During his years at the University of Western Ontario, David Patchell-Evans spent many a winter morning riding around parking lots in London, Ont. in a snow plow that was almost as old as he was.
There’s no shortage of players in the snow plowing business, so Patchell-Evants differentiated his operation by focusing on small lots and providing no-hassle service. “I guaranteed to my clients that the lot would be plowed by the time they picked, or they didn’t have to pay,” he recalls. “And I gave them a fixed rate—everybody else charged by the hour.”
Earnings from snow plowing put Patchell-Evans through university, and they helped sustain him during much of the first decade of his second business, the one he’s more well-known for: GoodLife Centres.
Founded in 1979, GoodLife is today one of the country’s most recognizable fitness brands. The privately-held chain is on track to have around 400 clubs across Canada by the end of the year, plus an additional 100 or so under its budget brand Fit4Less.
The nature of the two businesses may be very different, but Patchell-Evans says his snowplowing and fitness ventures have been driven by the same idea. “If you want to be successful, solve another person’s needs,” he counsels.
Here’s how Patchell-Evans turned a single London, Ont. club into a Canada-wide fitness empire.
1. Control your growth
Snow plowing is a tedious job, so Patchell-Evans turned it into a game. He’d figure out how long it should take him to plow a lot, then try to beat that time.
Patchell-Evans has applied that same incremental goal-setting approach to the growth of his business. At first he wanted to serve a few thousand customers in London, then to have the most clubs in the city, then the province, and then the country. “Your horizons get bigger as your capabilities do,” he says.
Too many entrepreneurs today see borrowing and burning money as the key to expansion according to Patchell-Evans. He’d rather focus on making customers happy. “Whether it’s an app or a service business or a product you’re making, if you do it well enough that people [feel they need it] and tell their friends, then your business grows,” he says. “And it grows from its own cash flow, and you have lower risk, and you can control it.”
2. Don’t just jump on the trends
Fitness, like food, is the kind of everyday activity that lends itself to fads. So figuring out whether the latest craze has staying power (yoga) or will be forgotten tomorrow (Tae Bo) is key for gyms.
Patchell-Evans focuses on whether a new workout trend is worthwhile instead of popular. “I know the background of the stuff,” he says, pointing to his undergraduate degree in physical education and the masters in exercise physiology he was undertaking when he took over his first club. “If something’s not real or made-up, we cut through that.”
Despite the rise of yoga and spin studio chains, Patchell-Evans believes no one trend can capture the whole of the market. “You can’t just do yoga, you’ve got to do some strength, some cardio,” he says. “There isn’t one thing that will solve all your problems.”
But fitness trends do help get people interested in going to the gym, so GoodLife doesn’t simply ignore them. “All the equipment that’s in the clubs right now did not exist when I started,” Patchell-Evans observes. “The type of classes we offer didn’t exist.”
3. Don’t undercut your value proposition
Most businesses dread economic slowdowns, because consumers tend to stash their money in savings accounts or under their mattresses instead of handing it over at checkout. Not GoodLife. “A downturn in the economy is actually good for us,” says Patchell-Evans. “People feel like there’s nothing they can do—they feel powerless. They come in a club, and they can do something about feeling good.”
When times get tough, GoodLife focuses on highlighting its value proposition and on making members feel empowered. Rather than offering steep discounts to attract new customers, Patchell-Evans prioritizes retention and works to make existing members feel valued. “[If you try] to do a short cut—90% off this year—all that does is tell people, ‘It’s about the money and not about what you get,’” he says.
4. Build your engagement ladder
Competition in the fitness sector in recent years has produced a barbell effect: plenty of luxury clubs and low-cost chains are opening their doors, but many mid-market players are shutting theirs.
In 2014, Patchell-Evans got into the budget end of the space with the launch of Fit4Less. But he insists its not about following the market trend so much as creating a feeder system for GoodLife. Fit4Life offers all the weight equipment you can use for $4.94 every two weeks, allowing people who don’t want to spend a monthly $40–50 on a GoodLife to get in the habit of working out. After a while, some of these members look to upgrade.
Patchell-Evans compares it to car sales. Luxury automakers like BMW and Mercedes historically didn’t produce entry-level models for fear of damaging their brands. But launching (relatively) affordable vehicles has helped goose sales on the premium cars, says Patchell-Evans. “What we provide at Fit4Less is a whole bunch of the lower priced staple cars,” he says. “And at GoodLife we have the high-priced cars with the boutique feeling inside of it.”
5. Really commit to it
Execution and dedication are non-negotiable according to Patchell-Evans. “If you aren’t successful at, you can’t turn around and say, ‘It’s a bad market or a bad economy,’” he says. ‘It’s not a bad anything—it’s you not being relentless enough.”
And he trots out the entrepreneurial motto of doing what you love—advice that would seem more cliché if Patchell-Evans hadn’t become so successful following it. “It creates a credible position of strength as an entrepreneur, to say, ‘I would do this for free,’” he says.
GoodLife’s growth has required some sacrifices, Patchell-Evans admits. “I think I sold the house I lived in five times,” he recalls. “I’d get enough money to buy a house, and then I’d have a chance to open another club, [so] I’d sell the house, take the money out, and put it into a new club.”
But that’s all part of the process. “You’ve got to be all in.”
• • • • •
Patchell-Evans doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur, though anyone looking at what he’s done with GoodLife might be inclined to disagree. He’d rather call himself an expert in the fitness business, at getting people in shape. It’s not so much false modesty as a statement of focus. “I don’t think about other businesses,” he says. “They don’t turn my crank, they don’t get me excited. This does.”
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