Practice What You Preach
Drawing from her background as a Division 1 basketball coach, Erin Carson leads the RallySport Boulder team to success.
“I was always from the school of thought that the harder you worked, the better you’d have a chance of being successful,” said Erin Carson, the co-owner of RallySport Health and Fitness Club in Boulder, Colorado.
Over the years, this mindset has served Carson well.
As a teenager, she was recognized as one of the best young basketball players in Canada, and joined the Canadian National Team, which grooms the country’s next Olympic athletes.
In her late teens, she landed a basketball scholarship to the University of Colorado, where she became one of the university’s top scorers of all time during her four-year tenure.
Most recently, she placed sixth in her age group in the IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia.
Whatever Carson puts her mind to, she typically succeeds at. “I’ve always been known for my work ethic,” she said.
RallySport, which Carson co-owns with a private investor group, has benefited from this mindset. It has been recognized as one of the leading personal and group training clubs in the country.
But, Carson’s journey to RallySport had its ups and downs. And the journey begins with a basketball, a lightbulb and a hoop.
Climbing the Ladder at RallySport
At an early age, Carson fell in love with basketball. At 5 feet 11 inches tall and with natural athletic ability, she had the basic requirements to be good at the sport. But she didn’t want to just be good at it — she wanted to be great.
So she practiced. Day after day, night after night, she’d practice her shot. Eventually, her dad conceded to putting a light outside next to the basketball hoop so Carson could continue practicing once the sun went down.
Explaining her thought process, she said, “If I stay up later, if I shoot more than my competitor shoots, I’ll be better at it and then we’ll win — or at least we’ll have a better chance to win.”
But as Carson’s basketball career progressed beyond college and into a career on the sidelines as a coach, Carson realized that sometimes, there can be such a thing as working too hard.
“I got really sick,” recalled Carson. “I got ulcers and I had to take some time off, because you can just work 24 hours a day as a coach. You’re traveling and recruiting kids, you’re traveling and scouting games, and then you come back and have practices, and I just worked myself into a pretty good illness.”
Fortunately, in addition to having a passion for basketball, Carson had a deep love for health, fitness and performance. While playing at the University of Colorado she earned a degree in kinesiology and became a certified NSCA Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She also worked on and off at various health clubs in membership sales, front desk management and as a personal trainer.
After leaving as assistant coach at the University of Nebraska, she leaned on those experiences in the health club industry and took a job at RallySport in Boulder, Colorado.
At first, Carson intended her break from coaching to be temporary. But the longer she was there, the less appealing coaching became. “I ended up really loving [RallySport] and became pretty disillusioned with the idea of having to travel so much with coaching and the politics of it all, and I was just happy,” explained Carson. “I was happy in Boulder and doing what I was doing. Working 12, 13 hour days was no big deal, because I loved it.”
Jeremy Steen, a personal trainer at RallySport who has been with the club for more than 13 years, said it was pretty clear Carson was in her element at the facility from the moment he met her.
“She just has unbelievable enthusiasm about her job, RallySport, the health and fitness industry and the people she works with,” said Steen. “She made it really easy for me to decide very quickly that this was the place I wanted to work. It was just like wow, how could I not want to go to this club, work in this environment and work for her?”
From the get-go at RallySport, Carson hit the ground running, bringing her signature work ethic to the club. This was a huge help during the mid 90s, when personal training was becoming a larger trend in the health and fitness industry. “We started to realize it was going to be part of the deal in the future, and since I was in the trenches doing it, I could see that the customers liked it,” recalled Carson.
So when the club’s fitness director left, Carson saw an opportunity to change the fitness director position’s compensation structure to boost the club’s bottom line.
“The business model I thought would be most effective would be low salary, big opportunity,” explained Carson. “The big opportunity really came from developing new trainers, getting them busy, bringing in more trainers, getting them busy, and the more the club would succeed financially on the net revenue, that fitness director would get a percentage of what they built. Nobody took that job. They all wanted to have a $30,000, $40,000 salary, with no accountability in performance goals. That’s not how I think. So I took the job.”
Under Carson’s leadership in the training department, RallySport went from having seven personal trainers to 30 in four years, in addition to boosting training revenue from $300,000 per year to more than $1 million per year. Today, the average tenure of a trainer at RallySport is 13 years.
“That job took me into the general manager position, and the ownership position is a different story,” said Carson.
RallySport’s Head Coach
Five years ago, RallySport was facing the same challenges many clubs were. Still recovering from the 2008 recession, a major competitor moved into the Boulder market, putting the club’s viability at risk.
“A big, shiny new club comes in and puts in millions of dollars into their facility, and we almost got crushed,” recalled Carson. “We lost a big chunk [of members], and that’s a big chunk of revenue. When you have this long-term member who has been here for 20, 25 years and they choose to leave, it’s a big deal.”
Due to the strength of RallySport’s fitness department and its tight-knit community, the club survived. But the former owner had been in the industry for a long time, and was ready to retire and put it up for sale. “I took a big, deep breath and said, ‘We’re going to make this happen,’” said Carson.
In just a month, Carson secured the $5 million needed to purchase the club through a private investment and became co-owner.
According to Gina Collins, a personal trainer who has been at RallySport for more than 10 years, the transition of ownership to Carson was seamless. “It was such a smooth transition that some people didn’t even know,” said Collins. “I had clients who were surprised anything had happened. It was really healthy for the members and the staff. We all felt very supported and safe.”
While securing $5 million in funding in just four weeks may seem like a daunting task, Carson explained the numbers made it clear the club was a good investment. “The real estate is very valuable, so we own the real estate as well as the business,” she said. “Our fitness services, retention numbers and percentage of non-dues revenue are off-the-charts impressive. We continue to build our numbers. We’re basically functioning right now like a really big personal training gym. There’s over 5,000 people who are members who love us, and they’re so thankful.”
Although Carson now serves as co-owner, she continues to train clients, including Mirinda Carfrae, a world champion triathlete who broke a course record at IRONMAN Austria in July 2016.
Carson believes her personal experience as an athlete and her passion for performance give her an advantage not just as a trainer, but also as a health club operator. “I think being in the trenches and understanding your trainers and what they do, and assessing outcomes with your members, can have a really strong correlation to the strength and the performance of the bottom line of the business,” she said. “Me being competitive as an athlete, I think that adds to the credibility of the RallySport experience.”
Austin Mitchell, a trainer at RallySport, agreed, saying he and others are in awe of Carson’s commitment to not just her personal fitness, but to the members and the club as a whole as well. “She’s up at 5 a.m. working and training,” he said. “Usually she has a few thousand yards in the pool before people even wake up. Then she is on the front lines, training people of all types. She gets up earlier than everybody else. She works longer hours. It’s really amazing to see such an awesome leader.”
As a leader, Carson takes an empowering approach, seeking to educate her staff and lead by example. “I don’t ask them to do things that I don’t still do,” she said. “If somebody needs to open the club, I’m not above opening the club. If somebody needs to fix a toilet that’s been overflowed, then I’m the first one to start doing that. Just really teaching them to be really good people and really good teammates. I wish in my past I had experienced stronger leadership that way. I want to be in the trenches with my team.”
Although Carson no longer serves as a coach per se, it seems as if she’s still found a way to not just teach, but win.
“I really like winning,” she said. “I like challenging not only myself, but also the people around me to be the very best they can be at the mission, and then executing toward that end goal. I think that easily translates for me into business, and definitely into an industry I’m just so passionate about.”