Active Imaginations

Royce Pulliam has spent the last 20 years building a fitness empire but he hasn’t done it alone.

With a solid team to back his efforts and a few new partners who’ve got his back, Pulliam’s got growth on the brain- and plenty of golden tickets he’s still hoping to pass out.

Royce Pulliam does not pull any punches.
“I’m sick of answering that question,” he says less than 5 minutes into our first conversation. “Everybody asks me that question. I’ve answered that question a million times in the last six months.”

He’s not exaggerating: Pulliam has gotten the Britney Spears treatment from industry publications since his very publicized break with industry fixture Gold’s Gym in December of 2007. The facts are simple: Pulliam had plans to grow aggressively, and Gold’s wasn’t in the position to keep up with Pulliam’s goals. So Pulliam, buoyed by funding from Laurel Crown Partners, the Los Angeles-based private-equity firm behind his growth strategies, decided to take the helm of his own fitness franchise and created Urban Active, a fitness club brand that’s upscale and lifestyle-oriented-not coincidentally, two of the industry’s biggest buzzwords these days.

The story is simple, but its undercurrents are still being felt throughout the industry. Pulliam was Gold’s largest franchisee, and the company has made no bones about the fact that his defection leaves Gold’s with a hole to fill. CEO David Schnabel has made growing its franchises a major goal for Gold’s in the coming year, but the fitness chain can’t be thrilled to see its franchise ranking on the Entrepreneur Top 500 Franchises list drop from #63 to #183. Pulliam’s departure has had all the glamour and publicity of David Lee Roth’s break from Van Halen-and like David Lee Roth, Pulliam is intent on making a successful solo career.

But the real story may be something even more fundamental. In all the drama and stress of the Gold’s Gym/Urban Active transition, Pulliam hasn’t lost a single member of his team. Not one employee has jumped ship. Pulliam’s team has been right by his side through the frequently stressful process of reinvention and rebranding-and, if possible, they’re even more excited than Pulliam himself about the potential for Urban Active.

Pulliam makes it clear that his team’s loyalty doesn’t stem from the fact that he’s an easy guy to work with.

“I’m a pretty intense guy,” he says. “You probably noticed. I think that’s the one thing all my team would say makes me hard to work with sometimes-my intensity. I’m never content. I’m just never content. I wake up every day feeling broke.”

At the end of one of his club’s record-breaking months, Pulliam is more interested in how they’re going to make the next month even better than he is in breaking out the champagne. In his eyes, success is always a work in progress, never a goal that’s been achieved.

“Royce is the kind of guy who wants things done and expects everything to happen overnight,” says Kellie Robinson, who-along with her husband Bill-has been with Royce for more than a decade, when she joined him for what was essentially her first real job as a college student. She’s been with him ever since. (Kellie’s now the regional vice president of sales for the Northern Kentucky, Cincinnati and Dayton regions; her husband Bill is Urban Active’s senior vice president of sales.)

Pulliam is certainly serious about what he does-and in an industry that’s rapidly moving toward MBA-managed superchains, this Kentucky boy is a throwback to a simpler, more hands-on time. Though he’s got growth on the brain-and on the Urban Active business plan-Pulliam’s goal is to keep all his club’s within a 2-hour flightspan of his club’s Lexington, Ky., headquarters. (Right now, Pulliam has 29 Urban Active Clubs in Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee, with plans to develop 50 more clubs in the next 5 years, widening his geographic scope to include the Mid-South, Midwest and Eastern Seaboard markets.) Unlike a lot of his industry counterparts, Pulliam comes to his leadership role the old-fashioned way: He loved the fitness industry, opened a club and experienced a growth spurt. His first World’s Gym 20 years ago might have been the beginning of a fitness empire, but building an empire definitely wasn’t Pulliam’s motivation. He just wanted to run a club. Or six.

Six clubs in, Pulliam realized his job was bigger than one man and decided to start building a team. He’d been assisted ably by Donna Gordon, who had been working with him as his controller since his first club-she’s now the director of customer support for Urban Active clubs-but in the sales-driven fitness business, Pulliam needed a sales team to back his own efforts. Bill and Kellie Robinson were two of his first hires.

“They’ve grown with us,” Pulliam says simply, almost as though that kind of employee loyalty is the norm rather than an almost extraordinary exception. But Pulliam’s got an old-school approach to managing people that keeps loyalty at the top of the list-for his team and for his management strategy. Urban Active makes it a point to give employees of the franchise the kind of employment experience they can’t get anywhere else.

“We do a lot for our employees,” says Pulliam. (Perhaps wisely, he declines to elaborate on just what it is that he does.) “And our employees do a lot for us. It’s a win-win. That’s our culture here. That’s what we do.”

Pulliam believes his human resources department gets a lot of credit for creating a company culture that’s genuinely supportive of employees, but it’s obvious that the big-picture directive comes straight from Pulliam himself. And that’s why so many of Pulliam’s team have chained themselves to his side for the long haul.

“I’ve been here for 11 years,” says Kellie, whose only other work experience can be summed up with a typical teenager’s resume experience. But she’s not tempted by the grass on the other side of the fence-Royce’s Urban Active pasture is plenty green for her-and evidently for the rest of Pulliam’s team, too.

Part of that commitment probably comes from Pulliam’s willingness to take a risk by bringing on board people who have no fitness industry experience. We’re not talking high-powered MBAs who’ve made their marks at Fortune 500 companies-Pulliam has found great employees in everyone from college students to professionals from other industries. In fact, he’s often had more luck working with people outside the industry than he has with people inside it.

“People in the industry don’t always understand our culture,” says Pulliam, who makes no secret of the fact that Urban Active isn’t interested in being a typical health and fitness franchise. “They’re used to doing things their own way, and that doesn’t always work with our way. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”

Pulliam’s also not looking for employees with matching resumes. He places a high value on maintaining a culture that values difference.

“We have-what?-1,400 employees, and they are all different,” says Pulliam. “And I’m glad. If they were all similar, it would be stagnant. Good ideas come from differences.”

Pulliam believes that the only quality his best employees have in common is a real energy, a passion and excitement for what they do every day that’s become a hallmark of the Urban Active culture. So it’s that kind of energy-or the potential for it-that Pulliam is looking for as he adds employees to his team. Beyond that, he believes in going with his gut rather than punching the numbers and looking for an answer.

“I’m still convinced there’s no science when it comes to hiring good people,” Pulliam says. It’s clear that he’s put a lot of thought into this subject. “Some of the best people you hire you really just stumble upon. If somebody has a good work ethic and you train them right, you can end up with your best employee.”

Pulliam values a mix of ideas and input, but in the end, he’s the guy who makes the call, and he’s comfortable with his role as the man at the top.

“When people disagree, it’s easy to make the decision,” he says. “I’m the boss. I make it.”

Pulliam doesn’t laugh when he says this. He takes his responsibility as the fledgling fitness band’s leader seriously, and he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions. Doing that is a little easier these days now that he’s got the support of his partners.

“Sometimes when you’re at the top, it’s lonely to play alone,” Pulliam says. “Even though everybody wants to be with you, you’re alone. If you need a hundred thousand bucks to make payroll or if you need some advice, it’s really all on your shoulders.”

His partnership with Laurel Crown’s principals-brothers Larry and Stephen Paul-has done a lot to ease that pressure of flying solo. Pulliam looks forward to the meetings where he sits down with Glenn Gordon (president), Bill Robinson (senior vice president of sales), Marty Stein (chief operations officer) and Brandon Johnson (senior vice president of personal training), where the five of them sit down and hammer out the decisions that will shape the future of Urban Active. And unlike most executives, who look forward to their vacations as a chance to get away from the people they work with every day, Pulliam says he looks forward to his family’s annual holiday in Laguna Beach because it gives him an opportunity to spend time with his partners, Larry and Stephen Paul in Los Angeles. Clearly, Pulliam isn’t the typical executive.

Do you know the song Two Tickets to Paradise?” Royce Pulliam asks me. He’s excited now. “In the song, Eddie Money says something like ‘I’m gonna take you on a trip somewhere you’ve never been, somewhere you never imagined.”

Pulliam is trying to explain what makes Urban Active different from other fitness clubs-and what makes him different from other industry leadership.

“I genuinely love my employees,” he says, with sincerity that’s as simple and startling as his employee loyalty record. “I love what they’ve done for the company. I love what they’ve done for themselves. I love them.”

Pulliam has watched his team grow. He’s seen them exceed their own expectations, accomplishing their goals, doing things for themselves and their families. When he talks about his employees’ successes, Pulliam’s voice lights up. He’s as proud as a father.

Pulliam’s club-and his employees-comprise a family, a family where ties are a lot stronger than W-4 forms and challenges and successes get shared by everyone from the night janitor to the VP of sales. “We work hard and play hard,” says Kellie Robinson. “Expectations are high. Knowing that you are part of the foundation of this company gives true ownership in all aspects of what we do.”

Pulliam’s team is working toward a shared goal: the growth of the Urban Active brand. It’s the core of the company’s work ethic, the central focus of what his team does every day. And that combined sense of ownership and responsibility is what keeps Pulliam’s employees by his side. They’re not just waiting to see what happens next-they’re helping to decide what happens next. Look for worker alienation and detached workers somewhere else-the team at Urban Active is so enthusiastic about their jobs that they seem to have fallen out of a distant past where workers actually felt involved in-and integral to-the success of their company.

Though Pulliam didn’t consciously set out to create a company where employees were valued and valuable, he’s managed to do it-and seems surprised by the idea that his method is so significantly different from today’s corporate norm. His clubs may be on trend, but his management style is decidedly traditional-and there’s no question that he’s been successful with it. Not only are his clubs making a profit, but he’s got the kind of loyal employees many clubs only dream of. And there’s no reason to expect Pulliam’s future holds anything other than more of the same.

“You know what, I may start giving all our new employees two tickets,” says Pulliam. He’s on a roll. He’s laughing. For him, this is the fun part. He can imagine the faces of the people getting the tickets-surprised, puzzled, a little excited. “I’m going to hand them two tickets, and I’m going to say, Here are two tickets. Put them in your pocket. Put them in your pocket, and let’s see where we go. Let’s see where they take us.”

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