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Entrepreneurs find success with women-only gyms



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Dec. 3--With its plush carpet, pastel-colored walls and wide-screen television, Liberty Fitness in Mentor is, perhaps, more like someone's family room than a gym.

For Peg Charvat, that is part of the club's appeal.

"There's a homey feel to it," she said.

Prior to joining the women's health club when it opened about two months ago, Charvat had never exercised at a gym before. She had visited different clubs, but never joined.

"Because, No. 1, I always felt you had to be beautified to be able to go because it's men and women at a gym," said Charvat, who lives in Mentor.

"(At a women's club) You can go right out of bed if you want to -- you're not there to impress anybody."

The Mentor Liberty franchise location, 7541 Mentor Ave., has had 85 members join since its launch in September, co-owner Art Corbin said. And it's not even the peak time of year for the fitness business, which typically gets busy after the holidays.

But the early success shouldn't come as any surprise. The women-only workout concept has caught on in a big way.

"There's no doubt," said Corbin, a physicians assistant by trade, "which is why I went into it."

The Liberty Fitness franchise was founded by Liberty Harper in 2002, when she was 24 years old. In three years, the operation has expanded to 61 locations in 16 states. The franchise projects having 1,500 locations by the end of 2006. Entrepreneur magazine ranked the company No. 39 on its 2005 list of top 50 new franchises.

Liberty, though, is not alone when it comes to franchise rankings for women's fitness businesses.

Entrepreneur's 2005 Franchise 500 list has Curves at No. 2. Contours Express is ranked 100th. In the magazine's fitness category, those two franchises are ranked first and second, respectively.

Curves, Contours and Liberty combined have nearly 10,000 locations, with both Curves and Contours reaching across international boundaries.

In The News-Herald coverage area, there are 21 Curves locations and three Contours. The Liberty location in Mentor is the first in Northeast Ohio.

The franchises are appealing to those looking to start a business, for a variety of reasons.

For one, the circuit-training, quick-workout philosophy lends itself to low overhead. A circuit consisting of a dozen or so pieces of resistance equipment does not require much space, which is why women's clubs pop up in strip malls. The Liberty location in Mentor, with 3,000 square feet, is considered large by industry standards.

Franchise and equipment fees are reasonable. Startup can require as little as $36,000, not including the build-out of the facility. And while franchises have guidelines about how the club should look, they don't require franchisees to spend a lot of money in remodeling before opening.

"It's low-cost, low-overhead, and I guess what I really like about it is they give you leeway to give your own personality to your facility," said Bob Iafelice, speaking from his experience as a Curves franchisee with locations in Painesville and Concord Township. "You go into any Subway and they're all the same. Curves are the same, too, but different clubs have different personalities."

So, too, do the different franchises. Or so they contend.

Curves was franchised by Texas gym owner Gary Heavin in 1995. It now has more than 6,400 locations worldwide -- all of them independently owned and operated.

The company was founded on the women-only philosophy and pitches a 30-minute workout that mixes cardiovascular work with resistance training on hydraulic equipment specially designed for women. The methodology was designed to appeal to those women whose worlds were too busy to spend hours and hours in gyms.

Curves also sought to capitalize on the fact that some women can be intimidated by co-ed gyms. At Curves, there are no big, heavy weights or machines with pounds and pounds of steel. There are also no men -- no judgmental men, no sweaty men, no gawking men.

"That's actually a really big selling point," said Iafelice, who pointed out that because of discrimination worries, men are not forbidden to join -- they just don't. "It's an attractive feature."

Iafelice's Painesville Curves has grown to 400 members in two years. Since opening Oct. 24 in the Gristmill Village, the Concord location has signed up 100 members.

Monica Tatterson, who opened a Contours in Eastlake on Sept. 26, has had similar success, selling about 75 memberships in two months.

With even a name synonymous with that of the market leader's, Contours does have its differences.

Its workout, also a circuit-training program, is 29 minutes long. The machines at Contours are not hydraulic. Instead, they are adjustable, with steel weight stacks similar to those in any fitness center but designed for a women's body.

Tatterson researched several franchises before choosing Contours "As soon as I saw the equipment difference," she said, "it was just hands-down."

At Liberty, the circuit-training equipment is also different.

The machines are hydraulic, like Curves, but they have an adjustable six levels of resistance.

"It's just like going up in weights if you were using free weights," Corbin said.

Co-owned by Corbin and Greg Michaels and managed by their wives, Teresa Corbin and Vicki Michaels, the Mentor Liberty also features traditional cardio equipment, such as elliptical machines treadmills. It has a yoga room, an infrared heat sauna and a hydromassage.

Although each franchise has elements that make it different from others, the concept -- same-sex, fast workout -- is the same. The concept has worked so well, it's branching out.

Demand for more Men's fitness franchises, also featuring the 30-minute circuit workout, have joined the movement Curves started.

Cuts Fitness for Men is the leader of the men's movement, with about 200 franchise locations. Another franchise for men, The Blitz, promotes a fitness program that takes only 20 minutes. That franchise, too, has garnered Entrepreneur Franchise 500 attention.

Club 50, a fitness franchise for seniors, is aiming to corner the excretes market of the nation's fastest-growing population segment. A Club 50 opened in Madison earlier this fall.

Iafelice used the term "copycat" to describe the fitness companies that have come after Curves, but he might also agree that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. His business has been successful for the same reason like-minded franchises are growing.

"Everybody wants a quick efficient workout," Iafelice said.

That is another part of the appeal for Charvat, who has children, a job and a house to tend to. She likes the flexibility Liberty provides -- she can spend two hours there if she wants, or get a good workout in as little as 15 minutes.

In just two months, Charvat's first-ever gym experience has gone quite well.

"A month ago, when they measured me, I lost a total of 14 inches," she said.

"To me, that's pretty good."

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Copyright (c) 2005, The News-Herald, Willoughby, Ohio

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