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Watch Out Who You Trust as You Build Your Fitness Business

Watch Out Who You Trust as You Build Your Fitness Business

One morning on my drive to work, a large hawk with outstretched wings swooped across the road in front of me. I watched in awe at his gracefulness and confidence. As my eyes followed him across the road, I saw that he was homing in on an unsuspecting squirrel that was busy burying a walnut to retrieve later in the winter. I feared for the squirrel, and in an instant, the object of my awe became a villain in my eyes.

This incident happened the morning after I interviewed Lauren Brenner, owner of Pure Power Boot Camp, New York, about a lawsuit on which she recently received a judgment. I imagine that the experience that led up to that lawsuit also had caused a radical change in her perception. Three years ago, Brenner filed a lawsuit against Ruben Belliard, her former right-hand employee, and Alexander Fell, another former employee. She says the two former U.S. Marines stole her business plan, training manual and operations manual for the franchise she planned to open based on the military-style boot camp business she created in 2003. She alleged that Belliard and Fell used the documents to plan and open a competing business, Warrior Fitness Boot Camp, just 15 blocks from her club.

Brenner had put much work into Pure Power, visiting a Marine Corps training camp at Fort Knox so she could incorporate some of those elements in her indoor obstacle course, developing camouflage colors for the business, setting up military-style uniforms for instructors and members, and hiring and training active-duty and retired Marines as trainers. She hired an attorney to register her trade dress and hired a franchise attorney to put together an employee agreement that included a nonsolicitation provision, a nondisclosure provision and a noncompete clause. She licensed the company in 46 states, and in 2006, USA Today named her franchise as the No. 1 franchise opportunity.

Last month, a judge ruled that Belliard and Fell had stolen the documents, ordering them to pay Brenner $246,000 in punitive damages and in wages they earned while working for her as they planned their club. However, they were allowed to keep their business open.

Brenner says that although the verdict vindicates her, allowing Warrior Fitness to remain open sends a message that people can take another person’s hard work without any real consequences.

It certainly sounded to me like Brenner took all the legal precautions to keep her business safe, but sometimes even being prepared is not enough. Sometimes, you just have to roll with the punches and be strong enough to move forward when the dust has settled. After putting franchising on hold during the court proceedings, Brenner now has franchised her first location and plans to franchise more soon. She moved her original location to a larger building. And despite having difficulty trusting certain people to work for her again, she says, “There are bad apples in everything. People should be judged as individuals and not by what they do.”

So, what happened to the squirrel? She dropped the walnut and scampered away to gather more walnuts and live another day. But as I watched the hawk veer skyward, I offered a silent warning to the squirrel: Keep your eyes open for hawks.

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