Editors' Note: This ongoing series examines the family side of the fitness business where passionate fitness entrepreneurs have instilled the love of fitness to the next generation. This series is not about the achievements of these families (easily found via websites or a Google search). Rather, we present the human-interest story, which, after all, is about interesting humans. The series has been made possible by the generous sponsorship of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services, Inc.
It’s a long way from El Paso, Texas, to Anchorage, Alaska – 3,892 miles to be precise. And it’s an even longer way from Anchorage to Houston, Texas — 4,233 miles, give or take a few.
Not too many folks make that triangular trip, but for Tom and Kris Behan, it’s been a journey worth taking.
High school friends who went their separate ways, Tom and Kris reunited more than 20 years later — in 1988 — becoming not only marriage partners, but ultimately business partners as well.
In the 1980s, Tom, a banker by trade and a handball player for fitness and fun, began to see a steady stream of loan applicants in his Anchorage bank. He, like many of his counterparts, was not eager to loan money to entrepreneurs chasing this fitness “fad.”
“The more I traveled, the more I noticed the expansion of fitness,” he said. “Not only racquetball but also Nautilus-type facilities were expanding, and I could see the variety of people being attracted. The more I saw the groundswell, the more I came to believe it was a business opportunity. When we sold our banks and I was on my own, I took a harder look at fitness as an investment.”
When the Alaska Pipeline hit some snags, the Teamsters in Anchorage put up for sale its large recreation center with indoor tennis, indoor track and handball/racquetball courts. Tom thought about buying the facility and turning it into a private club. He turned to Andrew Eker to help him analyze the business opportunity and do due diligence. That due diligence included meetings with John McCarthy, IHRSA’s long-time executive director, and consultation with Jim Gerber, who at that time was owner of Western Athletic Clubs, which ultimately became the Bay Clubs. The two helped Tom and Andrew analyze the Anchorage market.
Putting his entire net worth on the line, Tom took the risk and bought the facility. The Alaska Club opened for business in the worst possible time – 1987 in the midst of a recession.
“Despite the recession, we had a good response to the new club,” he said. “We set up our partnership, secured investment and Kris was a key investor. We spent over 20 years
building and acquiring clubs, ultimately had 19 when we sold in 2007.”
Tom is quick to deflect the lion’s share of credit for the company’s success, pointing to partners and colleagues Eker, Robert Brewster and John Marchetti as being instrumental in the group achieving what they did and continue to do.
One might think that one big win like Tom and Kris had with the Alaska Clubs would satisfy the itch, and it almost did. But not quite.
Scott Sanders was 13-years-old when he began visiting his mom and Tom in Anchorage. Not only was it a long distance to travel, but it also was a culture shock.
“I remember my first visit up there,” Scott said. “It was Christmas of 1987, just after the Alaska Club opened. I thought my mom had lost her mind. From El Paso, where the sun always shines, to nearly no sunlight at all. And then there was the snow…”
While securing his degree in finance at the University of Arizona, Scott played football and worked out in a variety of clubs. In Alaska he spent more of his time working “out” in the club than working “in” the club. Despite that, he became an integral cog in part two of this story.
After graduating from college and having an unsatisfying career in the business restructuring industry, Scott began looking for his next career move.
“I wasn’t really looking for the fitness industry,” Scott said. “I was more looking to get away from what I was doing. I found myself on airplanes and in hotels 50 weeks a year. I was seeking autonomy.”
Kris didn’t see the second act in fitness coming, she said, especially not an act involving her son and husband working together. But in 2006 as Scott was at a turning point in his career, Tom saw the potential of the Planet Fitness model, a model he thought spoke to millions of consumers that the fitness industry’s traditional pricing models had left on the sidelines.
“I knew of Scott’s acumen in finance so I started to share some things with him that I was seeing, including Planet Fitness,” Tom said. Scott was interested, so after Tom sold the Alaska Clubs, he signed a deal with Mike Grondahl (CEO of Planet Fitness at that time) to purchase an area development agreement for clubs in the greater Houston area where Scott was living.
“We had been kicking the tires on Planet Fitness, and once I got the area development agreement, things really came together,” Tom said.
The partnership now owns 18 Planet Fitness locations in the greater Houston area with two more under construction and four additional in the pipeline for 2018.
“It’s very exciting for me to see Tom being involved in the industry again,” Kris said. “I felt the combination of my son and my husband as business partners would be a win/win. The energy and business acumen and excitement about the future, young families and commitment to community — I knew they’d be successful.”
For the family, it was a lesson in entrepreneurship. Scott brought in his best friend, Jon Evans, as his partner, and then Jon’s father-in-law, Bill Wise, came in as an investor/owner. The three of them, with Tom, made the deal for Planet Fitness Houston.
“When you’re an entrepreneur and you get going and start with someone else’s money, your life changes,” Tom said. “You’re committed, and you have to make that thing work. There’s no other choice. Scott and his partners have done just that in a beautiful way, a phenomenal job, well beyond my expectations.”
Scott said: “Jon Evans and Bill Wise share in equal parts with Tom and me and Kris and our success here in Houston.”
In true Behan fashion, everybody’s humble, with plenty of credit to be passed around.
“Tom and Kris gave us space with counsel,” Scott said. “They orchestrated that balance perfectly. We had room to grow knowing they were always there on the other end of the phone, if need be. And there was plenty of ‘need be.’”
Tom said: “After our Alaska Clubs success, I never dreamed it could be achieved again, let alone exceeded. And it has. We’ve been extremely fortunate. The fitness industry has been good to us.”
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services for their generous support of this and subsequent articles in this series. Both companies encourage the entrepreneurial spirit represented in investment in the fitness business.
Note to Readers:
If you know of a Next Generation Fitness Family with a unique story to tell, who you would like to see featured in this space, please let us know. The family can come from any segment of the industry (i.e., clubs, boutiques, suppliers, associations). Send a note to Chuck Leve at [email protected].
Chuck Leve is a 45-year veteran of the fitness industry and developer of fitness industry associations. Currently, he serves as the executive vice president of business development for the Association of Fitness Studios (AFS). He was the founding employee of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), where among his accomplishments was the creation and growth of the IHRSA trade show, the largest fitness expo in North America.