Episode 78 – Featuring Gary Heavin

When Life Tried To Throw Him Some Curves, He Built His Own Instead – The Journey of Gary Heavin

As a child growing up in Texas in the 1960′s, Gary Heavin had lofty ambitions. Specifically, he had wanted to become a doctor, and worked odd jobs to put him through a college premed program before eventually running out of money to pay the tuition, and just like that, the ambitions he had were gone.

Fortunately for Gary, he had a brother, David, with more moderate ambitions.  David had just purchased a gyn in Houston, and needed somebody to run it, even if it meant somebody with NO experience running a gym before, such as Gary.

Despite a tumultuous first year in business, Gary’s new ambition was in place.  Turns out that he eventually became pretty good at running a gym.  He loved fitness, and became proficient in the area of sales, especially when it came to selling to women.

In what seemed to be a curious move at the time, Gary decided to effectively slash his membership base in half, offering memberships to women only, and renaming the enterprise “Women’s World of Fitness”.  The move was a smash hit, and within years, Gary and David opened a dozen more locations throughout Texas, welcoming over 50,000 members and growing the enterprise to the point where Gary had no choice but to get a pilot’s license and fly a plane from location to location to keep tabs on what was going on.

But ultimately, bigger was not better for Gary Heavin.  The expansion resulted in bigger lots for their locations and more amenities, which led to increases in overhead costs, and the only way to mitigate these costs was to reopen membership opportunities to men.  The women, in turn, left in droves, uncomfortable with the idea of going to a coed gym.  Morale among the local management was declining rapidly.

Inevitably, Women’s World of Fitness filed for bankruptcy.  Gary lost everything….the house, the cars, the plane, and even his wife.  He was in debt for millions of dollars, a situation so bad he spent time in jail for failure to pay child support.

Having hit rock bottom, Gary then decided it was time for a comeback.  He got a job selling fitness equipment, and along the way, met a new wife, Diane, a former client of the Women’s World of Fitness who shared the same passion for fitness that Gary did.   With a new path and a new lease on life, Gary decided it was time to get back into the fitness business, this time, with a leaner, meaner approach that jettisoned many of the amenities he employed the first time around…..less equipment, no showers, and a rigid set of operating hours that ran counter to the 24/7 nature of fitness centers that had been popular at the time.

(….and a return to the “women only” strategy that served him so well the first time around.)

Diane even came up with a name:  Curves.

After opening the first Curves location in 1992, Gary and Diane watched as the revamped approach to women’s fitness exceeded their wildest expectations. After a few wildly successful years with their handful of locations, Gary, with additional inspiration from the deteriorating condition of his mother, decided to take the business to the next level, implementing more of a proactive approach to women’s health and, to the benefit of the bottom line, introducing a franchising model to the company.

Taking a hands-on approach to finding the right franchisees for his company, owners who had the same passion for women’s health as he, Gary’s decisions were right on the money.  In time, Curves grew to around 10,000 locations in the United States by 2004, and as observers noted at the time, a franchise that was popularly referred to as the “McDonald’s of Women’s Health” was on par with the Golden Arches in terms of the rate of growth, as there was one Curves location for every two McDonald’s locations in the U.S.

Since its peak in 2004, Curves has seen a bit of a downturn, as the number of franchisees has fallen off its once-torrid pace.  But through it all, Gary kept his calm and his faith, en route to navigating the changes with the steady hand that grew his women’s fitness to unthinkable heights….twice.

While he is no longer the CEO of Curves International, Gary Heavin still hold significant influence in the company, and he has since transitioned to a myriad of philanthropic efforts and charitable causes.

On this edition of “Your American Story”, Gary talks with Raja about the highs and the lows of his remarkable journey, and the lessons he has learned along the way.  Plus, he shares his secrets of running a successful business, and a successful life!  You will NOT want to miss this discussion whatsoever.

-Plus, we talk with Michael Annichine, CEO of Pittsburgh-based business support company C-Leveled, about a great upcoming event presented by the MIT Enterprise Forum, “Tales From the Crypt”, a symposium featuring some of the scariest tales you’d ever want to hear from the world of business.

Episode 78