Entrepreneur Jeff Roux is owner of Excel Fitness in West Hartford, CT. In the eight years since the fitness facility has opened, it has transitioned from a co-ownership to a sole ownership, all the while keeping members’ needs in mind and supporting the community through philanthropic giving.
IDH: Tell us a little bit about the how the gym got started. Did you always want to own your own business?
ROUX: I had a game plan back in college. I was in the fitness industry for 10 years with Bally Total Fitness, where I met Shawn O’Brien, who was a top trainer there. We both had the same dream of opening our own place, just kind of taking the good that we knew and making it even better in a smaller setting.
We started creating a business plan on January 1, 2004 and it took us until October 4, 2007 to open. We spent about a year on the business plan. Every bank we wanted to try to get a loan from wanted an extensive business plan—demographic research, equipment research, five-year projections of where we thought we would be. Location was huge, too—finding enough parking, square footage and manageable rents.
IDH: In addition to bank loans, did you utilize any other startup resources?
ROUX: We used a lot of personal resources. We extended our credit limits and cash advances on our credit cards and we used our own personal savings. We had a lot of supporting clients who agreed to invest ahead of time—we didn’t solicit any clients until we actually gave notice at Bally’s.
Shawn and I had about 30 clients each who came with us. So we hit the ground running. We were already doing 75% of what we projected we would do when we opened, we just had to increase the membership and bring on a couple of trainers to continue the dream.
IDH: You touched a little on what you wanted to do differently versus other local facilities. What’s different about Excel Fitness?
ROUX: Back in 2007, there were only a couple of other gyms in town it was Workout World and Bally’s.
IDH: Right. Now it seems like they’re cropping up all over the place.
ROUX: Right. There are a lot of smaller places now, many of which are doing a very good job. What we felt was there was a lack of customer service; people were disconnected from the membership once they signed up and it was kind of like they were on their own unless they were working with the trainer. So we wanted to be a smaller, more personable facility.
Being smaller it’s easier to keep clean—that’s always been a goal of mine is to keep the place very clean and keep the equipment in great condition. People still come in after eight years and they say our gym looks new.
Another thing that makes us different is honestly our staff. We have a higher-level educated staff and a lot of my trainers are certified or degreed.
With regard to competition, we still feel like we have that niche of being in between a larger more impersonal gym and a gym that has classes but no equipment. We have the personal touch we have all access and we have equipment so it’s a non-intimidating environment. And although we have a smaller clientele we have a very loyal clientele.
IDH: You opened the gym with co-owner Shawn in 2007, but in 2012 he moved out of Connecticut and you became the sole owner. How was the transition?
ROUX: We did not have an exit strategy. That something I really wish we would’ve planned for. We still had loans, if we were going to close up shop we would’ve still both owed a lot of money and I didn’t want that to happen. I really wanted to keep the facility open at least until I paid off the loans and until our lease was up.
We had an advisory board already in place and we consulted with a couple of attorneys who helped us come to an agreement. He left and I paid what we agreed on for the business. Things went really well. All of his clients pretty much stayed with us. It actually helped the staff because they all got a few more clients and having one manager made it easier for the staff to have continuity. I worked some crazy hours that year, but it was a very profitable year for me because we didn’t have to pay another owner any of the profits.
IDH: So you were able to bounce back and step up—pardon the workout terms.
ROUX: I had been a manager at Bally’s for nine years so I had some experience managing staff. When Shawn left I was definitely working harder and doing more sessions. So there was a slight burden on the management side of things.
Fortunately, I had good staff in place already who were willing to pick up some responsibilities. I promoted one of our employees to marketing and I took away some of my responsibilities and delegated some other trainers.
IDH: Let’s talk about Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE). How did you become involved?
ROUX: I love HYPE. I had a client who is involved in HYPE. She said I should go because it’s great for professional networking and there are a lot of great people and a lot of socializing opportunities. So I went to HYPE and met a couple good people right away. I joined in 2008. It was really helpful both professionally and personally.
IDH: Excel Fitness is very involved with philanthropy. How did that come about?
ROUX: It actually started with our members. One Thanksgiving they encouraged us to do a food drive. So we did and it was very successful. Being a local business, I think it’s important to give back your community.
HYPE helped out with that too because they do a lot of toy drives, food drive and school supply drives. So we do similar drives at Excel. A lot of our members love to give.
We also do a few things on a yearly basis. For example, we do an annual breast cancer fundraiser and, through HYPE, I sell Christmas trees to benefit the Freshplace food pantry in Hartford. It’s fun. It’s doing something good for the community, helping out and getting genuine smiles from people who are in need.
IDH: How did you choose your location?
ROUX: I really like West Hartford. West Hartford has a wonderful community of people and there are a lot of things to do. You’re very close to Hartford, which isn’t a huge city, but you have all the benefits of the city. You can go to sporting events and theater and great restaurants. We’re also located in the business district of West Hartford, which is great. They just put a bus line right outside.
IDH: How are you marketing?
ROUX: Our best customers are referrals from our existing customers because they are people who are happy, they know the deal and they’re telling their friends that Excel Fitness is a great place to come. We still get a lot of business from referrals.
We’ve also been able to network with some physical therapists who refer patients post-surgery. A lot of people who have replacements or repairs come to us through referral and trusting us.
We’re also well rated on Google Yelp, so we get a lot of leads from that.
IDH: Any plans to open another gym?
ROUX: Running this place and having it be as good as it is as hard to replicate in my opinion. I don’t want to open another location. I’m looking to expand the classes and compete with all the local places that don’t have equipment. I want to bring classes in at affordable rates so people can get fitness without spending the same money for personal training.
IDH: Any advice for other entrepreneurs or startups?
ROUX: Having an exit strategy would be huge. You always have to prepare. What if someone comes and copycats you a couple doors down? What are you going to do? How are you going to survive?
It’s also important to have a really big cash reserve and definitely have a backup plan.
I also recommend listening to your members. We do a survey every year. We ask: What would you like to see different? What you like about us? Would you refer a friend why or why not? The biggest thing we learned from that was we needed to extend our hours.
I had to figure out how I could be open longer without increasing my staffing, which is one of the biggest expenses. So I did some research on the prices for cameras and security systems. We went all access and it not quite doubled our membership, but we really improved our membership, which gives us access to more personal training clients more massage therapy clients.
And I tell people just make sure you do what you love. Try part-time to see how the waters go. Start small. It’s better to be a small fish in a big pond and then expand to a bigger pond. Start small, make sure it works and make sure it’s something you can do and then commit to a bigger thing.