As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lou DeFrancisco.
Lou DeFrancisco is the President of StretchLab, a boutique wellness franchise that offers one-on-one assisted stretches and group stretch sessions. With a passionate team of certified Flexologists™, StretchLab is transforming the lives of clients from all ages, fitness levels, genders and sizes –increasing mobility and flexibility, helping to reduce pain, decreasing muscle aches, improving posture, shortening recovery time and enhancing quality of life.
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?
After graduating college with a degree in physics, my career path took several turns. I started with a job in IT consulting, then ventured into the world of business, and eventually ended up working at a boutique health club called Train Boston Sports Center. At first, the job at the club felt like a step back from everything I was doing in my previous roles, but when I started, I knew I had finally found the perfect crossover of my passions in business and athletics. I worked my way up in that company, then landed the position of Director of Franchise Support at Get in Shape for Women, a new boutique fitness franchise. I worked there for nearly a decade, acting as the President for the majority of that time and helping them grow to over 100 locations nationwide. That brings me to my current role as President of StretchLab, the first boutique assisted stretching franchise. Twenty years ago, I never would have guessed I’d be leading a franchise in the fitness or wellness space, but here I am!
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 in fitness, I was thrown in to work the front desk with no sales training, because the club had no “sales system”. I still remember my first “walk-in”, someone literally walking in without an appointment to learn more about the club. Looking back, I can laugh because I made every mistake you can make in membership sales — I did all the talking, without asking any questions; I talked way too long; when they did ask about pricing, I showed them everything…needless to say, they walked out without buying anything. I’m naturally wired as a “systems” person, I like knowing how things work and that there is a right way to do things. So my lesson learned that day, as soon as that woman walked out the door without buying anything, was that there had to be a better way. I didn’t know what that was yet, but I researched and found out quickly there is a proper way to sell a membership, or personal service, and soon after I implemented a sales system for our future team members.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Mastering the Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish, which he has since updated and now the book is named Scaling Up. As I transitioned from a single location health club to multi-location franchise system, and my own team and my franchise network grew, this book was critical in helping me add structure to a fast growth business. People — Strategy — Execution — Cash!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
While I am not a founder of StretchLab, I feel grateful to be leading the brand as President now, and there is no doubt it is a “purpose driven business.” We improve people’s quality of life and help them “live longer.” Naturally, the health and wellness industry is set up to give back to people, and what’s great about StretchLab is that stretching is not limited to any one population. It is truly for everybody and every-body. Whether you are an athlete, corporate professional, or octogenarian, we offer a service to help you improve mobility and posture, prevent injury, relax and reduce stress. Maybe someone has an injured back or they’re overweight — this could be their chance to make a positive choice and start that journey to being their best selves. Our testimonials show how impactful StretchLab is for so many people already.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I seek to make every experience a “win-win” for everyone involved. In my position, there are typically multiple parties involved — my corporate support team, our franchise partners and their employees, and all the members of StretchLab. My goal is to come out of every situation with all parties feeling valued and that we’re moving in the right direction. During anyone’s career, you are going to run into problems, issues and general negativity, whether that’s a piece of equipment breaking or something bigger like a pandemic. Instead of taking frustrations out, or reacting quickly (which often means negatively also), I try to focus on how we can create a win-win. Being solutions-oriented, you can diffuse a lot of problems and move the situation in a positive direction.
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?
It was challenging not to bring the fear and uncertainty I was experiencing at work back home and into my family life. At home, my wife and I have three kids who all transitioned to remote learning at the same time, so we were trying our best to stay positive for them and help them adjust to this new normal. Sheltering in place with a family of five can be difficult, so to alleviate some of that tension, we bought new bikes for the entire family. The quarantine turned out to be a blessing in disguise as family bike rides became a daily thing. These rides have been a great bonding experience for us and a way to get fresh air, sun and exercise.
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?
Like most companies this year, dealing with a nationwide shutdown was obviously a huge obstacle. In the face of much fear and uncertainty, I knew I had to be a leader to my team and my franchise partners, and support them during this unprecedented time. We did not layoff any corporate support staff, and I made sure to communicate regularly with my team, to make sure they knew we were here for them, so they in turn could focus on supporting our franchise partners. The first step StretchLab did for our franchise partners was coach them on how to create alternative streams of revenue, such as virtual stretches. Second, we helped them apply for PPP loans and negotiate rent concessions with landlords. Third, we over-communicated to make sure they felt they were supported and truly felt a part of our family. When the economy gradually started to reopen, we encouraged franchise owners to take their stretches outside for safety and helped put extensive precautions in place for those who were resuming indoor operations. We were there for our members with one-on-one and group virtual stretching sessions, as well as our new app StretchLab GO, which has hundreds of pre-recorded stretching classes available for members.
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 loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Communication has been key in getting through this pandemic and keeping fear at bay. Before the pandemic, my team at work had always done an in-person daily huddle every morning at 8:30 a.m. When the pandemic started sweeping the nation in March, we simply transitioned those meetings to Google Hangouts because it was a good chance for us to share updates, express concerns and provide insight and advice. We also implemented a daily newsletter for our franchise system that included all news and updates pertinent to the current, ever-changing situation. Along with that, we always put some sort of positive news or quote in the newsletter to lift spirits and keep people optimistic. As for life at home, taking care of my health through nutrition, workouts and good sleep habits, and the bike rides I mentioned before, have been a great way for me and my family to maintain good mental health.
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?
A big opportunity for the fitness and wellness industry has been a shift to digital programming. At first, our virtual stretches provided a good alternative to our in-person offerings while everyone was hunkering down at home. Now our virtual sessions are coming in handy as a great complement to in-person sessions. Our Flexologists can assign clients “homework” between assisted stretches to help them get the most out of their memberships. More generally, a lot of people are going to be more focused on health and wellness in the post-COVID economy. Exercise and recovery, including managing stress, are important for boosting immunity, and the stronger your immune system, the better chance you have of fighting off illnesses. Stretching is an important part of this equation. For example, we’ve seen a great influx of new leads since reopening all of our studios across the county, and the conversion ratio of first-timers to members has never been higher. On top of that, people are buying longer stretching sessions and bigger membership packages. People are clearly prioritizing how they can take care of themselves.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think people will be more cognizant of their personal health and hygiene as well as their surroundings. Lots of meetings and events will be transitioned to virtual platforms, and we’ll probably see a lot more people working from home. However, we are social beings so in-person gatherings and events will not totally disappear. And there are plenty of activities and services that won’t work in the digital realm, one-on-one assisted stretching being one of those things. As I mentioned before, the increased focus on health will also come in the form of self-care to improve physical, mental and emotional well-being. Working out, proper recovery, and a proper diet are all a part of that.
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?
We keep reminding our franchise owners that they shouldn’t be afraid to run their business, and at the same time a profitable business. Of course it’s necessary to implement proper health and safety measures and adhere to guidelines from the government, but StretchLab provides a service that’s important to so many people, so we must keep moving forward. By October, we will have opened 23 new studios during the pandemic, bringing our total number of studios to more than 100. We’ve seen a very strong positive response to StretchLab in these new communities, in part because people are experiencing lots of problems with their necks, backs, hips, and looking for new ways to take care of their bodies. We’ve been reactivating a lot of our frozen memberships and we ran an extremely successful Labor Day flash sale, so things are definitely heading in the right direction. We are constantly monitoring the news cycle and always adhering to local, state and federal guidelines when it comes to operating our business, but doing our best to get back to “normal.”
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
As we’ve been telling our franchise owners, don’t be afraid to run a profitable business. There’s no doubt that our world has changed and things will not go back exactly to the way they were, so look at your business model and make tweaks that will help you move forward. Never be afraid to test and try something new. We have to fight every day to win the day. Each day that fight might look a little different — one day it could be asking your landlord for concessions, one day it could be running a sale, one day it could be reaching out and having dialogue with your members to see what they need and how you can meet that need. Is there an idea or revenue stream you can pivot to? If so, and your business needs it, don’t be afraid to try it.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like to live my life by Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” These words have been a through-line in my life, personally, professionally and spiritually.
How can our readers further follow your work?
IG: @lou.defrancisco or @stretchlab_