I had the pleasure interviewing Brad Ehrlich, the Owner, CEO, and Area Developer of Orangetheory Fitness, Illinois. Brad opened his first fitness studio in 2013 and has since expanded to 60 fitness studios across the state of Illinois.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you please tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
In April 2010, I woke up in a hospital. It was the result of years of abuse to my own body from alcohol. My liver had given out, and I think deep down inside, so had a bit of my own will. It’s a terrible feeling to wake up a failure, and a failure in public makes things just a tad bit worse. I’d spent the previous eight or so years as a journalist. I was on TV, and I was on radio, and I was about as lonely a human being as a human being could be.
When you have an incident like I did, the memories around that time become a bit fuzzy. I remember having a near-death experience, which even to this day has a profound effect on my life, but I think the family that was closest to me can probably piece together the puzzle of bit better than I can. But I know I had a moment, and I know that moment set me in a new direction.
After a year of self-discovery and the rebuilding of my body, my brother-in-law got me interested in the fitness industry. He was thinking about opening up his own gym, and so, we looked at some concepts together. After a while, he decided to go in a different direction, but the idea had spread to include my Mom and Dad and sister. After a considerable amount of due diligence, we signed an area development agreement for the state of IL with a startup with just a handful of locations called Orangetheory Fitness. I fell in love with OTF when I saw how they blended exercise science with data, and gamified the workout. I had watched Google map the earth, and I saw the ability to map biometric data from the body in Orangetheory Fitness. I thought this to be a revolutionary concept in the field of group training, and it proved to be just that. The business model looked to be innovative and sound, and satisfied the financial viability of the product, but way down deep inside, I really made the decision to enter the arena because I wanted to give other people the opportunity to make a profound change in their life, just as I had done. I wanted to set my life in a direction where my success was completely dependent on my ability to inspire people and provide the tools necessary for people to change their own life for the better. I wanted to build a company that arduously worked to promote more quality and quantity of life.
We opened our first studio in Illinois in January 2013, and seven years later we opened our 60th location.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Terry O’Reilly’s “Under the Influence” opened my eyes to basic fundamentals of marketing, and helped me understand all the different drivers that help the public make purchasing decisions. The series was/is especially useful to entrepreneurs of small to mid-sized business that don’t have enormous ad budgets, but need to compete by punching above their weight to enter the market. “Under the Influence” also helped when contemplating how to brand the product based on the direction I wanted it to take. From listening to the show, I knew that in launching a fitness business, we needed to have a different value proposition than our competitors. Instead of focusing on size of biceps and washboard abs, we focused on the idea that by coming into our studio 2 to 3 times a week, a prospective client could attain more quantity and quality of life. We talked about how people would be able to do more activities that they love and sustain activities longer as they age. We talked about how regular exercise makes a person feel better both emotionally and physically, and fortifies against whatever trials life may bring. A perceived better-looking body, was just a side effect of all the great work being done on the inside.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When we started the company, our vision was to become the single largest and most impactful boutique fitness operation in the state of Illinois, and up until Covid, I believe we achieved that. Our purpose however, was to provide people the tools to make awesome and fundamental change in their life by starting with the vessel that holds it first.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I think the number one principle that guides me through the ups and downs of running a business is the idea that “your honest word is your bond.” Life can gut a person to the point when there is barely anything left, and when you have nothing, the only thing you have left is your word. When people trust your word, they believe in what you say, and that your actions will be in concert with your words. I believe that business is run on belief. Belief that you’re going to do what you say you will do. Belief that you’ll hit that next goal. Belief that a paycheck or bonus is coming. Belief that you’re going to change someone’s life for the better. Belief that if we all work together; we’ll get through this Covid pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone’s lives in so many different ways that it’s nearly incalculable. My life is no different. One of the biggest personal and emotional challenges that I’ve had to face is losing one of our franchisees in the midst of this pandemic. The group of franchisees that help build this product in the state of Illinois are a tight-knit and extremely diversified group. Like any family we have our squabbles and our issues we have to work through. Anyone who’s ever ridden a company like a rocket ship knows how difficult and stressful things can be at times, but we’ve stuck together and grown together and become a tour de force in the boutique fitness world. It came out of the blue when one of our very successful franchisees took his own life, and his wife said that if we were open, meaning not shutdown for an extended period, this tragedy never would’ve happened. Those were, and still are, very powerful words that shook me and everyone else in the state to our core. When you start out to build a company that promotes more life, and the opposite of that happens in the most sad, horrible and lonely way, it really makes you question a lot. We are all still grieving. We are all still wondering what we could’ve done, and what we should have said, as all of us replay in our minds the last conversation we had with him. Like any family in the midst of tragedy, we all circled the wagons, and have been helping run his locations ever since.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of the biggest work-related challenges, and personal challenges for me during this pandemic is having to lay off employees that are great human beings. There are a lot of people who started their career with our company, and have no ideas about the ways of the world. We held on to as many employees as we could, for as long as we could, before having to make the painful decision to lay off more-than half of our staff. What made it even worse was the fact that I couldn’t look the person in the eye and tell them face-to-face exactly what’s going on and why the decisions had to be made, and hear my promise face-to-face to offer their jobs back again as soon as we are allowed to open. I had to make a video. I guess it’s a good thing that I’ve had a lot of experience in front of a camera, because it was my hope that they could feel me in the room with them when I was talking about layoffs, but that’s probably a false hope. After the layoffs, it hurt my heart when talking with our management class, who tend to be on the younger end of the age spectrum, when they told me stories of their friends opening their fridge and not having any food. Inside our company it made me uncomfortable when the staff kept thanking me profusely for keeping their paychecks and health insurance going. I kept thinking; they’re thanking me? I’m laying them off, and I failed them.
In trying to help our staff as we laid them off, we turned our HR department into an unemployment and insurance assistance office. Most of our employees have never received unemployment before, or had to get heath insurance on their own. We instructed our former HR department to reach out and keep tabs with all of our employees on any questions they had about filling out unemployment forms, and provided general assistance and counseling when needed. We also helped our staff navigate the Illinois insurance exchange, and timed the layoffs to provide maximum financial coverage without interruption. Since the shutdown order was lifted on June 29th, most of our employees have returned to work.
Our biggest public-facing work challenge is trying to convince our members that coming back into our studios is safe, and that continuing to exercise is one of the key pillars of health. We know that regular exercise along with eating right and sleeping at least 8 hours an evening puts you in the best position to fight the virus if you contract it. Setting aside genetic conditions, we know that regular exercise wards away the four main Covid comorbidities associated with deleterious outcomes. With all the negative media about Covid, and specifically the “is your gym safe” narrative, it has been difficult to convince people to re-engage with us. No matter what we say, their overriding fear will remain until the dramatic and sometimes false narrative of the news cycle dissipates. To combat this, we are at the beginning stages of a public awareness campaign designed to get people to critically think about Covid risks and public policy. We are going to try and present ourselves as part of the public health solution, instead of part of the problem. In our first month of operations after the lockdown, we performed more than 150K workouts in Illinois without a single known case of virus transmission in our studios. Whatever the reason, whether it’s our strict Covid protocols or some other “X” factor, we’ve been able to help people back get back on their fitness journey without any known case of contracting Covid in our studios.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and customers who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
As we were going into shutdown mode, I couldn’t help but think that, just a year earlier, we were holding a Guinness Book of World Records attempt at Wrigley Field for the world’s largest workout. One year later, we’re figuring how to shut down our stores for an indefinite period. I’m sure many other successful business owners felt the same way. Going into the shutdown, I played FDR’s famous speech about “nothing to fear, but fear itself” to all our franchisees on one of our soon-to-be frequent zoom calls. I had no idea what we were in for, but I knew that we had to keep our heads and wits about us as we headed into uncharted territory. Fear is never healthy, and can cause paralysis, homeostasis, panic and irrational decision-making. I wanted to take the fear out of the equation and replace it with facts. We also set up, bi-weekly calls to talk about every acronym of assistance (PPP, EIDL, ETC.) available to us and helped each other navigate the ever-changing landscape. We also geared the team to start thinking proactively about how to change our business systems and we channeled our energy and frustrations into procedures and protocols to create the safest environment for our clients to exercise in. Our whole business got flipped on its head in a flash, and we had to figure a way to move forward safely before we were allowed to reopen.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Covid is destroying the fitness industry at a time where humans have never needed us more. The restrictions placed on our businesses have restricted our ability to service our member base and the population in general. The services we render combat the four main comorbidities associated with Covid (obesity, heart disease, hypertension and diabetes) and the product we deliver also helps to boost immune system functions. We know, empirically- since we are a data driven company, that the health and wellness of our clients have deteriorated since March. We also know that integrating fitness into a person’s life is a behavior pattern that has been severely interrupted. As a company, we see a pent-up demand post Covid. People are realizing that their bodies have become weaker and their health has been put in a compromising position. We also know that a great percentage of fitness companies will not reopen. I would hazard a guess that more-than 50% of fitness companies will close in the near future. We’ve all heard of a food desert, but the impact of the prolonged shutdown orders is in the process of creating a fitness desert. Those who last will have some blue-sky opportunities to expand in locations and markets that were saturated before the outbreak. Even if we are quickly headed into a complete downturn in the economy, fitness has always trended like liquor stores during recessionary times, it is only public health sanctions that have profoundly affected the fitness business, and the constant drum of negative media toward fitness clubs.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live? Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I might be naive, but it is my sincere hope that life will return to normal, not a new normal, after we have found a way to combat the virus. We are social creatures that cannot exist without each other, and a life where we all isolate from one another is not a life well lived. We need each other. We share energy with each other. In my professional life, I can see and feel the energy difference between one person working out in a room and an entire class full of people working out together. I believe the same thing is true outside the four walls of our fitness studios. If anything during this pandemic, I feel that people will become closer when we emerge from the other side.
If there is a new normal, whatever it may be, I believe we are well-footed to be the dominant future brand in fitness. Our entire premise is to use science, technology, data and coaching to achieve peak results. Since the solution to a virus is science based, we are well aligned to be part of the solution to human health. In every studio across the country we are monitoring and charting key performance indicators of the human body. We have data that provides insights into how the body operates, and there is so much to be learned from the data about the health of the body. Specifically with Covid, we know the comorbidities that cause the terrible outcomes. It is not beyond the scope of reason that we will be able to use data to help understand — and be a preventative measure — against this virus and whatever else may put human health at risk.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” I know there is some speculation that Mark Twain never said this quote, but it contains a truth nevertheless. There are many points in business that can lend a person to stretching the truth for short-term gain. There are many times that not revealing all the facts can shelter a company from scrutiny. There are moments where a white lie can smooth over rough terrain. When we were opening our first studio, delays kept us from opening on time, and the members we had signed up already would have been terribly frustrated that we weren’t living up to our word. Instead of pushing the blame to another party, we were very frank with our members about why, and sent hundreds of hand-written cards to them.
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