A father and his two sons build a family legacy in the greater Boston area through the Healthworks Group.
Some families use the time surrounding dinner to catch up on their day or to discuss current events. Others discuss politics or family drama. For the Harrington family, these topics aren’t touched on often. Instead, business is.
In 1977, Mark Harrington Sr. founded the first Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women in Boston, Massachusetts. The company has since expanded to five brands under the umbrella of the Healthworks Group, including Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women, GymIt, Republic Fitness, Healthworks Community Fitness and First Fitness Management.
As the Healthworks Group has grown, it has remained a family affair, co-led by Mark Sr. and his two sons, Mark Harrington Jr. and Matt Harrington.
“What I think is really remarkable is that [my sons] grew up from an early age sitting at the dinner table talking about the business, and I think without really knowing it, they were getting indoctrinated into it,” recalled Mark Sr. “We went to all the industry trade shows — when they were pre-teens they were getting thrown off the equipment. The fact they came into [the business] is the best present you could ever have as a parent.”
However, Mark Jr. and Matt didn’t immediately join the Healthworks Group upon graduating college. Both pursued different career paths that ultimately turned out to be valuable experience complementing what they do today.
Prior to joining his father at Healthworks Group in 2007, Matt had a career in real estate. There, he learned what it was like to “work for yourself.”
“You are part of a team to some extent, but when it comes down to it you’re in business for yourself when you work in that type of job,” explained Matt. “I learned a lot about how to run a business doing that: setting my own schedule, working for commission, selling, interacting with different types of people and clients.”
According to Mark Sr., the qualities required to be successful in real estate are apparent in what Matt brings to the Healthworks Group today. “Matt is more of a guy who likes to be in the field and doesn’t want to be in a meeting if he doesn’t have to be,” he said. “Matt’s much more of an urban guy, tuned into the areas of where our clubs are, and he’s a fitness buff himself. He’ll notice trends more than Mark Jr. and I will — so it just falls perfectly into what we do.”
Matt’s knack for trends was an asset in 2010, when Healthworks Group saw the surge in popularity of budget gyms nationwide, including Boston. As a response, the Harringtons launched GymIt, a budget-friendly brand that offers over 100 pieces of high-quality cardio equipment, locker rooms, three strength training areas and long hours, for $24.95 per month.
Although GymIt is budget-friendly, it doesn’t sacrifice quality. Prior to real estate, Matt also worked in the hotel industry, where he learned the importance of hospitality and customer service, no matter how much or little customers pay.
“The hotel experience was critical in learning about that customer service aspect of our business,” said Matt. “I think a lot of people think that just because the price is lower, you’re not going to get a great experience. What makes GymIt special is the price is lower, but you’re still going to get a friendly greeting and a clean club. Low price doesn’t mean a bad club, it just means a different experience.”
In addition to providing a lower-entry point to customers, GymIt also gives the Healthworks Group a competitive edge. Boasting a smaller square footage and lower overhead, real estate and build-out is easier to manage, allowing the company to enter areas they may not have been able to if opening a Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women.
“We have to look at it with a different mindset,” said Matt.
Like Matt, Mark Jr. also didn’t join the family business immediately upon graduating college. In fact, he had a successful career in IT for more than 10 years before all the travel involved began to take its toll.
“I implemented large-scale computer systems for clients, and I really loved it,” recalled Mark Jr. “But I was on the road pretty much all the time. I was looking for a change. I talked to Matt and he was having a good experience, so I went out to IHRSA and was just amazed by how passionate the industry was. People were doing this because it could really change people’s lives.”
Mark Jr. joined the Healthworks Group in 2010, and his background in IT has been instrumental in helping the company streamline and improve all aspects of technology.
“Mark’s IT skills are the most important thing in our company right now,” said Mark Sr. “He can really work his way through the IT issues all of us in this business are faced with.”
For example, Mark Jr. explained many clubs know the value of technology, but struggle with implementation and under-investment. “I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone, but I’d say the technology we’re using in this industry is extremely dated,” he said. “It’s the same technology I was putting in with other clients 10 years ago. With the margins in a health club business, people aren’t willing to spend the money on technology. We’re as tight with our money as anyone else, but I think in order to do technology right, it’s expensive. It takes a lot of time and resources to put a system in correctly.”
Mark Jr.’s IT expertise came into play through the launch of the Healthworks Group’s newest brand, Republic Fitness. The high-end, state-of-the-art concept features premium amenities, high-quality group fitness programming and some of Boston’s best personal trainers. Tech features include Matrix equipment that connects to FitBit and MyFitnessPal, virtual group exercise classes and the Rockbot app, which allows members to manage their workout playlists.
Similar to GymIt, Republic Fitness came from an analysis of the Healthworks Group’s nearby competition, which was lacking a high-end model. “In Boston there was really just Healthworks on the women’s-only side,” said Mark Jr. “We saw there was a major opportunity to provide a high-quality club that was also locally owned and committed to members.”
Like its budget-friendly counterpart, an emphasis on customer service is paramount at Republic Fitness.
“People are willing to pay for quality,” said Mark. Jr. “If you are able to provide a high-quality product, you shouldn’t be afraid to charge for it. We feel we can charge for what our value is, which is quite a bit above a lot of clubs in the market.”
If Matt is the trend-setter and Mark Jr. is the tech guru, then what is Mark Sr.’s asset? For the Healthworks Group, he brings a big-picture approach as a complementary strength. “If I do have a skill, it’s really observing and trying to understand what we’re doing, not being afraid to make mistakes — that’s probably the coaching I do,” he said.
And at the end of the day, Mark Sr. is happy to hand over the reigns — or at least share them — with his sons. “I just appreciate the next generation stepping in, who are really more tuned-into our base membership anyway,” he said.
Matt and Mark Jr. are happy to step up to the plate in this regard.
“I think it’s exciting to be able to really continue the legacy that our parents had crafted back in the 70s and add on to it, improve it and keep it going,” said Mark Jr. “It’s something I think about every day and it’s something we hope to keep doing.”