In addition to the interview below, there is also an extra 10-minutes of bonus content, not included in the main interview. Learn more about the man that has helped so many facilities become successful; what drives him; and how he would like to see his legacy.
Chris Windram, Co-founder, Quoox
Welcome to Legends of Fitness. I’m Chris Windram.
In this series of webcasts, I will be talking to some of the most preeminent individuals in the fitness industry.
We’re starting strong with a man who’s arguably the father of the modern training gym as we know it today.
The first thing that people will tell you about this gentlemen is that he doesn’t pull any punches. The second thing they will likely describe is the worst hangover that they’ve ever experienced in their lives!
He formed his consultancy company in 1990, evolving it into the National Fitness Business Alliance in 2003. He has helped hundreds, if not thousands of fitness facilities through his workshops and more latterly, his online courses.
Known affectionately to many as the soothsayer or master of the fitness industry, and to others as Uncle Thom.
He is the man who puts the business into fitness. I am delighted to welcome Mr. Thomas Plummer as my guest today.
[Laughs] Hi Chris, I see you got some help writing that intro because you’d have to interview a few of the guys that might’ve been out late, a couple of nights.
It’s the way their eyes glaze over as they recall, Thom!
So I’ve got loads of stuff I’m dying to ask you. I’m keen to focus on the longer term future, but let’s start with the now.
I’ve heard you’ve reference industry pivot points – those events, which see the industry take a marked change in direction. In your opinion, has the industry pivoted remained steadfast or perhaps diverged in the last few months? And are we on the right track?
The pivot theory is interesting. It’s every generation of fitness person is, is obviously you’re you’re, you’re part of your time. You’re part of who you are today and it helps that I’ve been around for many generations in some ways, staying up with those guys late at night, doesn’t help so much anymore! But, uh, uh it’s so if you look at the fitness industry as a whole, you can go back until when it started.
Modern fitness started around 19 after world war II, the late forties, early fifties. Um, it really, it got really underway here in the States. Uh, there were the first, um, old school training gyms in New York City, um, in the early sixties. And so, you know, there, Bill Pearl was out there, a legend, you know, just all these guys, Jack LaLanne was getting started, uh, Vince, uh, Gironda, all these guys were there, but they, it was just forming, but that was modern fitness.
So in fitness that’s, one of the mistakes people make is they think this is like a, you know, hundreds of year old thing. And it’s really a fairly modern business concept. Um, so if you, and it’s easy to analyze it, if you look at going back to the early fifties and you go all the way through today, there’s some obvious pivot points where things, uh, forced this to change. And, um, it’s, uh, they’re it’s I call them macro trends. Um, micro trends are things like, um, oh, tanning beds were, were one tanning bed was over and over and over again. They finally, they cycled through, they get hot, they go, uh, 12 years or so, and they get, they, they reinvent again and they come back and pretty soon they just kind of go away. You see micro trends are things like more tool-based that things that come and go, and then they, they, they get really peaked and go away.
They don’t change the nature of the business. Um, Soul Cycle to me was a micro trend. They were a hot product, but they had about an eight year window. And now maybe not so hot these days. Macro trends actually force us to change how we think about things, how we do business, how we’re going to do business for the next decades. Um, couple of easy ones would have been Nautilus, uh, back in the late sixties, early seventies. I mean, this was the first time that somebody had taken equipment, turned it into a mainstream commodity where the average housewife felt comfortable in the gym back in that day. And you could come in and do a 20 minute circuit. And you, you know, you, weren’t surrounded by, you know, old school bodybuilders and stuff. It was, it was a completely new way to think of business, just shattered the business model at that time.
Um, so we see that go forward. Uh, that to me is a major, uh, obviously that Arnold would have been, uh, a macro trend, you know, he comes in and just introduces bodybuilding that whole new school made that mainstream as well. So we look back and we see major points that force us to kind of, okay, where are we going now? Uh, 2020 is one of those years.
The, the, the fitness business. We’re not, we can’t go back we’re, there is no “return to sender”. You know, we can’t reach back to 2019 what we are, we’re, we’re really not even sure today, but what we’re going to be in 2021. Um, I’ve got some educated guesses on it, but we’re not going back. We we’ve changed. We pivoted. And, uh, it’s, it’s, we’re in the middle of a new macro trend, and it’s going to change how we do business for the next decade.
Do you think that we, as an industry are accepting and embracing this change, or are we clinging onto what has gone?
The, the example I use is, um, if you ever go to, uh, one of the saddest days in your life, if you’re a dog person, just to go to a, uh, uh, a kennel, you know, and try to pick up a used dog. You know, you’re going to go back and save a dog, and you, as know you walking there and you looked down and this little guy has been in the cage for like three years. You know, nobody will love that dog. And they, the dogs, they, they, if they’re in there long enough, they almost become institutionalized. They get, they sit back in the corner. They’re terrified of everybody there. They’re just claustrophobic. They’ve been in these little boxes. They don’t get out very much. And they’re, they just, they, they snap at you. And no matter how much you try to help them, they’re they they’re helpless.
There’s a sense of helplessness that they just fight back. The gym owner is like that right now. And not just the gym owner, but too many people that we, we posture, we pose. We’re going to sue the government. We’re going to do all those things, especially in our country. And it’s they, that people, and what happens is it’s their, they’re the dog they they’re. So there there’s a sense of helplessness that I can’t change my identity. I mean, everybody we have in the gym business, you know, we, we believe that the strongest human beings, there are big physical specimens, male, female, they’re in control of their lives. We read social media that, you know, this guy’s making a million bucks. This guy did, this guy wrote a new book. And so we get caught up in everybody’s social media nonsense, but when it breaks down to it, we’re the dog. The virus has made us in that corner, many of us.
And so instead of lashing out, we get frustrated. We’re going to defy wearing masks. We’re going to fight the government. We’re going to do this. In your country, and more of Europe, everybody kind of follows the rules more, but that sense of helplessness shows up in guys, just like “I’m shutting my doors. Here’s the keys.” They’re just hanging in the door. They give up quickly. Or they become mean with their families. They’re fighting, they’re drinking way too much. They, they, they find a way to self destruct. So in the States that they’re angry is caught. Their anger has cost them their gyms. They cost them the ability to stay at business, but they don’t understand that that’s psychologically this is how they’re expressing the fact that “I can’t change it”.
And so you it’s, it’s messed up the owners pretty badly, not just in the States, but most of the countries in the world, because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. And therefore you want to cling to 2019. So to answer your question directly, uh, no, no, one’s not. I don’t say anyone, but the bulk of the people that own fitness businesses around the world are on their knees begging for 2019 to come back and they’re not willing to embrace what is now and what will be tomorrow. They just will not let go and try to grab that.
Have we, as an industry, missed an opportunity to reset and are we undervaluing our product?
So, um, based on, you know, too many years of helping people, there’s nobody changes until they’re forced to change. Um, the example in the real world is, you know, that guy, that’s 40 pounds overweight. He is 36 years old. He’s, you know, his wife is overweight. They’re the kind of the people that kind of come home and move slow, sit in front of the couch, scroll. You know, the kids are chubby. The dogs, chubby, everybody’s overweight and nothing changes.
They know intellectually that what they’re doing does not work. They know it from their doctor, whispering in their ear to, you know, “you need to lose some weight” to their, you know, his brother going, “come on, dude, really, you got to do something”. And what happens is when he walks in the doctor, when the doctor says “your test came back and they’re not good”, if you don’t change your, your life, you will not see your child graduate from high school. “You’re going to die in the next five years”. The probability of that is very high from everything I’m seeing.
Now, the guy changes. So there is no with it, without that stick upside the head, nobody changes. So right now we’ve gotten the stick upside the head, are we changing? Um, it is a chance to reset, but again, uh, one thing you said earlier, like the big boxes.
Um, not last trip I was there, but I think about, uh, almost 18 months ago, I was traveling with one of our mutual friends. Jean-Claude Vacassin. And, um, we just did a whole tour of London. I wanted to see “catch me up”. So we blew a whole afternoon, just going from gym to gym, to gym. We walked into one of the big box gyms and they’re an old, solid name – at one time one of the bigger chains in the world, and this gym was disgusting pre-virus.It was dirty, cluttered, um, badly staffed. Um, if you were bad before the virus, all the virus does is correct. Uh, Darwin’s theory, natural correction.
So coming through that, but one of the things I always talked about in the workshops, if I looked at the world, you know, about 10% people that were proactive, they’re willing to embrace change. They’ll actually change before needed. They are people that are constantly driving forward and about 90% are reactive. They won’t market in their gym until somebody forces them. They don’t market it until they have no, you’re almost going to lose their gym. Now they understand marketing. They understand staffing when they collapse in a pile on the weekend and almost have a stroke because they worked 70 hours a week for the last 10, 10 weeks. So there’s right now, the proactive people are looking, “what is the, what is the world gonna look like in 2021?”
And the reactive people are going, you know, it’s just like, “oh, we’re going to wait and see, you know, this is going to go back to the other way”. And “I don’t want to change everything”. And “I used to make so much money when I did this”. And so you can almost differentiate the person from just their choice of words, the guy that lives in the future. This is what I’m looking for next year. I’m willing to invest here versus no, “I don’t think this is real”. You know, “No, this is, it’s all fake”. We’re going to go back. You know, it’s all going to come back and anybody that’s phrases like that is that reactionary person. They’ve gotten a stick upside the head. They just need three to four more wacks before they’ll change. And many them will never change. Many of them will lose their businesses before they’ll ever change.
I’m wondering if this pivot we’re experiencing can actually result in a more significant purge, or maybe a correction to the industry.
I was talking to my 75 year old father, as far as I’m aware, he’s never been to a gym. He’s not your typical gym goer, but COVID was that stick for him. He is keen to get fitter, but fitness classes those over 50 still seem to be relatively niche. With COVID taking down those of us who are overweight or more elderly, is this a market that we’re failing to capitalize on?
The big box experience, where treadmills are, you know, jeez, you know, this far apart, I can reach out with my elbow and touch your shoulder. You know, I could smell your cologne. You know, we’re up here. You know, we’re breathing the same air. We come in on a packed Monday night and the group classes are stuffed and people are all over the floor, just hanging on equipment. They may come back that type of day, but I’m not seeing that for at least a couple of years – if it ever comes back.
That business model itself is dead. That business model dates back to 1967. It’s, it’s a stupid model. It’s just, you know, the it’s the purge aspect of this is what you’re saying is yes, the big, the big guys are gone. So your Dad, in this case, his future is going to be the smaller and, um, mostly independent gyms that are these, um, 3,500 square feet, 350 meter gyms.
They’re they’re going to be this, this group where I can come in, I can get into small groups. I can get into one-on-one, your Dad and, and bluntly to me, no one over 50 needs to be running down the floor with 40 people in a group, pushing sleds and high fiving like I’m 26! You know, I need to be in a group of adults (meaning over 40) but I want to coach in a smaller group, work on technique. Because everybody over 40 is messed up and create a more elite experience. Your Dad probably belongs in small group and maybe even one-on-one, depending on what he can pay and what he is willing to pay for his health. But the small groups, that’s the owner that’s going to kick it in the UK, is the small, independent training gyms because they’re the way forward for most of the clients.
We really should build gyms for the top 40 to 50% by demographics, by influence by that number one reason you joined a gym is education it’s education and influence. You know, those two things go hand in hand, you’re going to build a gym for somebody that gets me.
I’m not going to build a top end steakhouse for a guy that wants to go eat at a takeaway and spend four bucks for a meat pie. I want to build this a hundred dollars steak and this $200 bottle of wine for the top 40% of the demographics that appreciate the experience, that understand it. Well, the gym business is the same way.
We should be resetting looking at even the box is going for smaller, more controlled groups, more emphasis on a one-on-one training for the next couple of years. Destructuring team training where we bring it down instead of 30, 40, 50 people pushing sleds, we bring it down to smaller compartmentalize stuff.
We can control meditation, restoration, things like that, which will allow us to offer these things and take the box gym and rebuild it. But it takes a lot of money to build 300 box gyms. So, it’s gonna I, a lot of them are not going to make it and they’re going to fail and you’re going to have a lot of failures in the UK.
The reopening of gyms has brought about a ritual burning of webcams to accompanying cries of “I’m a personal trainer, not a TV presenter”. Conversely, Peloton have expanded their offering with a budget friendly home workout product and FIIT launched their TV based offering just last week in the UK.
Are we dinosaurs staring at the bright light as it heads towards this, too rigid in our expectations of what it is to be a “personal trainer”?
That’s why I stand in the pub at two o’clock in the morning, poking guys in the chest trying to explain that type of stuff to them, because they intellectually, it doesn’t make sense to them. 10 years ago, if I was a trainer, and I tell this story too many times, but I was over there with Gregory Bradley, doing a workshop that they sponsored and I was going to do two days. And then the first day was a trainer thing. So I got there that afternoon and there were five presenters. And I think about 80, 85 people in the, in the group, um, I’ve watched guys arguing for probably 45 minutes of an hour and 15 minutes session about where the knee goes into a lunge. And they were, I mean, they’re, they were getting kind of a couple of them were fired up and the instructor had his way and I’m like, “oh my God, this is, you know, this is dinosaur stuff”.
You know, 10 years ago, the technical side of training made you a better trainer. It set you apart from all the other coaches. But today, we all have that base. You know, you, you get in, yeah. The guy with 15 years experience is obviously much better than the guy with a year’s experience, but we still have the same base.
So just being a good coach does not separate you anymore. It does not guarantee money anymore. So being a good coach is like a, a learner’s permit to drive your car the first time. So from there, I’ve got to get really good at marketing. I’ve got to master marketing at that point. I’ve got to get really good at staffing. I’ve got to get really good at, um, not just marketing, but online – camera work and the ability to set up a separate company… I’m telling guys now that online training, this is our chance to not just lay a new path for the entire fitness industry, but it’s a chance to set your business apart in your marketplace.
If you have an existing gym run online, online training as a separate business. Run it. I’m telling the guys to dedicate, you know, 200 square feet, 20 meters, somewhere in their space, set up a video studio, put big flat screens so I can see my client and, you know, a decent size as I’m coaching them. Run a separate marketing track. Run it as a separate part of your business and then lay the ground support.
One of the things that coaches need to do is that we have to get nutrition way beyond weight loss, and yet the old school trainers, like, you know, I can talk about taking 10, you know, you know, a stone off somebody, but I can’t talk about, you know, how to keep his family safe because my nutrition is a weekend certificate. So if you’re a coach besides all the mechanical online video marketing and all that, you have to take your coaching skills. Restoration of natural movement…
You have to get into nutrition. You should be a master of meditation and stress relief. All those are part of the coaching tool bag, now.
So the coaches going forward that bitch and moan about that, or are they the dinosaur standing there staring at the light? Uh, yeah, the they’re they’re even not even that smart, you know, they’re, they’re, you know, they’re taking their sunglasses off and go, “oh look, bright and shiny!” You know, it’s gonna, it’s gonna burn a hole in their forehead way before it hits them because they just, they, you gotta give up. It’s just, it’s changed. It’s evolved. Have you? You know, that’s what I say to trainers, “man, when are you going to let go,? Dude, you’re 30 years old. You’re like an old man. You keep telling me how things used to be and what got you here.”
I’ve said that probably a thousand times a year workshops is “what got you good is the very thing that prevents you for being great” because you get to a certain point that what you know is what you know, and then that’s what you hang on to. And you need to reinvent yourself every several years because you have to question what you even think, you know? So you’re a good trainer? Yeah, I’m a good trainer. Good. That was really cool. 10 years ago. Now, what are we going to do? So what’s it take to be a good trainer tomorrow? Don’t tell me about today. What’s it take to be a good trainer tomorrow?
Do you think “fear of change” holds us back as an industry?
But the thing you have to understand is that you can control your own outcome.
If you, if you look forward and look into what’s it going to take to be successful next year, I got to go forward. Then that fear tends to fade away as you take action. The problem is nobody takes action. That fear overwhelms your soul. It just it’s. You, you, you get caught up into it. You’re sitting at home with a glass of wine, screaming at your kids. You know, you and your spouse are fighting. Because you know, you just had your third whiskey, cause you’re just mentally just so stressed. And that’s how the fear comes out. It’s the helplessness.
But the day you make the decision. It’s look, “I can fight this. I can go forward”. There is a path forward and let, let’s go the day you do that, a lot of that fear subsides. It doesn’t go away completely, but you get hope. You get hope in your own talent.
So if you really believe you’re as good as you know, you tell everybody you are in your business and you live it, walk it, you know, grow it, make it work, but you can’t hide in 2019. It’s not going back
For several decades. You’ve predicted and played a key role in shaping the fitness industry. If you gave them a shake, what would the Thom Plummer runes be telling us about what the future holds?
The, the client has kind of outgrown the gym.
Uh, there, as we go forward, the expectation of what they want for a gym has changed. And I think that’s changed forever. I think that’s one of the pivot points. Is the people with, if you look at the, a typical market, the, the, the mistake is, is if I go into a London suburb and I build a gym, I like, and I, I go, who’s coming to your gym. Well, everybody, my gym is going to be just, you know, I’m going to have this cardio, this, and I’m going to have this room and this room. And they, you build a gym, the old David Lloyd type gym, Fitness First type gym, where you build a box, that’s allegedly for everybody. Well, that’s we’ve kind of outgrown that if you think about it.
What was it? I don’t have the exact year, 1897, 1896, Mercedes built the first car, you know, that’s and then Ford jumps in, in the early 19 hundreds.1906, you know, there was one car for sale. One car. You could buy a model A or T or whatever it was at that time. That was it you know.
And now if you drive anywhere through London, now, how many car dealerships do we see? And then within a brand like Mercedes, how many cars would you see toward different target markets?
Same thing with doctors. The day of the old doctor creating a bag and coming to your house because you were sick. Now, if I have a nose issue or ear issue, it’s usually two different guys. It’s their specialist.
Why do we think the gym business wouldn’t grow from generalist to specialist? And like every other industry does. Gym businesses evolve to that point that we’re becoming specialists. That said, if we look at the total market, there’s the top 40%. And then there’s the bottom 60% by affluence. So most training style gyms are, would be better to seek that this end.
Well the segment’s growing on the upper side, that’s where all the growth’s coming forward, because that’s the smartest consumer. They’re the most educated, they’re the ones that have a little more money.
So the future is going to belong to that, that type of gym that is target specific. I’m looking at that 24 to 36 year old client. That’s usually the team client, but that person will do boxing. Will do cycle classes. Will do mind-body restoration.
So you have to take the old team, the bootcamp model, and destructure it into segments that we could maintain within the gym. Small group is four people, 35, usually to 55. They’re more affluent, but they love the group dynamic.
That’s why Peloton as frustrating as it is to a gym owner. Peloton always has one failure into it. It’s it’s still you, with little screen. And the person on screen going, “come on Peloton, we can do this” and, you know, what you’re sitting there and you’re in your underwear. We’re peddling around on Sunday morning. And there’s a little face in here, screaming at you, going “whoo” and all this type of stuff. And you go, you know, it, it works for some people, but for a lot of people, it doesn’t because I want the coach to help me individually. And that all of those can’t do that.
The, the tech doesn’t allow for the individualization of the product. It feels individualized because I got a guy yelling my name, perhaps because the computer generated it or I’ve got somebody going “go, man”, you know, or something. But it feels, cause I’m looking at the mirror, for example, there’s somebody in there coaching, but they’re, it’s still not as effective as the online presence. So as we go forward to consumers change, they expect the gym to change.
So they’re going to be seeking out these smaller gyms with higher level of education, total support systems like nutrition, like restoration of natural movement, like stress relief. They’re going to look for those things and they’re going to be that’s that’s the gym. That’s going to be ready to accept the client going forward. The gym of the future is going to be pretty simple. It’s going to be a total solution for an educated adult that has money in his pocket. It’s not that hard to figure out if you just step back and look at it, we just build them for that client. They will be there because that’s the client that’s looking for us.
So, it’s your belief that a customer drawn to the likes of Peloton can still be served by the small training gym via an online offering?
That client that might be right in the Peloton is that CEO that says, you know, “hey, Chris let’s workout at two”. So he’s at his office or he’s working out of his house. And he looks down and goes, “oh, ten-to-two”, runs downstairs and puts on his workout clothes, goes to his workout room in his house, logs in with you online. And you go, “hey Thom, how’s it going?” I said, “good man, good morning. Getting a lot of work done?” “Good. Well, let’s get this workout knocked out.”
And so you’re standing there in your studio and you’ve got a gigantic flat screen television. So when I’m working out, you could see me not a little laptop and I’ve got a camera hanging on my wall at home. So you can get a better shot at me. So “hey, Thom turn sideways. I want to see that goblet squat.” “Good. You know what? Here’s what I’m seeing on those hips, dude”, you know, and all of a sudden you it’s…
Peloton will never replace that. Everything’s going to kill us. And it doesn’t, because what happens is you can’t kill the sense of community. And that’s what gyms need to do.
Another thing back on your other question, the gym of next year, you need that socialization area. You can’t run a 150 meter gym. You can’t run that small, that small box. You need space for a guy to come in early, to sit and have a kick ass cup of coffee. You know, something to wire me up for my workout. I’ll scroll my messages. I’ll do my workout. I’ll stop and have a six or seven pound shake going out the door because I want to check my messages again. I’ll go back to work.
But we’ve taken socialization out of the gyms because, especially in the UK, we believe that our, we do the best workouts. That’s enough. And the best workouts again was enough, 10 years ago. It’s not enough.
Now this guy should be getting six emails and texts a week from you on nutrition tips beyond. Actual cooking demonstrations to show how to prepare food healthy. That’s once a week, I’ll get one of those sent out a little, you know, 15 minutes, how to make a Thanksgiving dinner over here, or a holiday dinner over there where we got something like that. Uh, here’s follow along. Let’s do these, you know, I’m going to do a three minute flow. Get up off your desk, come on, let’s do a three minute flow. If you have time, let’s go again.
And you just, you just there’s things like that, that we just don’t do yet. But that’s what the client wants us, what the client will do. And that, that breaks us into a whole new category. It makes us absolutely, absolutely, nobody can challenge us. I can’t think of a single company like the Peloton guys that can say, I’m going to take a guy down. Well, you can’t take it down. I have a relationship with my client. You don’t, you know, leadership sells.
You know, a gym that can support total lifestyle support, the one that can, you know, can nutrition, training, stress reduction, movement.
That’s the gym of the future. If you can support the client, that’s the four pillars you’ve got to build your next gym on.
These days, much of the industry does a great job during the first 30, 45 days of the trial. But then once they’ve signed up and started paying regular money, it’s almost like everything stops?!
That goes back to what you said earlier was very important. That’s that’s your, your first point was that’s that’s the type of coach that thinks I write the best workouts. I’m the best technical trainer. The guy who will stay because he loves me, but the guy can’t even get, he can’t get a smoothie going out the door! There’s no social events!
No, jeez, this is weird. But a lot of my clients, we, we build new juice bars, new performance bars, we’re putting beer taps in them. So I can throw in a little keg and on Friday afternoon and just pick it up and give away beer free guys, come in and hang out. You know, do your workout, have a beer before you leave, you know, stay out. We might have a party this night. Now, stuff like that, where people want to be connected to their gym.
The gym is, you know, it’s an old theory, but the gym is your third part of your life. You know, I go to work home, work, home, work, home the gym. There has to be that third base. And you know, unless you want to be a raving alcoholic and just go sit in the bars every night, you know, you need a place that’s, it’s your time, your space, but we don’t sell it that way. And especially in the UK, and UK is not caught up on that yet, where we don’t sell it that way, you have to sell it as “this is your escape”.
Well, gyms are not designed to do that. They’re designed for you to walk in five minutes before you work out. Do your work out. The guy high fives you and says “see you tomorrow, Hey, by the way, can I get more money from you today while you’re in here?” And then he, uh, and the guy goes home. The guy after six months ago, he goes, uh, I can’t even get on a treadmill. There’s nothing.
So the, the new gyms are bigger. They have space where I can come on my off days. And that’s what I think Gregory Bradley does so well. We talked, uh, I’ve talked to him about this in the past. We build it into the newer training gyms is where you, you, you get in and you start to put space where I can come into my off days. And I have dedicated space where I can just do my own thing. You write workouts for me, but I can go, come and do them. So I I’m tired of trainers. I don’t want to see anybody. Hey, just come in on Friday and pound on the treadmill.
Well, you’ve got to create that space and you’ve got to create that community and that social support system. And we don’t do that yet. Not nearly enough, but we will. That’s what’s coming next.
One great analogy I saw you give was that the blacksmith’s apprentice. They do their apprenticeship; they learn the trade; and they move on to set up on their own. But then, perhaps excepting the choice of a more contemporary colour scheme, the apprentice typically adopts all of the same tools and techniques of master.
Individuals, such as Frank Nash, Rick Mayo, and in the UK. Jean-Claude Vacassin are amongst the rare group of individuals who’ve had the courage to carve their own paths. Who are the next generation of Franks? And when you eventually choose to pass on your Yoda-like duties, who is the next Thom Plummer?
There’s a lot of gym guys now, the first guys making that first million dollars. So when your gym can turn out a million dollars a year, like all the guys you’ve mentioned and all the people I’ve mentioned it, that when you can turn that, then you, then you kind of have a right to say, look, I’ve done it. But a lot of the gurus out there now haven’t done it. Are failed at it. Now they’re going to teach you their secrets. So you, you have to be careful on who, who, who is getting it done. The web has made the guru harder. The, the guru of the future, the hardest part is that there it’s a different in era. The era, when I grew up in the era going forward, is they how the business consultant was coached and prepared is different now. Because I’m, I was trained as a business consultant.
I just happened to specialize in gyms and the fitness business, but I work with a number of other companies, you know, from everything from really high end, uh, third party service companies – like one I might see right here in front of me, it’s like with you, like you and Ben and you know, your new venture, that’s a beautiful thing.
But so I might work with guys with that, but I might work for financial service companies, architectural firms, financial companies, but I was trained as a classic business guy. That’s happened to specialize in the fitness business. So I had to learn how leases work and conceptualize and real estate and all that. I had to learn, uh, architectural stuff to be able to help guide design stuff and to be able to help them bid it and to see what was in it. I had to work with, um, attorneys on the legal ramifications of partnerships and what happens when those go bad. So you, over time, you, you, there’s a certain depth that you achieve that somebody that’s just a gym owner never has.
And one of the biggest mistakes that new guru, young guru, makes is, “hey, I’ve got this great gym. Uh, I made money. Let me teach you how I did it.” Well, he’s terrible because it’s situational. It could have been a great location. Um, he might have just stuff he’s not teaching because he did it instinctively.
But it’s guys like me, who can say, look, yeah, we’ve been in the gym business, our family for 35 years. My daughter still has a very successful training gym. However, if you need references on me, let me put you in touch with two or three thousand of my clients from around the world. And because the, the sign of a guru, it’s not that you can run a gym that you can make other people successful.
Are there any areas that you used to teach that aren’t as relevant today? How have things evolved, or are the fundamentals of good business and customer service impervious to time?
I wrote a book, my first book was 1998 called “Making money in the fitness business”. I rewrote it two years ago. It was 420 pages. I only kept 17 pages from the first book. That’s how much it’s changed in that time period. And I kind of wish I could do it over now.
Um, it’s just that the depth of information changes like right now, that book doesn’t talk anything about the online, the how good we have to be. It doesn’t talk about the four pillars. If I wrote a new book today, it would be based on those four pillars of what the gym has to look for going forward. It would definitely be, um, everything I would teach now. So if I do go back next year and teach in the real world, which is right now, meh, but if I went back and did that next year, I I’d have to teach from a whole new viewpoint just in the last six months.
Most of what I taught the last two years is still basic solid, valid information, but here’s where we are now. You know, and it’s, you know, the online I’ve taught somewhat, but never did adept. I’d have to go. Now the four pillars I taught somewhat, but now that would be the whole business structure. How we price the structure has changed the team. The team concept has changed. We’re de-structuring that. Yeah, I’d have a, in the last three months I could write a whole new workshop. And most of my workshops are 350 slides. Two days, you’re talking about 12 to 15 hours of teaching. And most of that material would be new, right now. That’s so much changed just this year
When opening a new facility, enthusiastic new business owners spend forever choosing which cool Perform Better, or stunningly beautiful BLK BOX equipment to use – along with hours contemplating which shade of duck egg to paint their showers. Their decision on what to use as a core business system, the absolute cornerstone of their day to day activities, is often left until the last minute, and nearly forgotten. Similarly for established facilities, with a software solution that fails to evolve, it could be like an albatross around the neck.
What is your take on software systems for the modern training gym? And is there a band-aid analogy for those reluctant to change despite yet it holding their businesses back?
Yeah, the, it’s a good question. Most of the, the, the young gym owners build it from the equipment backwards. They, they really in essence build a gym for them. You know, this is not anticipating a target market, but if I’m right about the need for support, then a company like you is obviously you guys are building is, is so important because if I can get control of the money first, I can make a lot of mistakes in the business and still survive. So I need communication tools with my clients. I need the ability to collect the money and he or she that collects the most money from the most clients wins, but I can’t do packages and sessions. I need somebody stronger to do that. So companies like you are developing are really the foundational tool. We start there. If we can get the money right in control of the clients and, and how we talk to them, how we track them, how we communicate with them over time, how we retain them to get useful key indicators back from my, my staff of what we’re doing.
If I can get that right, I can really then concentrate on what goes on top of that, which are the financial systems, which goes on top of that or the sales systems and marketing. And eventually I’ll order the equipment. I have to build it from the client backwards and you know, who’s my target market? What services?
Well you you have to, you have to build a, a financial foundation that allows me to maintain control of that client. I need to know where he is all the time ,when he’s paying, you know, how many times have we talked to him last week? What support tools do I need to use for him, you know, stuff like that. And that should be managed with a good software company.
There haven’t been a lot of choices in the past few years. Um, the major companies like MindBody sold a couple of years ago, they’re kind of stumbling. And then there’s a new generation of, of, of what you and Ben are doing, which I admire greatly because it is the next generation. It is illustrating what’s possible.
You have to listen to your clients, but you also have to lead the clients down paths they don’t even know exist. And that’s a hard blend. That’s the skillset. That’s what I like seeing out of you guys so far. I think you guys are, you’re doing both of those quite well.
Everyone knows you to be a man of integrity, Thom, and you’ve helped an awful lot of people. You have a self-awareness and an outward zen-like calmness. What would Thom Plummer of today tell the Thom Plummer of his teens?
I, I tend to do things hard way because I had no mentors, no role models, no, no dad. So to speak. So everything I did was trial and error. So I think I, if I had to look back, it’s the same message I would tell a lot of the young owners today is “don’t be afraid to ask for help”. You know, don’t be, you don’t have to know everything. And I felt that I did. That was the pressure that was on me because I had no one to ask. And I thought, well, everybody must have to figure this out on their own because you know, it just didn’t dawn on me at 21, 22, that there were mentors out there. There were people that actually gave a damn.
And it’s just a, so it was all I lived most of until I was 30 by the, the sacred rules of trial and error, you know, try it, get burned down, try and get burned down. And, uh, and I kind of rebuilt or, built my career toward, toward fitness. And once I got out of graduate school, I, that was it. I’ve never worked anywhere else in the entire, um, since 1977, I’ve never been out of the gym business.
That’s been my only thing since then I started working in a gym and, uh, that was it. And that’s, I’ve, I’ve some aspect of the fitness business I’ve been in it since then. So I kind of had to invent that path because I didn’t really have anybody to talk to about it. I finally got into martial arts, found a really good, uh, instructor, uh, named Chuck Hawkins. He was my first real mentor in my life. Um, and then kind of moved into a couple of further into the organization and met some other people that were willing to give me some guidance.
And I kind of put, build a career around that. And it’s, it’s, it’s it’s worked, but it’s ugly.
You know, you’re, you’re here to change lives. That’s why you’re born. That’s like people here, we make a big deal about purpose. We make a big deal about, you know, “oh my God, I don’t want, I’m going to do the rest of my life”. Yeah. You don’t have to know today what you’re going to do, but you do exist for one reason.
You’re here to change lives. So make sure that whatever you do, you leave the place a little better than you found it. And that’s, if there’s one mantra that I’ve had all the way through since I was very young, cause I read a lot in college, a lot of philosophy, a lot of those things is that you there’s a certain, I’m a seeker.
There’s a certain process in my life that I’m always looking, I’m seeking.
I believe there’s more to life than what we see. I believe there’s more beyond this life. I, I, I, I seek. I’m constantly that person. That said, I, you have to leave it better than you found it. So I’ve tried to help people beyond the norm. I help people when they had money, when they didn’t have money. Um, I don’t give up on clients. I I’ll, I’ll walk to the end of the rope with you as best we can. Let’s let’s what can we do? And I think that’s why I’ve survived and no one else really has.
None of the people I started with are still in the game. Every single one of them is gone from that generation. And the reason I’m still out here now is I think basically if you could take my career, they said one thing at the end of my career, I was just like, you know, “Plummer, he really gave a damn, you know, he really did care about the gym guy. He really cared about the people he was trying to help”.
And I told you we’d work back to the bar stories. That’s when people, the reason that those stories go that way is that people that’s, when they’re not afraid of me, not afraid to talk to me.
You put a couple pints in a guy. I did a, uh, a workshop with, uh, Jean-Claude. We had about, I think, uh, 20 guys locked out for a couple of days and we were, it was remote. We were out in some kind of old, massive country home. It was really a cool place. But we were, I say, we’re in this little tiny pub and there’s like 12-15 of us lined up and I’m sitting at the end. And so I’ve talking to a guy and he’d get and go to the bathroom and the next guy would sit down, we’d have another pint.
He’d get up, go to the bathroom. Next guy would show up. So within the scope of two hours, I probably talked to everybody at the table, at least a couple of times. Because I’d then, I’d get up and go down the other end and sit with them. And they, you know, so guys sitting there after a second pint, he goes, “so can I ask you a question I wanted to ask you all day, but I just didn’t feel it was right?” And I go, “yeah”, he goes, “yeah, so what am I gonna do with the rest of my life?” You know? And “you think I should get divorced?” Or, you know, I, I, “my dad’s willing to give me money, but I don’t know if I could take all that money”. It just scares me to death with opening a gym. And that’s when they ask you the real stuff and that defines who you are as a consultant.
And if, and if you want to be that person, you have to go good, good ask. I’ll stand there at two o’clock in the morning in a pub in Belfast and drink a pint with five guys and talk business until they, they, they won’t. And because it’s I will not leave until they get what they came for.
If you talk to a lot of the guys that go through it, they get a lot, but they say, you know, I sat through the workshop, but then when I go out with Thom afterwards is where I learn everything that’s important because that’s when, you know, somebody will ask.. It will be, one of the last times, things we were in a Providence, Providence, Rhode Island. And we were in this hotel. So the bar closes at like one, two o’clock whatever in the hotel bar, but we go there so much.
It’s a nice hotel. So the bartender just he’ll give me whatever wine that I want to take. And we go up and sit in the lobby. They got these big, really cool, big tables, in this lobby. And we’ll just sit there until four o’clock in the morning and just chill. Everybody sits around the table, but then somebody will say, well, you know, “what about this gym? And why didn’t that work?” And all of a sudden, you know, we got all these guys talking and, but they’re asking the real questions and they’re learning because they’ll actually ask, you know, stuff like that. Well, “why’d this guy fail?” Or, you know, “I did this, it didn’t work”. So, you know, “where, where did I screw it up?” And everybody’s sitting there going, like, I want to hear the answer to this. So that’s, that’s when you can go deep.
That’s the only type of teaching I’m really interested in doing anymore. The days of 150 people, you know, I maybe, maybe not. I’m just not interested in it, but when you get 20 people and you can hammer them for two days in a room and go deep in their questions and get messed with their heads and buy them dinner and have some cocktails afterwards and really talk to them, that’s all I want at this stage in my life.
You know, I could happily talk to you for hours, Thom. But that seems like a great note on which to end our chat. Thank you so much for your time and insights. And I highly encourage people to check out your workshops and your online business or fitness courses.
Please join us again next time for Legends of Fitness.