As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Britt Canady.
Britt Canady is the current CEO of Tough Mudder Bootcamp and former area development rights owner. After joining Tough Mudder Bootcamp in August 2018, Mr. Canady led the ownership spinoff of the Tough Mudder Bootcamp business in June 2019, accelerating its growth, expansion, and top talent build out. Mr. Canady previously worked in leveraged finance for 18 years, leading the nation’s top ranked finance team supporting middle market and franchise companies in acquisition and traditional growth. Mr. Canady began his career as a finance attorney, and received his Religious Studies B.A. with Honors, J.D. with Honors, and M.B.A. from the University of North Carolina.
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 tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Basically, I was a small-town kid with not much of a “big world view”. “Son of a son of a fisherman” type background and I was fortunate to attend public university. After undergraduate, I did not know what to do next and applied to law and MBA school. I would say it was my university that led me on the path to academic success and law school, but it was the MBA program that introduced me first to individual business success concepts.
I first practiced finance law but jumped over to investment banking with the “middle market” leveraged finance team. Working with smaller size companies, afforded me personal relationships with so many talented people who started their own companies. Many times, I would assist them in analyzing acquisitions or other small companies. I was impressed with their success, but I was more impressed they did something on their own terms and did it with a passion.
Once I decided to join the ranks and follow my own path, I studied all kinds of industries and found conviction in the fitness industry and especially the studio delivery model. I fell in love with Tough Mudder Bootcamp — a large national and international brand with a young and growing studio concept. That is an ideal combination.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I first started as an area developer, I wanted to build excitement for the coming studio for my area, and I began with Instagram — a new world to me. I became completely absorbed in creating original content on Instagram almost every day. It became almost a full-time job, and I was quite proud until one thing; my own strict criteria for a studio location kept the timeline very long. That meant I built tremendous interest for “coming soon” versus an “opening soon”. Well, I learned a valuable lesson around social media and the direction of energy. I learned how social media operated with a first-hand deep dive and its use. The biggest lesson was of course to focus my energy on things I control versus those that appear to be controllable. I never compromised my discipline around the location, but it was important to discern what is a controllable choice and what is the value of choice.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of my favorite books is Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This book covers President Lincoln as he navigated a political landscape many believed he was ill-equipped to manage after his election. The book’s lessons are certainly bigger than career learnings but did reinforce several principles for success. First, organic and modest self-belief is more powerful than a trained confidence, particularly when it supports what you think is right. Second, effective leadership welcomes differing opinions to solve for common goals. Finally, trust is not given but earned through distinct vision, careful planning, careful deliberation, and willingness to act with conviction.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I did and do have a vision, or better said visions: Business Vision and Personal Vision. When I began, I had a business vision that focused on demographics and service-based needs not prone to the “Amazon Risk”. Fitness and specifically group fitness are key parts of that vision — I believe the fitness industry grows with populations and increased importance of wellness. Add the history of group dynamics indicates a permanent need for group fitness offerings. Our business purpose builds from that conviction and focuses on bringing our brand of group fitness to local communities. The communities are asking for it, and our purpose to provide it in a manner they elect to make it a part of their lives.
The “personal vision” is the more important motivation for me and is quite frankly tied to the experience of my sister. She has spent her life as a gym owner and personal fitness trainer, working very hard for her clients. What I remember most about the success of individuals in my life is how they found the opportunity to build something for themselves. Through our franchise model, our goal is to make that success possible with our franchisees. Help them enjoy their own success. We also have personal goals for the coaches in our studios. These are extremely talented individuals and we invest in them through training, coaching, and seeking feedback. We want to see the growth of a trainer, to a head coach, to a manager, and possibly a future owner. We are driven to make people succeed, not studios.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The core principle always is “what we are doing is right, sound, and carefully planned”. Of course, challenges arise, but our conviction is built from a strong base. We are doing something right because ultimately it helps our customers’ lives. We are doing something sound because all the research and feedback show our form of fitness helps achieve our customers’ goals. Finally, what we do is data-dependent, analyzed constantly, and planned. Things do change, our customer demands may change, the world may change, but are decisions are always data driven. Ultimately that data centers around the customer and focusing on the customer keeps a plan fairly simple regardless of ups and downs.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers 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?
I consider myself very fortunate and consider my challenges within that perspective. Separation of loved ones (my elderly parents) and two siblings (distance and travel) have been the hardest obstacles. One sibling did contract the virus but had a relatively mild experience. Still, it was alarming. I have also had both family and friends under duress with other health conditions that experienced new types of risks given the current environment — unable to be admitted to the hospital quickly enough and others in need of blood.
By far the hardest aspect is feeling powerless while understanding the health devastation and economic impact on the many lives and businesses.
In response, we found opportunities to do small things. Our family found ways to care for one another, including a socially distanced outing — my children in the yard, my parents on a porch. We found ways to give back, like bringing supplies to a homeless “tent community” and son’s mobile blood drive. We supported our community businesses and gyms. In short, the only way we could address the challenges was by remembering that all were challenged, and we were still one community.
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?
Along with most businesses, our gyms closed. We quickly repurposed the team to focus on customer care and interaction and find ways to create value. The studio fitness industry is a special industry. Community does exist. Customers care for their coaches and small business owners; class participants miss the group classes together; and fitness provides more than simply exercise. We launched our TMBatHome live stream offerings, with revised and centralized programming that allows local coaches to continue to interact with their communities. We provided recorded workouts, weekly challenges, and nutrition tips. Finally, we operated as normal as possible within our network — held weekly coach and owner calls, kept the marketing live and active, and provided methods for community engagement. Within that context, we did want to make sure our studios had access to all the relevant government programs (PPP, etc.) and understand what was happening with landlords across the country.
The current challenge is the prospect of re-openings. This required analyzing not just the federal, but also each state released guidelines. We created a very detailed breakdown of the challenges with the initial phases of opening and outlined prescriptive plans for the studios to choose. Finally, we had to create a new centralized program offering that could provide fantastic workouts in a modified, socially distant and sanitized manner without sacrificing the brand’s fitness objectives.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus 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 loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It can be quite difficult to ease someone’s mind without diminishing the real risks. Uncertainty, fear, and loneliness are scary aspects of this pandemic. The first thing anyone can do is simply talk to or video call their loved ones. Try calling long lost friends, high school friends, and ex-colleagues. Discuss what you can about things that are normal, like “what you did today”, “what you learned today”, and what shows or books you have enjoyed. Find a common book, or a game to play together. My group of friends has a drink every Sunday together via a Zoom video call. We discuss a documentary we are all watching, and naturally, that conversation turns to other, funnier times.
Mainly I recommend living life with that touch of optimism that can only exist in hard times. Remind yourself, and your loved ones, that humanity is resilient and love abounds. Speak of the joys that exist in the moment, and speak louder of the days to come. The trips to take, the places to go. Remind those close to you that you are with them and will be with them. I was quite moved by the U.K.’s Queen words “we will be with our friends again, we will be with our families again, we will meet again.” Quite honestly, not a bad way to end each call with your loved ones.
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?
The COVID economy will likely and unfortunately impact several businesses and business owners. Rationalization of studios and retail locations are likely in store. Much like a reduced stock market price, there will be buying opportunities. If you believe long-term in the U.S. fitness industry, or even the U.S. economy, then you must also conclude that it is seldom that buying opportunities present themselves at what may be reduced prices. Our company is young and well-capitalized, so we are positioning ourselves for opportunistic growth and location hunting for our studios. We also believe being a young company enables us to be fairly nimble in any Post-COVID required fitness offering changes.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We are a short-term memory people, so it will be interesting how long certain lessons remain. There is the semi-permanent period and post-vaccine/immunity permanent period. I believe the permanent state will be dictated by how long the semi-permanent state lasts. But in general, I am not convinced there will be true permanency. There are two aspects of the current environment that have the best chances of remaining: social contact and hygiene.
COVID is the best example of how simple hand washing and handshaking impact the spread of disease. The “handshake” is not critical nor universal, and it may be easy to assume social contact permanently abates. I personally believe we will wrestle with contact for a long period of time, but for reasons that will vary. Children reaching adulthood now may miss the custom of handshakes at job interviews and first business meetings, and therefore never have the same urge to return to “normal”. Others who could fall back into the habit may quickly learn others are not on the same page, and therefore hesitate even in the attempt. Hand sanitizers are staples in everyone’s cars and at counters and may have already become a habit.
As it relates to social distancing, I am not convinced it remains in a truly permanent state. I observe my surroundings in the current environment. To date, the vast percentage of the population is not adversely impacted by the virus. While our current protocols are designed to protect those most vulnerable, I notice people in the safety of normal surroundings are grouping (to the dismay of many). Maybe they attempted to social distance, but comfort weakens that resolve. Humans still seem to have a need to gather. And fortunately, or unfortunately, the world economy is built on mass gathering, be it flights and airports, cruise ships, religious gatherings, or entertainment venue.
I will conclude with this. Until this virus is truly “destroyed” through a vaccine or immunity or just leaves, I do not understand how there is a Post COVID that returns normal interactions to the elderly and sick, and therefore a large subset or a majority will continue to protect the vulnerable in their circles with their behaviors. But if it is “destroyed” or managed like the flu, interactions will likely return. Children like to play, and wrestle, and goof around. Families hug and shake hands. Human interaction extends to strangers when they are strangers no longer. It is amazing how quickly that can happen. A scored football or winning basket leads to air high fives, then fist bumps, and finally, when the world feels safe again, random hugs.
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?
Not to sound corny, but we will keep doing what we are doing — focusing on our customers. In the fitness industry, I believe our obligation is to the customer’s wellness in the means best delivered to them. Our plan includes diversifying the offering to keep the TMBatHome and add offerings outside (in a park) and modified studio experiences. As discussed, people crave gatherings in many different formats, and fitness is no different. Gatherings via online has its place, but people want to see each other in safe environments. Our plan is to offer those environments with the goal of safety and guidelines dictating what that looks like.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage others to do the same. Every business has a customer, and if its food or service-based, it largely centers around how it interacts with customers. Focus on the customer’s needs and choices they must face. Find solutions that cater to these choices.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle.
I value all the life lessons that appeal to perseverance, working hard, and never giving up. Still, they do not quite capture the nuance of success. Trying over and over may prevent failure but it does not guarantee success. Success in all forms (parenthood, community support, personal reward) requires the right actions over a period. If those actions become habitual, then excellence can be achieved. I am not sure I have achieved excellence, but the observation that it takes habits to achieve it forces me to realize it is an everyday goal in even the smallest acts.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me on LinkedIn here or head to our website: tmbootcamp.com.