How Assaf Gal’s unique immigration story shaped a ‘‘members first’’ mindset at his Crunch franchises in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens.
For some people, joining a gym is an “othering” experience. You may not know the lingo or jargon being used that’s common language to others. There’s an existing community to integrate yourself into. And oftentimes, it feels like being a fish out of water.
This feeling is something Crunch franchisee Assaf Gal can relate to. Gal’s family — including his parents and two older brothers — moved from Israel to the U.S. when he was two years old, providing him with a unique perspective on what it feels like to be different. This experience has guided his approach to leadership and creating inclusive environments to this day.
“I have a different name, my parents look and sound different, and the things we thought were normal were not,” said Gal. “I know what it’s like to feel ostracized and I know I’d rather not feel that way. It set me on this path of, ‘I just want to make people comfortable.’ So if I’m at a party and someone seems lonely, I’ll go up and start talking to them. I don’t actively think about it. Subconsciously or unconsciously, there’s this desire that I don’t want anyone to feel left out.”
This is a philosophy Gal carries into his fitness facilities. He became a franchisee of Crunch in 2012 and has since opened three locations — with the rights to 10 — in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens markets of New York City.
Gal has always held a passion for fitness — doing pull-ups on a bar in the family’s backyard throughout his youth and participating in wrestling in high school. But his journey to fitness business owner had its twists and turns.
Upon graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in accounting and finance, Gal took the entrepreneur route and founded an ecommerce company with his brother that sold solar lights.
It was during this experience Gal learned the importance of systems, seeding a passion for scalable, franchise operations.
“We didn’t scale,” recalled Gal. “It was more frustrating and challenging than it should have been. And it was because we didn’t delegate. We didn’t understand the organizational chart and the positions that fill that. We didn’t leverage people in the most positive sense. So we were stuck. From a people perspective, I realized how important it is to surround yourself with a team of great people.”
This experience also taught Gal how important it is to live your passion. Upon selling the ecommerce company, he began searching for a new opportunity to invest in, and fitness became top of mind.
“Fitness has always been a passion of mine and an integral part of my life,” said Gal. “I feel strongly that fitness is an ingredient to any success I’ve had, whether that’s direct — as it was for wrestling — or indirect, because you learn about yourself that you can do hard things. A life of fitness is a microcosm of a life of success, right? You have an end goal in mind, you put a plan in place, and with hard work and dedication in executing your plan, you get results.”
Between his love for fitness and the realization of the importance of systems and people, investing in a franchise became a tantalizing proposition.
And after research and due diligence, Crunch came to the top of the list.
“When I connected with Crunch, the stars aligned and all the boxes were checked,” recalled Gal. “The people, the value proposition to the consumer, the central focus on the member and how we can serve them well, the business model, and the market I was able to secure all confirmed this was the company for me — and it was off to the races.”
Despite the challenges Gal experienced in the early days of the ecommerce company, he is grateful for the learning opportunities that experience provided. His attitude is you learn more when things go wrong than when they go right.
These learning lessons are apparent in how Gal leads his Crunch franchises.
The greatest example is in the approach Gal has with his company’s vision, mission, core purpose and values. Previously, he viewed these more as words that lived on a wall versus words lived out every day and in every decision.
During the beginning of his fitness business journey, Gal recalled, he was asked by his brother-in-law if he had a mission statement.
“I said yes, and then he asked me what it was,” recalled Gal. “I said, ‘Hang on — let me find it.’ That’s when he said, ‘Listen, if you have to find it, you don’t have it.’ Those kinds of moments of accountability stick with you. And so I realized the critical link is not having these guiding principles, but bringing them to life. It’s about the constant reinforcement of these beliefs at every opportunity.”
For example, one of Gal’s core values within his Crunch franchises is “Member First Mindset.” This is the recognition the clubs’ teams are here for members — and not the other way around.
Again, this core value is not just stated but lived out through specific best practices, such as the Crunch One Kick-Off. This is a member orientation appointment Gal’s team strives to set up with each and every new member. During the meeting, an employee gets to know the members’ unique goals and guides them to offerings that will help them achieve them.
“If Rachel just joined, for example, she’s probably asking herself, now what? And the Crunch One Kick-Off answers that question,” explained Gal. “Now we have her go through that appointment and we have to connect her to the club, because otherwise we’re setting her up to fail. We’re going to take her hard-earned, after-tax dollars, and she might not be as successful as she could be.”
According to Raymond Gonzalez, a regional manager within Gal’s organization, this concept is especially important in a non-traditional retail environment — like a gym — where consumers walk in for a service versus a tangible product.
“We realized a long time ago we are one of the only businesses you can’t just pay for what you want,” said Gonzalez. “You want a sandwich, you can go to the store and buy a sandwich. You want to get a specific result for your body, you come to us and you leave with a plastic key tag. That is setting up the majority of members for failure. There are so many different options in our facilities that a member who doesn’t know much about working out will get decision paralysis and not be motivated. We have to make it more than just a gym by providing the members with an awesome experience every single time they check in.”
Another core value central to Gal’s team is “Continuous Improvement,” inspired by the Japanese word kaizen.
Gal explained it can be easy for things like legacy knowledge or proven systems to lead to complacency, which is why it’s important for gyms to maintain a mindset of tweaking and innovation. “It’s like a software company that gets feature creep, right?” he said. “Incremental progress is key.”
This core value is conveyed through Gal’s insatiable thirst for knowledge, apparent in the leadership books he consumes on a yearly basis — from “Good to Great” by Jim Collins to “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin — and countless others.
In fact, according to Ben Midgley, the CEO of Crunch Franchise, Gal’s commitment to kaizen is one of the ways he stands out as a fitness leader.
“I’ve been in the industry a long time, and there’s a lot of people who feel like they’ve just got it down,” said Midgley. “What is great about Assaf is he’s always been a student. He’s always asked more questions than anybody else, and he’s always tried to look at things from different perspectives. The thing I admire most about him is he is constantly humble in that respect.”
Whether it’s the “Member First Mindset” or “Continuous Improvement,” Gal said there are countless opportunities to reinforce your core values and purpose among your team.
In that regard, Gal said he sometimes feels like a “deranged cheerleader” by constantly repeating himself, but it’s necessary and required to truly build a great culture. Putting mission and vision statements up on a wall is not going to cut it.
“As I like to remind my management team, there’s always an opportunity to reinforce,” said Gal. “We have many chances daily, whether we are commending, coaching, role playing, running a meeting, interacting with a member and anything in between, to utilize shared language and label these interactions through the lens of our core values and beliefs. Once you feel like people are sick and tired of hearing you, they’re just starting to hear it.”
One final lesson Gal gleaned from earlier in his career that’s translated to how he runs his gyms today is that of “business as a practice.”
This concept was introduced to Gal through the book “The E Myth” by Michael Gerber, who writes that small business owners oftentimes work in their businesses rather than on their businesses.
Meaning, like a fitness routine, business success is something you must continually invest in.
“Even if you’re a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu, you never get to that place of ‘I’m good,’ because you’re going to get humbled,” said Gal. “You just keep going, and you keep doing the work. And that’s how I think of the business. The business is the thing that we work on. And so I wake up every day to do the practice.”
According to Gal, this philosophy helped him get through such tough times as the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing him to recognize the low points are temporary. And, if you truly believe in your business and your people, you don’t really have a choice but to carry on.
In fact, the personal experience of having twins born prematurely further reinforced this philosophy.
“My son was two and a half pounds and had a birth defect, and so my kids were in different hospitals, even though they were twins,” recalled Gal. “My son was there for two months and he had a couple surgeries before he was 50 days old. People would ask, ‘How did you do it?’ But when you’re in it, you don’t have an alternative. It never occurs to you to do otherwise. It’s just minute by minute, bit by bit. And then you look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re almost out of it.’”
Gal has used this mindset to fuel him through the past two years of tough restrictions on gyms in New York City, including mask mandates and proof-of-vaccine requirements.
Nearing the other side, he is looking forward to continuing to expand within the New York City market and further his passion for an industry he now calls home.
“I am blessed every day to work with wonderful people in the best industry in the world,” said Gal. “‘We fight daily to change lives and help people help themselves. I don’t know a better way to spend our time.”
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