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“We have to let you go.”
At the age of 40, Ellen Latham heard that phrase and faced a terrifying possibility — that as a single mother of a 9-year-old boy, she’d be unable to support herself and her child.
For some, that possibility would have led them into a deep depression. Not Latham. Yes, she was scared. Yes, she wasn’t 100 percent sure what she was going to do. But instead of throwing in the towel, she did what her father would have done — she focused on the things she could control.
“I used a technique my father taught me as a child,” recalled Latham. “It is called Momentum Shifting Up. He was a football coach and it is a sports psychologist technique where as a coach when your players are having the most challenging moments, you as a coach keep focusing on what they have instead of what they don’t have. So I focused on what I had, which was a Pilates certification.”
Latham started teaching Pilates out of a spare room in her house. Once she built up a large enough clientele, she graduated to a brick-and-mortar Pilates studio in Davie, Florida.
Right off the bat, the studio was a success. However, Latham realized her Pilates clients were missing a basic component in their fitness routines: metabolic training. “Outside of the studio my clients were taking their Spinning classes or boot camps, they were running, and they still were not totally satisfied with their exercise regime,” she explained.
So, Latham moved to a bigger space and designed a program called the Ultimate Workout — her solution for blasting fat off of her clients’ bodies. The concept involved using interval training to get participants’ heart rates over 84 percent for 12 to 20 minutes, to help them achieve maximum calorie burn during and post-workout.
The new program was a hit. “I never saw bodies change so dramatically, so I knew the science behind the workout I designed definitely had something,” said Latham.
She wasn’t the only one to see the workout’s potential. One of her clients was married to entrepreneur Jerome Kern, who at the time, was looking for a fitness concept to franchise that was different than anything on the market.
“She encouraged me to have lunch with him and his business partner, Dave Long, and the rest is history,” said Latham. “The three of us became business partners and together launched the first Orangetheory Fitness studio in Ft. Lauderdale in March 2010.”
Although Long and Kern were confident the concept was a solid one, the pilot location faced a unique challenge: The Ellen Effect. According to Long, Latham had built such a large and loyal following in the area, they feared the first location’s results would be skewed by her notoriety.
“We wanted to make sure that we could execute the workout and the whole business, without Ellen driving it,” explained Long. “Because if we were going to have franchisees in California or out of the country, they needed to be able to take the systems and the tools and do it, without Ellen [as the face of the studio]. So in the pilot location, we didn’t allow her to teach in the studio or manage the studio. She was part of the overall leadership team with us obviously, making decisions on how to grow the business, but we put in a separate studio management team to make sure that we could successfully do that.”
After the pilot location proved successful, second and third Orangetheory Fitness locations were opened in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Palm Beach, Florida, to further test the concept’s validity outside of The Ellen Effect’s influence. “Those were probably the true tests of having it be completely independently operated,” said Long.
The concept passed with flying colors. And Long attributes its success to a variety of factors. No. 1 is the emphasis on customer service. “We’re really fortunate that the workout itself resonated with the consumer,” he said. “What really helped drive the growth is that we really stuck to that and we stuck to making sure that we took care of the customer, always providing them with the most amazing experience. When we selected franchisees, even in the beginning, we really wanted to make sure that we were aligned on that part, that they were in the business for the right reasons. That really helped us out of the gate.”
Another factor that contributed to the concept’s initial success is the fact that when developing the workout, they considered the psychological drivers that influence consumer behavior.
For example, Latham knew that in order to benefit psychologically from a workout, members needed to feel successful — or else they wouldn’t come back. “So that’s why I created a walker category, a jogger category and a runner category,” she explained. “All walkers go at this speed, joggers at this speed, runners at this speed. I also got rid of the word ‘modifications,’ because I knew members felt less than when they had to modify a workout. Now we call them ‘options.’”
The incorporation of heart rate tracking technology is another example of a strategy Orangetheory Fitness’ leadership team uses to keep members addicted to their workouts — technology that was added six or seven months after the first location’s launch.
Long explained they were getting good results without heart rate tracking, but wanted a measurable way for members to understand how many calories they were burning and how much effort they were putting into the workout in real time. “So we added that in,” he said. “We put a tremendous amount of effort into committing to it, and once we started rolling it out to franchise studios, the consumer just fell in love with it.”
Another turning point for Orangetheory Fitness came around 20 locations in. Long explained that around that time, they realized certain systems and processes weren’t proving as effective as they’d originally planned. So, they regrouped.
“I think we had gotten a little ahead of ourselves with having a system that wasn’t as tight as it needed to be,” said Long. “We regrouped early on and tightened that up and added a lot more training in, and more control so that we could maintain consistency of the product and make sure the tool kit was empowering franchisees to be successful. If we had gotten a couple hundred units opened and then realized we were off the mark, it would have been much more challenging.”
Today, Orangetheory Fitness boasts 526,488 raving fans — members — who flock weekly to the franchise’s more than 700 locations in 45 states and 12 countries outside the U.S.
Latham, Kern and Long seem to have struck gold — since launching the first location in 2010, the team has never had to close a single Orangetheory Fitness location.
“For us, whether we open one or 20 locations, we want them to be successful, we want people to have a really positive experience, franchisee and customer,” said Long. “Myself, Jerome and Ellen, we’ve all been entrepreneurial and small business owners, so we’ve all been on the side of owning a store, or starting a brand-new business, and know what that feels like. We’ve used that as fuel to make sure that we are supporting the needs of the network.”
To cultivate success, Orangetheory Fitness boasts a comprehensive training program, consisting of in-person trainings at the brand’s headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida, and a robust e-learning platform that offers different learning paths for specific studio roles. They also host a series of webinars that cover a range of topics, from new workouts to marketing strategies.
According to Latham, when founding the Ultimate Workout — which laid the groundwork for what would become Orangetheory Fitness — she never imagined it would turn into the wildly successful franchise it is today. From the beginning, the goal was and remains to help people achieve their health and wellness goals.
“The success was a surprise to me,” said Latham. “One person once told me, ‘Part of why you’re successful is because you didn’t sit around a table like people do and try to think of the next big thing in fitness.’ I just wanted to help people. I love that so many people have taken to our workout. It is probably the biggest reward that I could get.”
Images by Mary Beth Koeth: