Imagine wanting to help women take charge of their health. Imagine wanting to do so through an innovative gym format. Now imagine doing so when you are only 22! That’s exactly what Liberty Harper did.
When she founded Liberty Fitness®
3 years ago, little did Harper know that her brainchild would grow into a booming franchise business with 61 women’s fitness centers in 16 states. Nor did she know it would come to be ranked as
one of Entrepreneur’s Top 50 Franchises of 2005.
The keystone of the business is a
30-minute circuit that uses six-level
adjustable hydraulic equipment unique to the company. Members move at
40-second intervals from station to
station to a variety of energizing music. Additional offerings include exercise classes and instruction, an online diet and health resource, and nutritional encouragement and advice from certified trainers. The business focuses
on providing an inviting atmosphere, friendly trainers and a clean, uncrowded environment.
Although the business has changed and expanded since the now 25-year-old Harper started it, it never veers from the philosophy she created from the start: Make women feel comfortable and welcome so they’ll commit to improving their fitness—and their lives.
Liberty Harper began her fitness career working at the front desk of a gym when she was a teenager. “I saw the members leave the gym with different attitudes than when they walked in the door,” she says. “Trainers at that club were very motivating, and I felt inspired to become a personal trainer.
I took the ACE personal trainer certification exam when I was 17 and also got certified as an ACE group fitness instructor.”
After being employed in large conventional gyms for a while, Harper worked with her parents when they opened the first Curves® franchise in California and then a second franchise. “My experience with my parents helped me see what it was like to work with people in a smaller club with a more intimate atmosphere,” she said. “When my parents sold their gyms, I thought, ‘What if I opened a gym that included my favorite elements from every club I had worked at?’ I wanted a gym with a warm, friendly atmosphere that would appeal to women—a gym that would provide a 30-minute workout, not just for newcomers but also for women who wanted to train for a 5K or triathlon. I knew fitness, but needed someone to help me from the business side. I was 21, and my brother, who was 27, was willing to help. My parents also assisted me financially, so it was really a family business. Our first location was in La Costa [near San Diego].”
Looking back, Harper sees both pros and cons to being 22 when she started her business. “The main negative was that people would automatically think
I was inexperienced,” she says.
However, her age often gave her
a fresh outlook. “Sometimes when I worked with older people, I noticed that they were reluctant to change things that had always been done a certain way,” she says. “Coming out of my teenage years,
I had a different perspective. I’d say, ‘Why don’t we try it this way?’”
After Harper opened the La Costa location, the company was approached by people who liked their concept and wondered if they’d open other locations. Her brother researched the logistics involved in franchising so they could make their unique brand of fitness available for even more women.
While the franchisees run their own clubs, they follow guidelines from the home office to provide members with an excellent experience. Each location caters to only a few hundred members, so staff can give members personal
attention. “Usually each club doesn’t
get more than 15–20 women at a
time,” says Harper. “The trainers watch members to make sure they do the
exercises correctly, and give them a
hand if needed.”
Obviously, with Liberty Fitness’s concept of personal attention, people are key. How does Harper choose good franchisees? “We look for someone
who loves working with and helping others set their goals, and who is financially secure.”
Franchise owners are responsible
for hiring their own owners and managers. “Owners hire staff who care for members as they would,” says Harper. “If members feel that an employee isn’t working out, they are not shy about
letting the owners know!”
At Liberty Fitness, the main circuit consists of adjustable hydraulic exercise
machines that are meant to combine both cardio and strength training to
deliver a total-body workout.
While the company first purchased off-the-rack hydraulic equipment, it is now designed and constructed specifically for Liberty Fitness. “The 30-minute circuit training niche is competitive,
and we couldn’t guarantee the reliability of another company’s equipment,” says Harper. “We wanted to make sure we had control over the equipment that made up our core circuit. So we looked at different types of hydraulic machines, took the features we liked, improved upon others and came up with a
design. Now, if a spring on a leg press seems to break too often, we can change the design.”
Harper knows that to stay progressive, the company can’t just maintain the
status quo. “We keep our eyes and ears wide open to see what our members need,” she says.
Lately that means wellness. “We want to show members how to stop and breathe deeply,” she says. “We want women to know that life is about more than losing weight. We want them to take time for themselves—to get a
massage, for instance.”
Practically, this philosophy means some facility and programming changes. For example, all future Liberty Women’s Fitness Clubs will offer Sunlight far-infrared-technology saunas and hydromassage beds. An
expansion from 1,200 square feet to 2,000 square feet will provide space for expanded offerings including Pilates and yoga classes, plus stretching and cool-down areas. Members will also
be invited to write inspirational thoughts, weight loss goals and fit-
ness quotes on the “Liberty Fitness Gratitude Wall” in the facility. Liberty Fitness will also offer the Polar BodyAge™ System, a tool that
calculates fitness levels and actual
body age, as opposed to biological age.
To increase operating capital, Liberty Fitness was acquired in July 2004 by Concentric Equity Partners. The company has a new CEO, Linda Burzynski, and relocated its corporate operations from California to Austin, Texas.
Harper is excited about the changes. “My main role is director of training,” she says. “Training is what I love to do, and I train every franchisee. I attend the grand opening of each club. I work with the first members of each club, and I love helping the members—and owners—set goals.”
Harper enjoyed the challenge of opening the first Liberty Fitness, because helping people is immensely
satisfying to her. “All our owners are dedicated to members and are carrying on our original goal,” she says. “The more franchises we open, the more women we can help.”
Liberty Harper’s vision for her business was to create a comfortable workout environment for women.
How do Liberty Fitness® clubs continually provide that environment? “It’s about personal service,” Harper says. “We greet every member by name. Each Liberty Fitness has a circuit, but staff customizes the circuit and exercise prescription to each individual. Knowledgeable trainers give members one-on-one attention, so they have a good experience and feel like they belong.”
Harper also teaches franchisees to find out why members are really coming to the gym— besides wanting to lose weight or get fit. “Why is a woman there?” asks Harper. “Is her workout her alone time for the day because she works full-time and is raising five kids? Is she taking care of an ill husband at home? Is she trying to improve her self-esteem? We find out the reason and remember it so we can best help her. We have such loyal members because we keep the heart in the business.”
In addition to the personal attention, Liberty Fitness attracts—and retains—members because of the clubs’ focus on the community. “We encourage franchisees to go into the community to meet people,” Harper says. “They establish connections with local businesses, join the chamber of commerce and make a difference in their area. For example, two franchisees in Alpharetta, Georgia, spread the word that anyone who was evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina could come to their club for free. Many franchisees also encourage members to participate in charity events and organize groups to attend local walks and runs.”
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