Orange Theory owners talk about the challenges of running a franchise business

"We didn’t really know what challenges we’d face, and there were more than we thought there’d be.”

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Orange Theory, in Mayfaire Office Park. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — Orange Theory Fitness opened in April of last year and has over 500 members. It is, by many measures, a successful business. But according to owners Susan and Dustin Gross, the business still has a long way to go. Port City Daily caught up with the Grosses, who also run a Rise Biscuit Donuts franchise, to talk about what it takes to succeed running a franchise business in Wilmington.

“I’ve been told more than once,” Susan Gross said, “that if you make it a year in the fitness business you’ve got a chance. But nothing is for sure during the first year.”

The Grosses started talking with Orange Theory in April 2015. They finalized a lease in December 2015, and started pre-sales in January 2016. Initially, things went smoothly.

“Once we got to 100 members, things kind of went viral,” said Dustin Gross. “We offered referral rewards, but that only goes so far. We had really sold these people on Orange Theory; or, rather, once they checked out what Orange Theory was about, they were sold on it.”

Susan Gross added, “We had thought fitness would be a no-brainer, an easy home run at the beach. I mean, obviously no business is easy, it’s never easy to start up a business, but we this seemed like it would be easier. We didn’t really know what challenges we’d face, and there were more than we thought there’d be.”

Though the Grosses hit their goal of 500 members before they opened on April 22, 2016, the challenges had just started. For the group-fitness setting to work, a gym needs more than members – it needs consistently returning members.

“We don’t just want people to come to the gym,” Dustin Gross said. “We want the gym to be part of their lives, part of their community. To do that, we had to be part of their community. That can be difficult for outsiders, this is a tightly-knit town.”

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Orange Theory rowing machines use water resistance to lower impact. “These are great for members with joint trouble,” Susan Gross said. Left to Right: Susan Gross, Studio Manager Lindsay Hartmann and Head Coach Amie Harrison. (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

It was community involvement that helped the Grosses reach the numbers they needed to open, and to keep the gym open. For Susan Gross, things were easier since she’d been visiting Wrightsville Beach every summer since childhood.

“I still feel that relief, every time I turn left off of I-40,” she said, “So I think I have a sense, even if it’s hard to put into words, of what Wilmington is about.”

Susan Gross added that her children have been a major part of her involvement in the community.

“Our three kids are in school here, so we’re in it,” she said. “I mean, we’d be involved in this community even if we didn’t run a business because of our children. So that was definitely the beginning of it. We met other parents who, maybe at a certain point in their life, wanted to work fitness back into their lives. Maybe they needed something with more of a group feel, or didn’t want to spend as much as you do on a personal trainer. But we met all these people through schools and day care.”

Dustin Gross said community involvement was also part of their business plan for Rise Biscuit Donuts.

“I mean, I went to the ‘Donuts with Dads’ event at First Presbyterian where my kids go to preschool. They told me, we usually just do Krispy Kreme. I told them, ‘I’m bringing the doughnuts, and you’re not paying for them.’ That’s just how we are, in terms of getting involved. So, it was a bonus that people were like, ‘hey, these are really good doughnuts.’ And, yes, I told them, ‘hey, Rise makes a pretty mean county ham biscuit too.’ But that only works because those are friends, our community. You can’t do it that way to just anyone on the street, and I wouldn’t want to. You can’t ram in down their throats.”

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TRX band workouts. Susan Gross said, “depending on how you angle yourself and where you stand, you can get a wide range of difficulties. So everyone can work out at the same time, but also get a personal workout.” (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

Susan Gross said that after Orange Theory opened, ties to their new home continued to grow.

“We got more involved, if anything,” she said. “We had a big habitat for humanity build, with our staff and our members. We get involved in local charities. And sometimes things just happen, and then we’re simply part of the community trying to help. After [hurricane] Matthew we did kind of an impromptu food drive here.”

At a certain point, the community started to grow on its own.

“It’s not just us, our trainers, our head coach, they’re all very involved,” said Susan Gross. “You’ll see high-fives, you’ll see members actually encouraging each other. It’s really a community that extends beyond this facility. It’s funny, Dustin and I went out to dinner a while ago, at Ceviche’s, and we saw a whole group of women from here. They told us, ‘this is our Orange Theory wine Wednesday. We all worked out this morning together, and now we’re all here.’”

Running franchise businesses – like Rise Biscuit Donuts and Orange Theory – is very different than running a start-up, according to the Grosses. There are considerable benefits, and also challenges.

“The benefits are that you have a lot of corporate guidance, from before we even opened, through the first couple of weeks, to our day-to-day schedule,” Susan Gross said. “So we have a lot of experience and wisdom behind us that a mom and pop wouldn’t have. But, at the same time, because there is corporate guidance, there are corporate rules. It’s not always exactly how I would do things. And sometimes I have to give answers to clients that I don’t like. I’m sometimes reminded it’s my gym, but in someways not mine.”

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The Orange Theory ‘scoreboard.’ Susan Gross said, ‘this is where the the science comes in. You’re looking at five different heart-rate ranges, the second highest, that’s the orange level, that’s where your metabolism is kicking in. On the scoreboard, you can compete with your friends, and yourself.’ (Photo by Benjamin Schachtman)

The Grosses spend “99 percent” of their time at Orange Theory; “it’s our passion, you’ll find us here all the time. We know almost every member by name, and they know us.” One major challenge, according to the Grosses, was struggling with how to make a place they are so passionate about fell like their own, in spite of the “corporate rules” that aim to make every Orange Theory the same.

“It can be difficult,” Susan Gross said. “But the answer is, it’s the community. If we don’t see someone in here for a week or so, we’re calling them. That’s our job, not just to motivate them while they’re here in the gym, but to be part of their lives, to help remove those obstacles and hurdles at home. Everyone does it, everyone needs that little extra nudge sometimes.”

Orange Theory is located at 6800 Parker Farm Drive. Reach them at (910) 660-0933 or find more information at Orange Theory’s website.