Jim Rowley had never given any thought to his life revolving around the fitness industry. He was a U.S. Marine, focused and driven, a natural born leader – capable of pushing himself as hard as necessary to reach the top. While fighting a war in the Persian Gulf, he continually received letters from his twin brother Dave who had started working within the health club industry. “It sounded great to me,” Rowley laughed. “I was working in foxholes and he was working in health clubs.” The conversations weighed heavily, and as an eight-year veteran, the marine packed up his belongings and began his journey to the pinnacle of the fitness industry.
Interview by Tyler Montgomery
Rowley, the CEO and co-founder of the New Evolution Fitness Company (NEFC), sat behind his modest desk, phone in ear, trying to stay focused while balancing on an exercise ball. The ball is his chair of choice, burning more calories while wearing his exerspy. Rowley, 42, was doing what he always does, implementing his successful system for a brand new Crunch location that had recently opened in Danville, Calif. at the Blackhawk Plaza. “I lead through the teams,” Rowley said. “I walk through the club just like I’m on the sales floor. If I see there’s something that needs to be done I’ll set the standard the first time, inspect it and expect it to stay the same.”
When putting a system in place Rowley is adamant about running the play and following the proven system of success he has developed over the years. “I sit down with my managers and go over the strategy,” he explained. “It’s been working smoothly ever since.” He believes in getting to know the people running his clubs and helping them to enjoy their job. “I want to get to know my general managers well enough to ask about their kids,” Rowley said. “If my teams are not happy at home, they are not going to be happy at work or be personally committed to work hard for the company and what we stand for.”
Accepting the role as CEO of Crunch wasn’t anything Rowley had planned. He had spent about 17 years working his way to the top of a major fitness chain (24 Hour Fitness) where he had sacrificed personal time along the way. When he accepted the role at Crunch, he vowed to attack the job differently than he had in similar positions over the years. He believes in being extremely involved and connected with his team, without losing focus on how important his family is to him and his success.
Regardless, don’t think for one minute that Rowley hasn’t attacked the Crunch venture with full force. The company plans to double its current 19 locations within the next year and double again in the next 24 months. They are committed to growth with the support of equipment partners like Free Motion, Hoist, Star Trac and Precor. Rowley said the key has been to stick with the message that caused NEFC to purchase the brand last year.
In the basement of a small New York City apartment complex, Crunch was born. In 1989, the classes were primarily group exercise classes that changed the dynamics of the typical gym. “They were the first gym to go in a new direction,” Rowley said. “They were the first to hold events with live DJs spinning records during group classes and the first to launch the bodyweb class with TRX suspension training.” Crunch had kept its small persona but had become an internationally recognized brand that was appealing to Rowley. He loved how they never lost their vision and he felt they had prepared a place in the industry’s future. “Many members feel they have to get in shape before they join a gym, which is crazy,” he laughed. “Crunch made it comfortable for new members by bringing exercise and fun together” – a system that has never waned.
Rowley believes his experience in the military has allowed him to develop a system of running a fitness company that can work anywhere and he has implemented it with Crunch. He said, “It comes down to three very crucial elements: good leadership, strong communication and a successful team – a team that includes partners at Crunch, Angelo Gordon & Co. with Brent Leffel, Managing Director, on our Board and actively involved in the business.”
Crawling Out of the Foxhole
All the sand hadn’t been poured out of Rowley’s boots when he made a move to get into the fitness industry. It was 1992 when he left the Marines and moved to Sacramento, Calif. to be with his long-time girlfriend and future wife. Rowley remembered his brother’s letters discussing the fitness industry and immediately started looking for a position. “I had only been back for six months,” Rowley said. “I was looking everywhere to find a sales job at a club.”
After applying to multiple companies, he finally got a break on the sales staff with 24 Hour Nautilus (later 24 Hour Fitness) – owned and operated by his mentor and friend Mark Mastrov. “My strong desire to excel outweighed my limited experience and I learned from trial and error. I worked 12 hours a day,” he said. “I earned my living one membership at a time.” Rowley attributed his time at the bottom and learning the ins and outs of running a successful club business, to his ravenous appetite for success as he reached the top.
Being on the fast track was an understatement. Rowley felt comfortable on the gym floor and had a knack for leadership. Between 1992 and 1999, Rowley advanced through the company ranks to the role of Regional Vice President and held that position until 2002. In 2002 he was promoted to Vice President of Fitness and spent the next five years innovating the fitness side of the business, focusing on personal training, supplements, nutrition and technology. Before he left in 2008 he had pushed himself to the top of 24 Hour Fitness – one of three Presidents of the company.
The exponential growth was amazing for the former Marine. He was focused and well adjusted. The leadership he had developed during his time in the military had carried over and helped push him to the top of one of the leading health club companies in the world.
By the time Rowley stepped down from 24 Hour Fitness, he and his wife had three children and he had crossed the U.S. more times than he could remember. His mentor, friend and founder of 24 Hour Fitness, Mark Mastrov had left the company a few months prior and Rowley could foresee the perfect exodus. “It was time to take some time off and catch up with the family,” Rowley said. “My mom, who passed away when I was 23, along with my wife and children, have been the greatest inspiration in my life. And as I started to wind down, I wanted to take advantage of a part of my life I hadn’t been able to previously.”
The Rebirth of a Leader
The time off for Rowley couldn’t last forever. He was a leader of people and a true businessman. He had spent years mulling over business plans and ideas that could change the fitness industry. “The industry is changing,” Rowley said. “Crunch is just one of our NEFC brands that is an example of the fitness evolution we’re creating.”
While Rowley was spending time with his family he was keeping in constant contact with Mastrov concerning a company they had partnered to operate in South America. “In 2003 we had partnered on a deal for several Powerhouse Gyms (today called Energy Fitness) in Santiago, Chile, with a good friend Alex Wiesner,” Rowley said. “That partnership was the beginning of the future.”
Their connection had stayed close considering Mastrov’s remarkable inspiration to Rowley. “He took a company that he started for $15,000 and sold it for over $1.6 billion,” Rowley explained. “Early in my career Mark took a personal interest in me. He showed me how to be a generous leader and spent time teaching me the fitness business. Now, he wanted to do something new with me as his partner.” Over the summer of 2008, the two started discussing a new endeavor.
New Evolution Fitness Company was developed over several discussions during the summer. “We built many clubs and a lot of people were now patterning their model after that style of club,” Rowley said. “If we were going to do this again, we were going to do it differently. The industry was changing and it was time for a new evolution and New Evolution Fitness Company sprung from our discussion.” One of the first ventures for Rowley and NEFC was the UFC Gym – a club that’s devoted to giving members unique, dynamic and innovative training programs. UFC Gym was the out-of-the-box brainchild that Rowley and Mastrov desired.
The second venture by NEFC was a concept that Rowley hadn’t been exposed to during his years in the fitness business. With the new venture, YogaWorks, Rowley felt they had purchased an intriguing platform. “It’s really been eye opening to me,” Rowley said. “Yoga is much more of a workout than I had thought and with YogaWorks, we offer Pilates and other workouts such as Bar Works and Sculpt Works, new training methods that appeal to all types of people, we say yoga works for everybody. With UFC Gym and YogaWorks, I got excited.” Rowley believes the NEFC system can work anywhere – one of his new challenges has been running multiple companies, some on the East Coast, while NEFC is stationed on the West Coast. “You have to be personally committed,” Rowley said. “This is something that I want to get up for every day. Winners find a way to win and losers find a way to lose; I train my managers on those beliefs.”
As a new company born within the depths of a world-wide recession Rowley has his work cut out for him. One challenge for Rowley has been operating efficiently with less spending. “I don’t have a marketing budget like I had in the past,” Rowley explained. “We have to use alternative methods of getting our name out there.” Social media has been a blessing to the NEFC group. They started using outlets like Facebook and Twitter to get advertising out to the public. “We use our grassroots and direct marketing,” he added. “We encourage our teams to get out into the cities they work in and interact.” Rowley expects clubs that are within cities to have control over the community in a 10-block radius. For those that are located in suburban areas, he expects them to touch residents within a three-mile radius of the club. “I want to become a fitness imperialist,” Rowley said. “We have a plan and it’s unique. It will make a change in the industry that’s needed. Everyone out there right now is looking for an answer and the answer is right in our club’s four walls. Our members will tell us what they need to stay motivated.”
Rowley, when asked about his journey to the top, said, “I want to make it clear that no CEO is worth their weight in success without a team. When I talk about winners finding a way to win, it starts with leaders finding winners to be on their team. The support I get from Mark Mastrov as a partner is paramount to any success that I will achieve. Additionally, our brands at NEFC are only successful because of our extraordinary leaders and team members like Keith Worts at Crunch, Don Harbich at Steve Nash Sports Clubs, Alex Wiesner at Energy Fitness, Adam Sedlack at UFC Gym and Phil Swain and Chris Maggi at YogaWorks. You group those leaders with the team at NEFC including Mike Feeney, Derek Gallup, Linell Killus and Brian Calegari and you get a winning combination.” – CS
Keys to Success:
- REACH for the top by developing great leadership, great communication and a great team.
- PASSION must exist within the leaders of the company. Find your passion through success. Each time you find yourself at a new level push even harder to get to the next.
- TRAIN your teams to think positive. Teach your managers to believe in the mission, work hard, keep it fun and drive to success.
- LEAD from the ground up. Get to know the team members in your club to the level you could have a personal conversation with them. The happier you can make your employees, the harder they will work for your company.
- MARKET in new and innovative ways. Look at new types of marketing, like Facebook and Twitter, to help get your club’s message out to the public.