When Guy Cammilleri presented at the Moscow International Open Festival of Fitness last October, it was the first time he had stepped foot in Russia. Sure, he had done his share of traveling as the leader of World Gym International, Los Angeles. But most of those trips kept him mainly in North America.
And with this first trip to Russia came another first. He spoke to about 200 people with the aid of an interpreter who traveled with him to Russia.
"That was interesting for me in the sense that I've had opportunities throughout my career, both in this industry and in the industry I was in prior, to speak in front of people," Cammilleri says. "But it's always been in front of an American or Canadian audience where translation wasn't necessary. So it was a new experience for me to try to give a speech and having to stop every couple of sentences."
Cammilleri and his family had enjoyed success in the hair salon industry with JOICO International, which was built in the 1970s and sold in 2001. When the family took over World Gym in 2009, a then-36-year-old Cammilleri made the rounds among World Gym franchisees. His main goal was to convince them to stick with the brand after the company was in a state of flux following its failed marriage to Planet Fitness, Newington, NH. Cammilleri didn't have an interpreter back then, so he had to learn the fitness club language on the fly.
In 2006, World Gym was sold to Planet Fitness, the brand known for its judgment-free zone and "no lunkheads" alarm, for around $10 million. The Planet Fitness-World Gym merger dissipated quickly. Several World Gym franchisees did not want to convert their gyms to Planet Fitness. According to Cammilleri, more than 100 World Gym franchisees left the system.
"The culture of Planet Fitness and the attitude toward the World Gyms was just so opposite and so abrasive that most of the gyms just de-branded," Cammilleri says. "I hate to be flippant about it, but I don't think I could lose 100 gyms if I made that my goal. That's hard to do."
In the summer of 2008, Cammilleri received a call from Planet Fitness, which was trying to gauge his interest in purchasing World Gym again. The Cammilleris had first tried to buy World Gym in 2005. The family shared a mutual contact with then-World Gym President and CEO Mike Uretz, who has remained as an advisor to World Gym.
Learning the System
"We weren't a franchisor, and we weren't in the fitness industry," Cammilleri says. "The only thing we had was great business expertise and branding expertise from another industry, and we had a personal passion for fitness. It took us the first two to three years to really learn how to operate as a franchisor, then as a brand developer. We essentially inherited a franchising business and had to learn how to be a good franchisor."
The pitch Cammilleri made to franchisees was simple, and, as he puts it, "pretty shameless."
Cammilleri told them: "Look, you don't know who I am. You don't know my family. You might hate us. You might hate what we want to do with the brand. But I'm not going to force you into a new five-year contact. How about you go month-to-month, same fees as you're paying right now. In 12 months from now, if you hate us then, leave. No harm, no foul."
Cammilleri did remind World Gym franchisees that if they left the system, it was going to cost them about $100,000 to rebrand.
"So it's either going to cost you 100 grand to leave because you're mad at Planet Fitness, who is no longer in the picture, or you can hang around paying the same fees you've been paying for years and just watch us," Cammilleri told them. "Let's talk again in a year, and if you're OK with where we're headed, then maybe we talk about getting you back onto a traditional franchise agreement and relationship."
World Gym is operated by four members of the Cammilleri family. Joyce Cammilleri, Guy's mother, owns World Gym and is chairman of the board. In addition to Guy, 41, who serves as managing director, twin brothers Marcus and Leo, 39, are directors.
For Joyce Cammilleri, purchasing World Gym provided an opportunity for the family to build a company together, says her eldest son.
"She knew it was probably one of the few things in the world that she could invest in where her three adult sons would also love being involved," Cammilleri says. "Once we sold the original company, one thing we decided as a family…we didn't want to invest in a company or an industry again unless we know it's something we really enjoy doing as a family."
A family connection to bodybuilding gave the Cammilleris an affinity for the World Gym brand. Marcus and Leo Cammilleri have competed as bodybuilders and got into the sport through their father, who also was a bodybuilder. Guy, on the other hand, is not.
"I'm the black sheep in my family because I only work out five days a week," he says.
At the end of 2013, World Gym had 210 gyms in 14 countries. Internationally, the company has enjoyed strong growth in Taiwan, led by Americans John Caraccio, founder and president of World Gym Taiwan, and CEO Michael Sanciprian. World Gym Taiwan has 25 locations, with four more in pre-sale that are expected to open by June.
The latest international World Gym opened this month in the Czech Republic, the company's first gym in that country. The Czech Republic gym is co-owned by World Gym's franchisees in Russia. Closer to home, the company has 19 gyms committed to open during the next several years in the eastern part of Canada, Cammilleri says.
When Cammilleri took over World Gym in 2009, about 70 percent of World Gyms were in the United States, he says. Today, the breakdown of domestic to international World Gyms is about 60/40 as the company looks to become more of a global brand.
"We do need to figure out how to instigate more growth in the U.S.," Cammilleri says. "At the same time, we're not going to turn away good growth just because it happens to come from outside the U.S. Our prediction is we probably will have more gyms outside the U.S. than in the U.S. within five years. We're OK with that because we see ourselves as a global brand that just happens to be American, just like Coca-Cola and Nike and Harley-Davidson are global brands that happen to be American born. We're OK with being ranked with those companies someday, and that's our goal."
As the company expands, however, it is not forgetting its roots. World Gym was founded in 1976 in Santa Monica, CA, by Joe Gold, who also is the founder of Gold's Gym. Like Gold's Gym, World Gym's legacy includes the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno. Last year, World Gym presented Ferrigno with its Joe Gold Lifetime Achievement Award at the company's convention in Las Vegas. This November, World Gym will be the title sponsor of the first annual Ferrigno Legacy bodybuilding show.
Although World Gym is not shying away from its bodybuilding past, Cammilleri wants World Gym to welcome members who are not bodybuilders but who are serious about fitness, citing CrossFit athletes as examples.
"World Gym is famous because of people like Joe Gold and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno and the glory days of Muscle Beach," Cammilleri says. "We see our roots coming from that. Let's embrace that in a way that openly acknowledges our bodybuilding history but also opens up a broader, serious fitness path globally where we're attracting the CrossFitters of the world, and we're attracting athletes.
"Our perspective is: If a great bodybuilder or athlete or CrossFitter is working out at one of our gyms, and our trainers are the best trainers in town, are we going to be intimidating to some people? Maybe. But people who are really serious about getting in shape or losing weight, maybe they're going to look at World Gym as the more serious way of doing that, or the more committed way of doing that."
That philosophy, it appears, has helped distance World Gym from Planet Fitness.