Regardless of where you live in the world, everyone comes across fitness in the same way — as a client. No one, who has never been inside a fitness club, decides to go out and open up a gym — it’s just not how the entrepreneurial mind functions.
Irina Razumova, the founder of Planet Fitness Russia, had the same experience in the mid 1980s. The Russian native had been working for a company near Stockholm, Sweden when her company decided to purchase a corporate membership to World Class fitness club. Razumova said, “Thus I came to the industry as a simple client. By that time I had two sons and as every woman, I needed to become fit after childbirth.
“I began training actively in the club, got involved in working on myself and lost 30 kg (66.14 lbs) in a relatively short period. That result was both physical and psychological. As a working mother of two children, I began to cope with every day tasks much easier. In general, there was high vitality and an optimistic attitude to life.”
Razumova said that she returned to Moscow in 1988 to visit her relatives before the New Year. “I had not been to the USSR for many years and was glad to meet my friends,” she said. “I got many compliments about my good shape. They could not answer my questions about what fitness club they went to, and asked me what the meaning of ‘fitness’ was.”
Although by this time in the U.S., fitness trends had already started developing for the general consumer, the rest of the world still hadn’t entirely caught on to organized fitness, or what it meant to exercise in a club. “There were no commercial fitness clubs in the USSR at that time,” Razumova explained. “There wasn’t a word for ‘fitness’ in the Russian language.”
When Razumova returned to Stockholm she decided to speak with Ulf Bengtsson, the owner of the Swedish company, World Class. She proposed the opening of a fitness facility in Moscow. “Ulf Bengtsson answered: ‘this is a good idea, do it,’” Razumova exclaimed. Bringing fitness clubs into Russia at that time, according to Razumova, was “perestroika” — a transformation of exercise into organized fitness.
“I asked for advice in the Trade Delegation of the USSR in Stockholm,” said Razumova. “Their representatives were interested to visit World Class fitness club in Stockholm. I met the delegation in the club, showed them everything and told about my plans. They liked that presentation, and some time later I got a recommendation letter with the addresses of 37 foreign trade organizations that were being recommended to negotiate with me. I only needed to translate all the materials about fitness clubs, training programs and equipment, into Russian, and send it, together, with a cooperation proposal to all those addresses.”
In 1989 Razumova and Bengtsson negotiated with Leningrad, Lenfintorg, the first location to respond to Razumova’s proposal. “The result of negotiations was a proposal to establish one of the first Soviet-Sweden joint ventures — World Class Leningrad,” she said. “Marianna Maslennikova, vice president of Planet Fitness, was assigned to be the general director of this joint venture on the Soviet side.
“The first club was in a basement in Kamenoostrovsky Avenue. The area of the club was 700m2 (7,534.74 sq. ft.), where there was a gym, a room for group classes, café, two changing rooms and a massage room, which was used as an office or an accounting room in free hours. Also, apart from power equipment, there were two solaria and one stepper. Those solaria were working almost 24 hours, as they were unique in the city. And, it was necessary to buy tickets for a stepper, as it was unique as well.”
The financial condition on opening the first club, presented to Razumova by Bengtsson, was that she purchase equipment from companies abroad, through foreign trade organizations with foreign currency, and sell it to Russian factories and plants. “My first big deal was a selling of sports equipment to a big chemical plant in Akhtubinsk, [Russia],” she said. “Our first club in the country was equipped with the help of this income. The second club was opened in Grand Hotel Europe in Leningrad, and it still works successfully. The third one was opened afterwards in hotel Astoria.
“It was almost impossible to find commercial premises for rent or for a sale, but hotels managed by ordered operators were available. All the clubs were very successful and very soon became cult places for advanced youth, expats and business beginners.”
In 1993, in partnership with World Class Sweden, Razumova opened the first fitness club in Moscow. “Moscow World Class was growing every year,” she said. “The membership price was $3,500 (per year) by 1997, and there was even a waiting list for a membership. It was obvious that, that period of development showed the necessity of urgent widening and growth of the club chain.”
In 1997, at an IHRSA Convention and Trade Show, one of Razumova’s friends that had spent years working globally in the fitness industry, David Giampaolo, introduced her to other successful fitness moguls, Mark Mastrov and Leonard Schlemm, who were interested in developing a fitness chain in Russia.
“I was well acquainted with David G. due to active cooperation in equipment delivery to Russia through his London company,” said Razumova. “David not only introduced me to my future partners, but also was always an advisor and friend helping to develop our business, supplying new equipment, new programs and valuable advice.”
With Mastrov and Schlemm on board, Razumova was able to successfully launch Planet Fitness Russia by 1998. “Fitness clubs became an integral part of everyday life for many people,” she said. “Renewal of memberships is 60-80 percent, which is obviously a great contribution of our sales counselors under the direction of our marketing and sales director N. Kryuchkova, and our strong team of trainers and club staff.”
Since the opening of Planet Fitness Russia, fitness has become a growing force throughout the entire country. Today, according to Razumova, “there are many clubs of new formats — starting from small studios up to multifunctional big [clubs]. As opposed to clubs in the USA, spa and salon is almost a must here. There are different children’s programs, rehabilitation programs, personal training, not only gyms, but also in group training and pools.
“I was happy that I was able to overcome obstacles that seemed to be insuperable at the beginning, and that together, with my team, we changed lives of hundreds for the better,” she continued. “Our work is never done — there are always new training programs, new and more effective equipment. The pledge of success is, always to work on the point when the person, a member of the club, is in the center of attention and can achieve the goals, together, with us.”
The growth and development has continued to be persistent for Razumova and her team at Planet Fitness Russia. Her experiences, clearly, have been something worth discussing and learning from. She, and her team, revolutionized the idea of exercise for an entire country. Next, Razumova said she plans to finally take the time, sit down, and chronicle her story for everyone to learn from and experience.
By Tyler Montgomery