Twelve years ago, on September 11, 2001, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Spencer was standing in the Vice Chief of Staff’s office in the Pentagon. The office, positioned directly above U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s, created a fear in Spencer that if the Pentagon were attacked, they would be standing above the target.
“We learned of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center,” Spencer recalled. “We felt, that if one was to hit the Pentagon, it would probably be aimed at us.” A quick shot of fear ran through the team, but nothing occurred. Their meeting concluded and they returned to their individual offices and took a deep breath.
Moments went by as Spencer sat in his office. News of the terrorist attacks fluttered down the hallway, but nothing transpired. Then, as if out of nowhere, a single event changed Spencer’s entire life.
“All of a sudden the Pentagon was hit, and it was like a percussion feeling,” said Spencer. “We were in the E Ring, the Pentagon is set up into five rings, and so we were in the outer most ring, on the opposite side of where the plane hit. You could feel a percussion, but it wasn’t strong enough that we knew exactly what was going on.
“We all went out to our normal evacuation routes and were in a position where we could see the Pentagon burning. It was kind of chaos outside, because all communication lines were down. I kept trying to call my wife because I knew what the house would be like.”
Although Spencer had spent four years in ROTC at the University of Idaho, and been enlisted in the Air Force, he had never once experienced a combat mission. For 20 years he worked in Space Operations, so the terror of the Pentagon attack was very new.
“I think it made all of us realize we are all vulnerable, that life is short,” he said. “It was probably about five years after that, that I got out of the Air Force, but that was definitely a defining moment.”
The day after the attack Spencer’s office had decided to get back to work. “During our typical morning meeting we decided that we’d volunteer to go help at the crash site,” he said. They believed they’d be passing out water to workers. “We went down there and they put us in Mortuary Affairs, and put bunny suits (clean room suits) on us and respirators. We actually went into the Pentagon, into the basement. The FBI was running it and it was nothing like you’d envision. Anything that could burn was gone, so it was just metal pipes hanging from the ceiling, stuff lying all over — mountains of stuff everywhere. Water running down from spraying the fire. We pulled bodies out of the Pentagon for almost a full day.”
In December 2006, five years after the attack of September 11, 2001, Spencer retired from the Air Force. With the memories of that day lingering in his mind, he and his family moved back to the Upper Northwest where he grew up.
“At the time, my thought process was that I’d be working for Lockheed Martin or Boeing, or something like that,” explained Spencer. “I was going to take two or three weeks off and then start the hiring process, trying to find a job.”
In that time, Spencer had completed his resume, bought his interview suits and was ready. Two weeks after leaving Washington D.C., Spencer put his resume on Monster.com. “The next day I got a call from a franchise consultant out of Los Angeles,” he said. “She was looking for retired officers in the military, thinking that they would make good franchisees.”
Spencer was presented with several options for franchising. Not one franchise was in the same industry, and, being in fitness most his life through the Air Force, Snap Fitness jumped off the page at him. “I have always had that entrepreneurial spirit,” said Spencer. “My dad has done several businesses in his lifetime and my sister had owned her own business, so the bug was in my family. When the franchise consultant called me and started asking me questions about franchising and owning my own business, it intrigued me.”
Snap Fitness was Spencer’s ideal choice because it gave him the ability to grow quickly, but also maintain flexibility to pursue other ventures as well. “It was something I was very familiar with from the military,” he said. “Physical fitness was something that was always a part of our lives in the military. Snap Fitness was a natural fit for me.
“Six months later, in July 2007, I was opening my first Snap Fitness in Pullman, Wash.” When Spencer bought in he was able to either build one club at a time, or sign a three-location deal. “They advertised that three franchises could replace your work and income from a professional job that I had been doing at the time in the Air Force,” continued Spencer. “I worked with a real estate office at the time, and I think, because I had been in the Air Force and didn’t have any experience in real estate or business, they set me up with a commercial real estate agent in Spokane [Wash.].”
Spencer worked with his agent to set up a number of potential locations inside the inland Northwest. “I built the top 10 list and the first one I did was in the middle of my top 10 list,” he said. “The reason I did it was because I was living in Lewiston, Idaho, and Pullman was only about 30 minutes away. At the time, the town didn’t have a gym, so it was a good first place to do it.” Additionally, Pullman has a young, diverse community as the home to Washington State University.
Six months following Spencer’s first Snap Fitness, he opened up his second in Spokane. “We moved up to Spokane to open the second store,” he said. Snap Fitness corporate helped Spencer throughout the entire process, from real estate development to differentiating his own fitness business.
“They have a [sales] script to follow, but they do [it] a little different today,” said Spencer. “They were very helpful with the process, telling [me] what to expect and what to look for, how to negotiate. I spent three or four days at Snap Fitness headquarters going through their training on how to sell gym memberships and use their systems.
“Snap Fitness was very methodical and thought out — scripted,” he continued. “The part with the landlord was the part that delayed things and took the longest. I’ve actually built eight locations, but I have six now. And, I’ve done them in a variety of different ways. Anything from the ground up to buying out a gym and turning it into a Snap Fitness. One of them is a partnership with a couple of other guys.”
Since beginning in 2007, simply opening gyms has stopped being the goal for Spencer. In 2011, he was named Snap Fitness’ “Franchisee of the Year,” and his entrepreneurial spirit has taken hold in a multitude of facets. His annoyance with landlords has him learning how he can begin purchasing land or commercial property on his own, and completely build Snap Fitness locations. He also believes in taking advantage of all offerings for his members, such as Fitness on Demand, personal training and location convenience.
“I’d like to not only own the business, I’d like to own the buildings of the Snap Fitness as well,” said Spencer. “It’s a lot slower process because we are starting from scratch and building, but I want to own real estate along with owning the business. I’ve tried a couple of different times to purchase the real estate where I had my Snap Fitness, but it never worked out for whatever reason. That’s my biggest goal right now.”
Uniqueness, like all other clubs, is top of Spencer’s mind in terms of success. “The number-one thing is choosing the right location,” he said. “The old thought for a gym is you build this huge gym that’s a destination for people. The philosophy that Snap Fitness used, and I definitely follow is, you find a neighborhood about a two-mile radius that’s very densely populated, that doesn’t have a gym in that area, and you become the neighborhood gym. The way I think of it is, I become the home gym of people within a two-mile radius. You’re not trying to capture the whole town — you’re trying to capture a neighborhood. More like the ‘Cheers’ environment.”
In addition to searching out locations that could position his clubs in populated neighborhoods, he also searches for those neighborhoods that have well-established professionals. “I go after more established [residents], an area where people want and understand that fitness needs to be part of their life,” he said. “I look for a 30- to 60-year-old crowd. They may pay for personal training, and they may look for help from somebody and can afford to have someone help them with their fitness goals. I think everybody would love to have a personal trainer to help them with their fitness goals, and I like to go in areas where they can hire a personal trainer to help them reach those goals.”
Spencer assumes that everyone that signs up at one of his Snap Fitness locations is a personal training client. “Probably 70 percent of people that sign up for Snap Fitness need help in reaching their goals,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of a mindset, that you tell people when you sign them up they are also a personal training client. We take them through that personal training process from the get-go. We set them up with a consult, the trainer will talk to them about their fitness goals, tell them what we can do as a trainer, a club, to help them meet their goals.
“We kind of help them establish goals, so they aren’t just coming to the gym and jumping on a treadmill. They set up some goals and have something they are trying to attain. It sounds really simple, but it’s a change in mindset to assume everybody is a personal training client.”
According to Spencer, getting his own employees to make that assumption from the beginning was a major goal. “Make sure that sitting down for a consult and setting a time to sit down with a personal trainer, is not an after-thought,” he said. “Make it be part of the process for membership sales. There are some people that just don’t want help, or can’t afford help. I try to make it so that one of the things we tell people is, ‘don’t make the financial part of it a barrier.’ We can make it affordable because we don’t have to do one-on-one training. We can set them up with a group of several people and make it a lot cheaper for them to do training.
Like many clubs, Spencer’s Snap Fitness locations have seen proverbial walls torn down through the power of small group training. It allows his members to still receive the same goal setting and achievements through personal training, but with less of an impact to one’s bank account.
A lot of how Spencer has transformed his Snap Fitness locations has been due to his increasing focus on personal training. Everything from the equipment he buys, to the amenities he brings to his clubs, is based on training and additional instruction. “I try not to duplicate, like if we have a circuit machine that performs rows, for example, I try not to put two pieces that do the same thing in the gym,” he said. “I personally like to put equipment in the gym by thinking about what personal trainers would like to use to help their clients. I think the big thing is giving people enough variety, like in the cardio, and also what the trainers would like to use for their clients.”
Spencer and Snap Fitness have a mutual goal for additional growth in the near future. According to Spencer, Snap Fitness has an aggressive growth strategy and has contacted him about opening more clubs. “I have a plan for a least one more, and possibly three in the next six months,” said Spencer. “I have a list of people that have called and asked me for advice that I’m helping through the process of opening Snap Fitness locations all around the Northwest, and some elsewhere.”
Snap Fitness has made for a successful second career for Spencer. He has fulfilled his dream of being an entrepreneur, while also keeping flexibility for other aspects of his life. The knowledge he’s gained over the past six years has made him one of the more respected franchisees in the Snap Fitness franchise group, allowed him to open several franchises, own real estate and become a valued fitness consultant, all at once.
By Tyler Montgomery