During their most recent visit to Australia, the founders of Curves, Gary and Diane Heavin spoke to Australian Women Online about the history of Curves and the couple’s passion for helping women to achieve optimal health and well being.
When husband and wife team, Gary and Diane Heavin (pictured) opened their first Curves club in Texas in 1992, little did they know it would become the largest fitness franchise in the world and the tenth largest of all franchise companies globally. Today there are more than 10,200 Curves clubs in 55 countries, and 5 million members, including 400 clubs in Australia. But behind the Curves story of success is one of personal tragedy and past failure.
Born in 1955 in Houston, Texas, Gary Heavin was just 13 years old when his mother, who struggled with weight issues and high blood pressure, died in her sleep at the age of 40. Gary became convinced that diet and exercise could have saved her life. The premature death of his mother would have a profound effect on Gary Heavin and led him to develop a passion for promoting fitness among women to help prevent deteriorating health and thus, extend their lives.
Gary Heavin told Australian Women Online, “Women didn’t like going to conventional gyms because it’s intimidating, they felt like they had to lose ten pounds before they could join a gym. A lot of our members are also married and have children and they don’t want to go to a conventional gym, which is often more like a nightclub than a health club.”
The concept of a 30 minute workout came about when the couple discovered that one of the other reasons women were not joining traditional gyms was because most women are time poor and don’t have an hour and a half to spend at the gym three days a week. So Gary and Diane set about developing a program where women could get all the benefits of regular exercise in the shortest possible time. At Curves they call this ‘efficient fitness’.
Gary and Diane created the Curves business model at a time when the fitness industry was experiencing a significant downturn after the bottom fell out of the fitness boom in the late 1980s. Gary had already gambled and lost everything on a chain of fitness clubs due to too rapid expansion, but he was determined not to repeat his past mistakes.
“Franchising is one of the things I learned from it. I had fourteen clubs run by fourteen managers and you’re scrambling around trying to get them to do their jobs and to care about the business as much as you do,” he said.
The Curves concept of a community of women helping other women to stick to a diet and exercise program was the first of it’s kind and the concept was spread quickly by word of mouth. “By growing by word of mouth, most of our franchisees were actually members first and were passionate about the program and wanted it to be part of their [professional] lives too.”
Gary says the secret to the Curves success is that it’s more than just a fitness club, it’s a community of women supporting each other. “All our franchisees are women who are passionate about helping other women and that’s what our business is really all about.”
“There was a time when we were opening a new Curves every 3 hours. Now that our franchises have pretty much sold out in Australia, the United States, Canada and in lots of other countries, our growth rate has slowed.” Gary laughs and says “Now we’re only opening a new Curves every 11 hours.”
Although passion is certainly one factor in the Curves success story, Gary says “At the end of the day you have to take care of business.” And here he has made it a point to use his past failures as lessons, not only for himself, but for the entire Curves community of franchisees.
“People frequently thank me for the opportunity to own a successful fitness club. But I always say, ‘Look, all I did was figure out every wrong way to do this. I once lost everything I owned, and that’s good news for you, because you don’t have to suffer and learn things the hard way. I’ve done it for you.’”
Gary Heavin told Australian Women Online, “I’ve learned much more from failure than I’ve ever learned from success. “I made enough mistakes in my twenties, that I really ran of them. I’m really not all that smart, just persistent.”
When I asked Gary to comment on Contours and their ’29 minute workout’ for women, he laughed and said, “They’re trying to be Curves and they’re just about out of business. In America they’ve closed 40 per cent of their locations in the last few years. But they say that imitation is the highest form of flattery and there have been a number of knock-offs of Curves. There was another one called Slender Lady which I like to call ‘slander lady’. But there have been lots of others.”
“All of them have been able to build up to a point entirely from the people who couldn’t buy a Curves. In franchising you can only sell one per territory and these people were looking for what would be the next best thing and so Contours and the other knock-offs have been riding the Curves wave of success all over the world. The problem is that there are two different philosophies – theirs and ours.”
“They are looking for somebody who wants to own a business and then they have to try and teach them passion. We’re looking for people who have passion and all we have to do is to teach them how to run a business. So as a result, they’ve never created a community of passionate people that really show up for the right reasons.”
Gary added, “It’s a shame because some of their franchisees are going to be financially hurt. I hate to see it, but that’s business.”