In November 2020, Shawn Stewart was out of the industry for the first time in 26 years.
While he was fortunate to have other opportunities in the industry, he knew if he didn’t start his own club then, he never would. With a few thousand dollars in his savings account and a one-year-old at home, he began the process of opening his first club in February 2020.
However, due to COVID-19, that fell through.
Stewart was at crossroads but stayed the course and acquired his first Fuel Fitness club in June 2020. Stewart said the COVID-19 crisis and shutdowns were a bit of a silver lining as it furthered his beliefs in fitness as the best fight against COVID-19 and other wellness initiatives.
Just two and a half years later, Fuel Fitness is now at six clubs with financial investment to open eight to 10 more in the next 18 months.
His latest acquisition was of Wilson, North Carolina-based Regency Athletic Club, the fifth Fuel Fitness location in North Carolina.
“I have created a formula that assists me in evaluating potential acquisitions and new sites,” said Stewart. “I stay very disciplined in my acquisition formula that includes items like markets with growth potential, partnerships with landlords for great lease terms, potential for real estate purchase opportunity, club reputation, membership base, ability to implement and grow personal training, etc.”
Stewart said there is an opportunity to renovate the Regency Athletic Club and update the operational systems, which will bring new energy and excitement to the members as well as strengthen the connection to the Wilson community and local businesses.
“This is a club that had the same owners for 30-plus years, with a good member base and reputation,” said Stewart. “The former Regency Athletic Club is a hometown club that offers many amenities I look for in a club and also has new amenities that complement what the Fuel Fitness brand offers, like an outdoor pool and café.”
With a recent venture capital investment and this latest acquisition, Stewart said he plans to continue growing the brand throughout the Carolinas and the Southeast U.S. While Fuel Fitness keeps growing, Stewart is also still learning the reins of being an owner and CEO.
“I’ve been an industry veteran as an operator for over a quarter century, however I quickly realized I’m now an infant as an owner and CEO,” said Stewart. “Understanding these two roles are different. I had to learn to manage both, mainly through reaching out to industry leaders, listening to their mentorship and by delegating operational roles of the company. Also, I have been part of major organizations, but for the first time I get to be the small guy with a ‘mom and pop,’ start-up mentality.”
One thing Stewart is passionate about as an owner is starting Fuel Fitness with a clean slate and not just doing things because “it’s always the way they have done them.”
“For example, when we acquired the first club in Mooresville, I rented a cabin on Lake Norman for two months,” explained Stewart. “This became our ‘think tank’ for growth and creativity. While we were not at the club, 100% of our conversations were focused on how to build our company with the right foundational principles, creating new operational systems and hiring the best people in the industry. We discussed 24/7 how to make Fuel Fitness one of the best businesses for our communities and in the industry.”
The best advice Stewart offered for other operators considering expanding right now is to Create a game plan and checklist based on what you want to accomplish and the factors for success.
“Most importantly, stay disciplined to the checklist,” said Stewart. “If it checks nine out of 10 boxes, I don’t do it. For example, one component includes the ability to negotiate good lease terms. Many clubs fail, not because of competition, staff or COVID-19, but because of bad lease deals. I may be known as a world-class operator, but I will never be able to out-operate a bad lease deal.”
Overall, Stewart has come a long way since June 2020, and he doesn’t plan on slowing his growth any time soon. But he noted growth also goes far beyond the number of clubs.
“Our 2023 growth will also include a major investment into the current facilities and programs,” said Stewart. “We will also make a major investment in our corporate infrastructure by adding department leaders to oversee marketing, sales, operations and personal training. Most importantly, we will make a major investment into the club level team, including offering a benefits package to include industry leading benefits. I also offer opportunities for all club level leaders to have equity in their clubs that provide unlimited growth potential, both professionally and financially, for our team.”
For more on Shawn Stewart’s journey listen to our podcast episode with him.