Friday, April 17, 2009

Bringing a Battlefield Ethos to The Gym

“Alex Fell and Ruben Belliard are probably New York City’s most dedicated chief executives. They get to work at 5 a.m. and rarely leave before 9 at night—after cleaning the office, taking out the trash and gathering the dirty laundry. The former Marines are the founders and sole proprietors of Warrior Fitness Boot Camp, which offers a workout program based on their own basic training. With 200 active clients, one location and just two employees (themselves), the soldiers turned entrepreneurs are keeping their costs as trim as their customers. Messrs. Fell and Belliard met in the Marine Corps nearly a decade ago and were roommates in their final year of service at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. After being discharged in 2004, the two worked as fitness instructors before deciding to start a program based on their own training expertise. ‘You can only push yourself so far working out alone,’ says Mr. Belliard. It took the guys close to three years to find an ideal location—an airy third-floor space on West 35th Street—where asking rents are around $45 per square foot, according to CoStar Inc. Pooling money from friends and family, Messrs. Fell and Belliard opened Warrior Fitness last May. They expect to have $500,000 in revenues in their first full year in business. The workout doesn’t come cheap. One session is $50, though the price drops as clients sign up for more classes. A three-month unlimited pass costs $1,500, and boot camp hopefuls can test their resolve with a $20 one-time trial. But while the recession has some consumers paring dumbbell expenses, Warrior Fitness might benefit from the penny-pinching. Many gym-goers are switching from personal trainers—which cost between $75 and $100 per session—to cheaper group workouts. ‘It’s a great way to get a semi-supervised workout that’s still challenging and personalized,’ says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise. Although gym membership dipped 2.4% nationally between 2007 and 2008, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, Mr. McCall says some people are keeping their memberships while cutting down on per-visit costs like one-on-one training and spa treatments. Messrs. Fell and Belliard say their program offers the best value and the least room for slacking. They’ll happily track down clients who miss a session, though they claim such lapses are rare. ‘There’s something about the energy that flows through a class,’ says Mr. Belliard. ‘People want to come back because they forge relationships.’ For the guys, the success of their clients is a direct reflection of their success as business owners. Although they pass out fliers in city parks and display a banner outside their building, the partners have little time or money for marketing. Rather, they rely on personal anecdotes—the woman who lost 42 pounds in three months, the marathon runner who claimed their workout kicked his butt—and word-of-mouth. ‘I think our clients are our best advertising,’ says Mr. Belliard.”

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