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No-Frills Fitness Club Takes Its Alternative Routine to Small Towns

November 26, 2004|Clarke Canfield | Associated Press

HOLLIS, Maine — On a winding country road in the middle of nowhere, a building that once housed an antique shop now holds groups of women working out. Curves, a no-frills fitness club for women, can be found in the oddest places.

Targeting women in small-town America is part of the company's business strategy -- and it's working. Curves has grown to more than 8,400 franchises in all 50 states and 28 countries, making it by far the world's No. 1 fitness center in terms of number of clubs. One in every four fitness clubs in the United States is a Curves.

In some ways, Curves is the anti-club: no treadmills, no saunas, no locker rooms, no mirrors, no aerobics classes, no free weights. Forget the spandex -- sweatshirts rule.

Members work out on eight to 12 hydraulic resistance machines, stopping between stations to walk or jog in place. The clubs' standard routine is over in 30 minutes and is designed to burn 500 calories.

While other clubs go after the prized 18-to-34 demographic, Curves' customers are more likely to be aging baby boomers.

Sharon Morrison, owner of five Curves in Maine, including the one in Hollis, said there's a comfort level and camaraderie at Curves that women can't get elsewhere. At the same time, she said, they're losing pounds and inches.

"I had joined so many clubs in my life, and all I had lost was money," Morrison said.

The company is the creation of Gary Heavin, 49, who heads Curves International Inc. in Waco, Texas. The privately held company doesn't release earnings or revenue figures, but executives last year said sales hit $1 billion.

Heavin was a millionaire by age 30 after taking over a failing health club in Houston and expanding it into a chain of 17 clubs. But then came a divorce, bankruptcy and business failure. He spent 2 1/2 months in jail when he couldn't make child-support payments.

In 1992, Heavin and his second wife, Diane, opened the first Curves club. It was small and simple, a place where women could feel comfortable.

Three years later, Heavin was selling franchises, and by 1998 there were 500. Curves aims to have more than 25,000 -- including 8,000 in Asia and 8,000 in Europe -- within five years. By comparison, Gold's Gym International Inc. and Bally Total Fitness Corp., two of the biggest fitness clubs in the country, have about 1,000 facilities between them.

"We're the McDonald's of fitness centers in America and Canada," Heavin said. "And we can be the McDonald's of fitness centers around the world."

One reason for fast growth is the low cost. Club owners pay $29,900 for a franchise, equipment and training, plus a monthly franchise fee of $395. Club members usually pay $29 a month, far less than conventional fitness clubs.

The clubs are typically 1,000 or 2,000 square feet, with few frills, low overhead and limited hours of operation. Compare that with the large multipurpose clubs, which can be 30,000 to 40,000 square feet with an assortment of fancy machines, locker rooms and amenities.

It is that efficient business model that allows Curves to enter small markets. In Maine, you'll find a Curves in what was once a farm store in a hayfield in North Yarmouth, in a former candle shop in Waterboro and in a renovated cafe in Gorham.

Others are in small and off-the-beaten-path places such as Blue Hill, Livermore Falls, Milbridge, Newcastle and Wilton.

Of the 76 Curves in Maine, 58 are in towns with fewer than 10,000 people. Thirty-one are in towns smaller than 5,000.

Rather than lure customers from other clubs, Curves creates its own markets and generates customers from where a customer base didn't exist before.

That approach works for Denise Masalsky, 49, of Waterboro. Between Curves and a sensible diet, she has lost 48 pounds since March.

Masalsky, a fourth-grade teacher, likes the quick exercise routine at Curves and is pleased somebody was willing to locate a fitness club in a rural York County town, population 4,114.

"It used to be there wasn't anything around here," she said. "You always had to drive 35 to 40 minutes."

Kim Dare of Hollis has lost more than 50 pounds since joining Curves more than a year ago. Dare, who is 20, joined after she got engaged. "I wanted to fit into my wedding dress," she said.

Curves and Heavin, however, aren't without critics.

Some dismiss Curves as a fad, and Heavin, a born-again Christian, has been criticized for his conservative political views and donations to anti-abortion causes. Some members have quit the clubs over his political stance.

Heavin said he and his wife had given away about $10 million this year, much of it to health clinics and organizations that promote abstinence, prenatal care and pregnancy programs. He calls himself "pro-woman and pro-life."

At the annual Curves convention in Las Vegas this month, one of the topics was "the fallout from my values," Heavin said.

"Out of 5,700 people who were there, about 20 were angry at me," he said. "That is a testament not so much that they agree with me, but that they are reasonable people."

Heavin is credited with shaking up the fitness center industry. The Curves phenomenon has "forever altered the landscape of the worldwide fitness industry," John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Assn., wrote in a recent state-of-the-industry letter to association members.

It also has spurred a wave of fitness chains that cater to women, such as Kentucky-based Contours Express and California-based Liberty Fitness, said Don DeBolt, president of the International Franchise Assn.

Heavin intends to keep the company growing. There are peripheral Curves businesses, including apparel, vitamins and workout and diet books. There's soon to be a new line of Curves-branded products, including a stretching mat, a pedometer and a wristwatch with a heart-rate monitor.

Heavin also plans to meet with a prospective franchise owner in Japan.

"Our next phase of growth," he said, "is international."

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