, they lived in a typical home and survived on food stamps, the equivalent of $6.50 per day per person, and appeared on the show in April of 2010. In the end, just like the other accomplished and affluent individuals who appear on the show, the Heavins made a substantial donation—$410,000 of their own money—to deserving individuals in the neighborhood, where the median income is $5,500 a year.
The experience was life-changing in a number of ways. Says Gary: “It was incredible . . . It was both the best and the worst week of our lives. Through it all, our appreciation of our own lives grew, but so did our sense of duty to help others less fortunate.”
Last August, it was Chuck Runyon’s and Dave Mortensen’s turn to experience life on welfare for a week. As the cofounders of Anytime Fitness, they’ll appear on a future—still unscheduled—episode of The Secret Millionaire. While they’re not free to discuss the details until after the show has aired, they’re eager, now, to tell the story of how it all came about, and how this journey has changed their lives and the way they do business.
Prime time for Anytime
For starters, Runyon and Mortensen were ideal candidates, as the show delights in showcasing successful, self-made individuals. The tale of Anytime Fitness, notes Runyon, the company’s CEO, is a story of hard work, good timing, luck, and of building a business from the ground up.
The two met not long after finishing college when Runyon, who’d worked in membership sales at a club (and cleaned the bathrooms), walked into a gym in Minnesota where Mortensen was the manager. They eventually became partners, and purchased a 30,000-square-foot facility, where they increased the membership from 500 to 4,000, before selling the business.
While their club had been a success, the two began to think about a new concept. “Our experience in big-box clubs was profitable,” says Runyon, “but payroll accounted for 45% of our revenues, and turnover was a constant headache.”
By chance, Runyon discovered a tiny gym in Georgia that was open day and night, a feat made possible because the owners gave keys to their members, who could unlock the front door, work out, and lock up when they left.
That example inspired and drove the model for the Anytime Fitness franchise, which they began marketing in 2002. “In our travels, we realized that 80% of club members use 20% of a club,” says Runyon. “So, the template we developed was a club with a small footprint, say 3,000-5,000 square feet, to accommodate an average of 750 members. We identified what members really use—free weights and machines—and built these facilities in local strip malls, so they were convenient to reach. We utilized technology to minimize staff, cutting payroll from 45% to 10%.”
This year, after just a decade, Anytime Fitness expects to open the doors to its 2,000th club. At that point, it will be serving a total of 1.5 million members in 12 countries around the world.
As successful as Anytime Fitness is, Runyon and Mortensen, the company’s president, continue to add value to the franchise. In 2010, the pair launched Anytime Health, a health and wellness Website dedicated to nutrition, fitness, and disease prevention and management. Members who log onto Anytime Health can access diet trackers, activity trackers, workout planners, and can connect to support groups.
Earlier this year, Runyon published Working Out Sucks!, a no-nonsense self-help manual, in collaboration with a sports dietitian and a psychiatrist. The book acknowledges a basic truth: It’s very difficult for most people motivate themselves to work out. Runyon rebuts the most common excuses for not doing so, and sets out a 21-day program to put the reader on the “path to change.”
Taking the ‘path to change’
Little did Runyon and Mortensen know that, eventually, The Secret Millionaire would provide a path to change—for them. When the producer of the show first approached them about appearing on the show in late 2009, they declined. “It just didn’t feel right,” says Runyon. “We’re not flashy Gucci-type guys.”
Still, the show’s premise was intriguing. They’d board a plane for an unknown destination to work as volunteers for not-for-profit organizations. “You show up, happy to help, like any other volunteer,” Runyon says. “ABC gives you a name and a back-story so your identity isn’t blown. When it’s over, if there’s an emotional connection, you can contribute financially.”
The issue, at first, was trust. “You give up complete control on these reality shows,” Mortensen, the president of the company, points out. “Our real story is not just the success we’ve enjoyed.”
But they relented, boarded a plane in Minneapolis for Oklahoma City, and, as they tell it, their Secret Millionaire adventure turned out to be a major test of wit and will, one that’s inspired them in many ways and altered their perspective.
“We landed in100°-plus heat and were quickly introduced to the elements we’d be dealing with,” Runyon remembers. “Our car for the week was a dirty, stinky, dog kennel that would barely start. The air conditioner was moody, and I now understand what it would be like to be inside a boiling egg. But we grew to love our car, and it took us on an unforgettable journey.”
The two were also given $71.03 to live on for the week, and were put up in a slanting, rundown house with crickets, spiders, and cockroaches, weeds growing on the inside, and a poorly working air conditioner. They had no access to TV, newspapers, or the Internet.
“After the initial shock, Dave and I embraced it, although the bugs were the worst part,” recounts Runyon. “We surprised the crew with our resourcefulness, and we had money left over at the end of the week. We ate well, had money for tipping the local coffee shop server, gave $5 to a neighbor for letting us use his lawnmower, ate ice cream a couple of nights a week, and never let our surroundings affect us.”
They also spent long hours in the brutal heat, working with other volunteers.
“It was a grueling, physical week with 15-21-hour days filled with volunteer work, filming, interviewing, more work, 100º-plus temperatures, and more work,” Mortensen recalls. “But Dave and I never showed fatigue. They weren’t going to break us physically, and we operated on adrenaline all week.”
Profiting from the experience
It’s clear that the two business partners were deeply affected by the experience.
“We met some outstanding volunteer organizations and courageous people who were giving their time, energy, and money in meaningful, admirable ways,” Mortensen says. “These organizations were handpicked for Dave and I so that we’d develop an emotional connection, and we did. Our hearts had more blisters than our hands.”
They were so moved that, just like the Heavins before them, they made a generous financial donation. “We gave a franchise to two well-deserving guys who will be great operators,” Runyon acknowledges.
The week also had an effect on their 20-year friendship and working partnership, Runyon indicates. “This was a top-10 personal experience and one of the best things Dave and I have ever done together. We bonded, having plenty of time to talk and share perspectives. Now we understand each other even better.”
Mortensen agrees. “We discussed each moment and were able to help each other through many times of frustration.”
If Secret Millionaire changed Mortensen and Runyon, it’s also changed the business they run.
Anytime Fitness has, for years, participated in the VetFran program, in which Armed Forces veterans who buy a franchise business receive a discount on their franchise fees.
Now, in addition, they are starting their own discount program. If an Anytime Fitness franchise owner donates 5% of their profits or $5,000 annually to a charity, they’ll give that franchisee a discount on the franchise fee. They’re hoping that hundreds of their franchise owners will participate.
Both also want to get their own children involved in volunteer work. “It’s easy to write a check; it’s harder to actually volunteer your time,” says Runyon. “Volunteering is a lot like working out; it’s hard to get yourself to the gym, but you feel great afterwards. We both want to get our kids involved in volunteer work.”
Mortensen concludes: “Both Chuck and I used a journal every day and will continue to reflect on this experience to determine how we can use it to strengthen ourselves and Anytime Fitness. Once the show airs, we’ll be able to tell the rest of the story.”
Clearly, there’s much more to be said about the Runyon/Mortensen reality show saga. So stay tuned.