As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Luna.
Sarah is a California native. She completed her bachelor’s degree in Performance Dance and Biological Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. During this time, she was certified as a comprehensive instructor in the Pilates Method and has taught ever since. Shortly after graduating, she moved to Chicago, IL to pursue a career in dance with the Giordano Jazz Dance Company. Sarah completed her MBA at Chapman University in 2014 where she studied Entrepreneurship and was a recipient of a NSHMBA scholarship. Over the past four years, Sarah has worked at Equinox, owned, operated and sold a fitness franchise, coached many start-up businesses and worked tirelessly to grow the Club Pilates franchise brand from 28 open studios to over 400 as the National Sales Director and SVP of Operations. Today, Sarah leads the dense network of entrepreneurs — mostly female — running Pure Barre’s 550+ franchised studios across North America.
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?
Growing up, my mom and dad were both small business owners. Seeing how they built their businesses from the ground up, with passion and dedication, was an extremely important example for me as I made my way in the business world. Early on in my career I thought I wanted to be a doctor but was pursuing a career in dance. During that time, I decided to get my Pilates certification and discovered a passion for the world of fitness and preventative health. I was a franchise owner for about a year and a half until I met Anthony Geisler, our Xponential Fitness CEO and shortly thereafter joined the Club Pilates team. At Club Pilates I helped build the brand into a powerful force in the wellness industry and developed some tried-and-true tactics across all areas of operations that I was able to take with me and translate to Pure Barre. Over the past year, the Pure Barre team has worked tirelessly to build a foundation for the brand, refreshing more than 500 studios, and introducing a sales culture and new operations in order to provide structure. Today, I continue to strive to be the best leader for our franchise partners.
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 started at Club Pilates, I was traveling through different time zones, meeting with franchisees in person at studios, scheduling conferences and webinars. Once in Michigan, I misread the time zone and confusion ensued. My entire day was spent rescheduling meetings. It’s a little thing, but it’s a reminder that the tiny details are often as important as the big picture.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win is a book that has stuck with me over the years. It shows how you can lead from the trenches, right alongside your team. That’s the kind of leader I want to be — not a dictator, but someone who walks hand-in-hand with my team. I reference that book time and time again. I love to read books that have direct, tactical messages. They get right to the point and I can take the learnings back to my role at Pure Barre.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I stepped into my role with the brand, Pure Barre’s mantra going forward was “500 studios moving as one.” Previously, we had 500 different studios that just happened to have the Pure Barre logo on them, all operating in different ways. It was kind of like the ‘Wild West.’ I saw a great opportunity to lay down guidelines across the entire brand in order to really develop structures that would streamline and unify the Pure Barre experience. The Pure Barre technique itself didn’t need much work — it’s such a strong, effective workout. But there were many things we could do to improve infrastructure and operations for our franchise partners. Refreshing 500 studios to get up to the new standards looked like an incredibly challenging task — but it was a challenge we all rose to. It was exciting to get all the franchise partners onboard. The results speak for themselves; I think.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I’m all about controlling what’s controllable. And that starts with my own attitude. There’s nothing I can do to control what’s happening outside of myself. I can’t control how other operators are going to react to specific business decisions. What I can control is how I communicate those decisions — and what I communicate, when I communicate, and where I communicate. And then I can control my reaction to their feedback. I’ve learned to develop some pretty thick skin and to keep my emotions in check, given my role. It’s not so much that I operate from a “cold” place, it’s more that I’ve learned to have patience and sympathy when it comes to working with franchisees. They have their own lives and concerns happening. It’s important to be able to put yourself in their shoes.
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’s been an interesting couple of months, to say the least. My family lives all over the world. First, my sister in Washington got incredibly sick. And then a week later, my brother in South Korea got sick. They were both tested, and it turned out neither of them were positive for the coronavirus, thankfully. It was really difficult to stay focused when I couldn’t be with my family physically to help them. And beyond the personal uncertainty, we were trying to keep studios open and support franchisees during the incredibly difficult and fast-moving changes, so that just added to the chaos. My husband works in the film/multimedia industry and he’s lost a lot of work. I have been lucky to remain with Pure Barre and do my best to educate and help franchisees do what they can right now — and most importantly, prepare for the future. But it hasn’t been easy, after about three weeks, I had to stop and say: “I need to take care of myself, too!” I was working 18-hour days, just trying to communicate and collaborate with franchisees. Now, it’s become important to have routines and structures that keep me sane. My husband and I walk and ride bikes for at least an hour every day. I don’t take my cell phone with me. It’s a time to focus on our family and ourselves. It’s something I have to push myself to do — I’m the type of person who works until all the work is done. But having a routine when everything else is in flux is really important.
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?
All of our franchise partners had to shut down their studios and suddenly, we had to figure out a way to service our hundreds of thousands of customers in a virtual environment. That took time to get ahead of. The challenge at the beginning was navigating all of the mandates at the local and state level. So, we had to be incredibly flexible in that regard. We published a series of manuals, checklists and other documents. We coached franchisees on how to navigate the environment based on their respective mandates. The biggest challenge when it comes to reopening in the future is keeping a personalized approach. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to any of this and each studio is different. We have to make sure that all creative assets fit with the requirements across the country. This is tough for the franchise-model approach. We’re used to an overall uniform structure. Now, we have to take a more mom-and-pop approach which has been challenging, but also inspiring to see how dedicated, creative and innovative our franchisees are.
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?
I try to stay informed and educated. But I also try to turn some of that attention inward, so that I’m not consumed by the media. It’s easy to get lost in it. I recommend reading the highlights, staying focused on what you can control and the important things in your life and to re-center and re-evaluate. This time can be a growth period, a time to prepare for what’s ahead and learn new skills that will help you in your future pursuits. I try to find the positive side of things and urge others around me to do the same. It’s not always easy now, but you have to take what you have and make the best of it.
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?
Earlier, I mentioned the virtual classes we launched at Pure Barre. If you would have asked us three months ago before all of this, we’d have told you we’d never entertained the idea of livestream classes — at least not any time in the near future. What we’ve seen is a forced entrepreneurial approach to the business. We’ve incorporated new modalities to maintain our competitive edge, proving that we’re flexible enough to change around the circumstances. Also, we’ve built our business around product distribution channels, vendors, and certain ways to maintain scale. We’ve also had to develop backup solutions. We were maxing out vendors and their warehouses couldn’t produce more products when we needed them. So, we had to source other manufacturers and distributors to meet the demand. Previously, our business plan was just to have the best offerings within each vendor category. Now, having multiple vendors and connections is a necessity.
We’ve also had to look at redundancies across the entire brand. Where can we trim the unnecessary? But there’s an opportunity, too. When franchises can hit the reset button, they’ll have fully adopted a suite of new operating procedures that we began implementing last year. Franchise partners had been rolling those processes out over time and this downtime is allowing them to fully kick-start that programming. We’re offering sales training and virtual training so that they can fully bring their staff up to speed and use this time to develop their staff. When they open their studio doors again, they’re not only going to have a greater skill set across their teams, but also a better way to implement and relaunch their businesses. We’re putting a lot of focus and energy into looking at this as a grand re-opening. “You know us. Now, get to know the new, improved us.”
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
We’re lucky that health & fitness is a huge priority for people. That won’t be something that diminishes. Early surveys and outside analysis show that there’s still a desire for boutique fitness and the sense of community it fosters. We’re anticipating a pent-up demand, in fact. But I do think that our business strategy and the way we operate across the board, especially at the studio level, will change. We want to continue to provide the best experience for our clients when there is demand for in-person experiences again.
More generally, I think that post-COVID, people will want to lead simpler lives. They’ll evaluate what really matters to them, and that will affect how they spend their time and money. They’ll wonder if some activities in their pre-COVID life were really worth the energy. They’ll want to slow down and make time for the important things.
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?
Right now, we are developing a member appreciation program. It’s important to recognize those members that stuck with us from the start. Once we’ve taken care of our members that were there for us, we will turn our focus to acquiring new members. We’re seeing really great feedback that clients want to get back to Pure Barre. We’re already seeing great numbers for studios that have reopened. I’m confident in our outlook for our franchise partners. It’ll take time, of course, but we’ve used this time wisely to strategically position the business. We’ve cut the unnecessary and reinvested in our staff and studios. And now, we’re more open to outside options and even some off-the-wall ideas. It’s time to get creative and experiment in ways we might not have considered three months ago.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
It comes down to your resources. Put together a game plan that maximizes current resources that you have. How will you leverage your best talents? How will you get your business back in the running again? You may not see the same topline figures, but if you can recover profitability, you’re on the right path. Once you have that dialed in, you can think about growing the size and scope of the business again. In the meantime, be open to outside resources and influences. Learn how to live in a creative, unknown space.
Last week I coached franchisees on operating from a strategically tactical place and how to balance that with emotional intelligence. You can’t be hyper tactical or hyper emotional. You have to work with a scale between emotion and tactics, operating with energy and effort in both of those buckets.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The Bible verse that gets me through is: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It really helps me when I come up against a wall. Sometimes, we’re given challenges that will either make us or break us. But if we use our skill set and previous experience and focus on tasks at hand, we can get through anything.
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