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How a Chicago Gym Owner Worked Out His Personal Path to Success

CrossTown Fitness, a chain of three gyms in Chicago, has the largest offering of personal training and group fitness classes in the area. Founded by Charles Graff, his resume includes everything from a former teacher to bartender and restaurant manager. Yet, because he has always felt the most comfortable in the gym, he knew he would eventually start one of his own, which is where he began a little over a decade ago.

In 2006, he opened his first gym known as HomeTown Fitness, in a Chicago suburb. He quickly realized that the areas that got the most traffic, the best results and the highest retention were the group classes and personal training. From there, he decided that trimming the fat off the big gym atmosphere meant focusing on group exercise classes and personal training. So he put it all together and in 2013, opened the first CrossTown Fitness.

Though each location varies slightly in demographic and age variances that reflect the neighborhood, the majority of his members are female. They are social, enjoy group classes, and take advantage of the on-site childcare.

The motto of CrossTown Fitness is “Feel good!” For Graff, there’s no doubt that part of “feeling good” is running a successful business. And, with three gyms, he seems to know how to do just that.

Knowing when it’s time to expand
Whether you have one location or several, the key is to prioritize your efforts for each location. Make sure that each one is well staffed, cash is flowing, debts are covered, and the business is successful. From there, it is either sustain the business or keep growing. For Graff, has his team has grown, it has meant hiring people with skill sets even stronger than his own in specific areas. By establishing and building trust with each other, he is able to hand off responsibility to them – freeing him up for other opportunities to grow the business. Graff has already said that three gyms isn’t the end of his enterprise. He plans to expand in the Chicago area as well as to other markets across the country.

Challenges are inevitable
Although Graff makes it look easy, running a successful fitness business comes with plenty of challenges. For example, getting a loan is tough when you don’t have the operations, the protections, the collateral and all those other pieces in place. Another challenge is finding the ideal location. For all three of his locations, he had to walk away from two others that were not right financially.

As with any business, particularly the fitness industry, attracting new members and client retention is key. There’s plenty of competition, which is why he never stops promoting the business and bringing new people in the door.

Advice for aspiring business owners
Graff’s advice to anyone starting their own gym is simple, “Surround yourself with good people,” he says. No man is an island – and that goes for entrepreneurs, too. Even if you’re starting up a business on your own without a partner, you still need to make sure there are people you trust to bounce ideas off of, and to help you make decisions. You need people to help you set up and monitor the business, and even help you sell it, if you choose to do so. There’s no doubt that most of us wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for people helping us steer clear of bad decisions and pitfalls.

Fearing failure can actually be a good thing, as long as it doesn’t paralyze you from taking risks. It motivates you to put everything you’ve got into your business to ensure that it succeeds. Because there is never truly the perfect time to start a business, you have to do as much due diligence as you can from the get-go. Then go ahead and take the leap!