The Little Gym offers franchisees a unique model that frees them
to focus on building relationships with customers, as opposed to building a product.
By Bianca Herron
Robin Wes founded The Little Gym in 1976 in Bellevue, Wash., in an effort to provide a non-competitive physical development program for kids. Forty years later, the franchise has 3,500 employees in more than 330 locations on six continents.
“In 2001, The Little Gym really started expanding in the U.S., which grew to about 270 locations before the recession,” President and CEO Ruk Adams says. “We lost about 70 units during that time, but over the last four years coming out of the recession we’ve grown back to 212 locations and have nearly 135 locations in 29 other countries. We’re seeing eight to 12 percent growth in locations annually, as well as five to 8 percent in the gym’s year-over-year.”
Keys To Success
One important factor in The Little Gym’s strong comeback after the recession was its franchisees, according to Adams. “There is an incredibly consistent desire to not just own a business, but to own one that makes a difference,” he explains. “That extra desire allowed people to figure out how to struggle through and made them want to rebuild and make it bigger. The function of what we do and the people that are doing it on the front line is critical to our success.”
Another key factor was the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company’s decision to revise its business model to create a focus on efficiency. “We want our franchisees to be profitable on fewer dollars and revenue,” Adams says. “This allows them to focus more on building relationships with parents and children, as opposed to building a product.”
The Little Gym’s product is fairly extensive in terms of the curriculum, program design and development, as well as in the training franchisees receive, according to Adams.
“There are 19 class programs we have 52 weeks of curriculum and offer interactive, full video/audio for every single one of them year-round,” he says. “One of the things that sets us a part in the service sector is our [training] curriculum, which is second to none and teaches everything from how to set up a gym to running a classroom successfully. Our product design is extensive, the marketing support is significant and the training is both initial and ongoing, whether online or in person.” This level of support is meant to allow franchisees to focus more on the execution of the concept as it relates to working with parents and children, notes Adams.
Another factor that sets The Little Gym apart from its competitors is that the company’s entire operation is driven by franchisees. “We have 14 corporate employees who collectively own 40 franchises. They work with us part-time, providing services and consulting to the other franchisees in the network.”
“We are a very integrated company, ,” Adams added. “We work closely with our franchise owners as opposed to dictating to them. This relationship helps our employees feel like they are involved in something bigger and it provides our franchise owners with the sense that they’re helping the company figure out where it is going.”
Celebrating A Legacy
The Little Gym is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and the franchising component’s anniversary as well, which started in 1992. Both milestones are equally important because they represent the growth of one company, Adams says.
“Recently, on Facebook, my wife showed me a picture featuring three generations, a grandmother, her daughter, and her granddaughter, that all attended The Little Gym,” he says. “When I see pictures like that or hear stories, , not only in the U.S., but in Brazil, China and Kuwait, it’s an amazing feeling. Parents want great things for their kids and if we can do a great job of delivering meaningful programs for them to grow and develop, and engage the parents to understand what’s going on, we can influence lives.”
Any The Little Gym franchisee or employee has the opportunity to grow within the company and achieve much success, and Adams is surely proof of it.
“There are many career opportunities at The Little Gym, the first step is just getting in the door,” he says. “Recently, I attended our annual convention and the family that owns the Gym that my wife and I started asked us to speak with their team. I let them know that I started out as a part-time karate instructor at The Little Gym in Salt Lake City – where they currently work – and I’m the CEO today. So anything is possible with hard work.”
When it comes to acquiring talent, The Little Gym looks for people who can engage with both kids and parents, which are unique skillsets, according to Adams.
“Our tagline is ‘Serious Fun,’ which is a really great descriptor of what an employee at a The Little Gym looks like,” Adams says. “They’re serious when engaging with a parent, but having fun when they engage with a child. So we’re really looking for someone who can be goofy with a three- year-old and get them comfortable with taking a risk and being challenged, while also being able to talk to a parent about their child’s growth and development.”
In terms of a franchise owner, The Little Gym looks for the same “Serious Fun” element. Franchisees are expected to enjoy what they do and take the business side of things seriously. “We want our franchisees to not only be able to engage with the kids and parents, but also to help grow and develop their employees,” Adams explains. “Foundationally, we look at it as kids, parents, employees and communities. So we want to find someone who is able to engage all four of those key groups in a meaningful way.”
That meaning – wanting franchisees to feel like they are doing something important beyond building a business – is a big driver for every franchisee. “With us, our franchisees are making an impact in their local communities and doing something meaningful beyond their four walls and bottom line,” Adams says. “We provide the opportunity for someone to have an emotional payoff as well as a financial one.”
The Little Gym’s growth and development are based on finding the right locations and franchisees at the right time. Moving forward, the company expects to open 15 to 25 locations annually in the United States, growing to somewhere between 400 and 500 locations, according to Adams.
“Internationally we expect to grow to 30 to 40 units per year over the next eight years. One of great things about being a private company is that we don’t have to hit someone’s percentage quota of growth annually,” he says. “We open when we find the right circumstances, so we will have a high level of success.”
“Our vision is to build a highly valued brand that’s recognized globally by parents as the premier provider of children’s experiential and development programs,” Adams added. “We want to be top of mind so that parent know that one thing they will do is put their child in a The Little Gym.”