Breaking The Rules
Iron Tribe Fitness strictly limits membership numbers and charges a monthly fee high enough to get your heart racing, but business is booming.
Jim Strickland is manager and coach at Iron Tribe Fitness at 733 St. Joseph St. in Downtown New Orleans, opened in February 2014. The fitness chain currently operates 70 locations nationwide.
A team-based workout that began in a 400-square-foot garage in Birmingham, Ala., has gone tribal in only six years, boasting a national franchise with 70 locations; its rapid growth is showing no sign of slowing down.
Simply defined, Iron Tribe Fitness (ITF) is functional fitness – everything that they do in a 45-minute workout is functional to real life – so there is no flipping industrial-sized tires.
“You want to be strong but also have good endurance; you want to be flexible and have good speed,” says Jim Strickland, manager and coach at Iron Tribe Fitness in Downtown New Orleans.
“How we achieve that is by having some form of weight training, some form of body weight exercise and some form of cardiovascular exercise in all of our classes,” he says.
Originally from Birmingham, Strickland already knew of ITF, but when he learned that Kate Jenkins and her husband, Kerry Jenkins, former offensive lineman for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Louisiana State University, were opening up an ITF franchise in New Orleans, he jumped at the opportunity to be part of their tribe.
The decision to move ITF down to New Orleans came after Jenkins joined ITF in Birmingham as an athlete in 2012, within months he was hooked.
“I was 39 years old and I had gotten to a place in my life where I just did not feel good physically,” says Jenkins. “I was doing everything from going to the local big box gym, having a one-on-one personal trainer, to a whole gym in my house, still with all of that it was hard for me to stay motivated.”
Now as the Jenkins’ move toward opening up their second location in Metarie, and with a third location in the pipeline, they are often asked what sets ITF apart from other trending team-based workout programs like CrossFit and various Boot Camp style groups.
“Brand wide we are very intent on how we want to do it, and we are very focused on the athletes,” Jenkins says.
Members are expected to attend classes three, four, or five times a week. Traveling is no excuse, as members can drop in to any Iron Tribe Fitness in the country.
WORKOUT OF THE DAY
ITF entered the New Orleans market in February 2014 with the Downtown location at 733 St. Joseph St. They committed themselves to taking on 15 new members per month until they reached their self-imposed membership cap of 300 (membership caps vary slightly at each ITF location).
Jenkins explains that these caps ensure a small coach-to-athlete ratio. Once ITF gets to 150 athletes they have four full-time staff members, two coaches and two co-coaches, and a manager who also fills the role as a co-coach. Once they have 200 members, they will hire another full-time co-coach and the manager will move in to focus on the day-to-day operations of the gym.
“We chose 300 because it prevents us from getting too big and allows us to keep giving that individualized attention,” says Strickland. “Our coaches are very focused on our athletes and they know our athletes, and our athletes know what to expect every time they come.”
Becoming part of the tribe is a process that is designed to weed out those that are not 100 percent committed to changing their lifestyle habits.
“When people join we require a certain level of commitment,” says Strickland. “We discuss goals and any limitations. I want to know what has prevented them from reaching their goals in the past, so I can make sure this is a good fit for them. If they aren’t able to give me 100 percent commitment, then I won’t let them join.”
For those who get through the initial consultation, Strickland recommends one of three fitness packages - four-, eight- and 12-month programs in which the member attends classes three, four or five times a week.
The first four weeks of ITF is the one-on-one program where members learn fundamentals, correct techniques, and nutrition. They graduate into their individual program where they attend regular 45-minute classes that have two coaches to a maximum of 20 people.
The ITF company has a programming team that creates a different workout every day. So members who are traveling can drop in at any ITF, a unique feature that other group fitness enterprises don’t have.
“Everybody does the same workout but everything is infinitely scalable; we adjust the intensity, whether that’s power, distance or time,” Strickland says.
ITF also offers an added service - a nutrition program that serves 100 percent Paleo meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a fee. Although the meal plan is not required, maintaining a food log is.
WEIGHING THE NUMBERS
Strickland says the price tag attached to this fitness program ranges on average from $230 to $290 a month, depending on each athlete’s time commitment.
“In a new market, where people don’t know what Iron Tribe is, they will see $250 a month and just turn the page without even hearing what is in it for them,” says Strickland.
“Even people who are making six figures are not used to paying that for membership so they have to talk to me and at least hear about Iron Tribe first before I tell them the price.”
Strickland continues to explain that the cost is part of the commitment.
“If they are committing financially then they are not going to waste their money,” he says. “If you break it down, your average personal trainer is $40 to $60 per hour, if you break us down it is about $15 an hour.”
After creating his own fitness program and nutritional plan, Iron Tribe Founder Forrest Walden signed up 250 members - with a waiting list - in just eight months.
ITF was founded by Forrest Walden, a master franchiser who at one stage had built up to 55 personal training franchises that spanned across Alabama, Florida and North Carolina.
He sold that venture in order to fund his own startup, Iron Tribe Fitness, always with the intent to franchise. Walden moved the first ITF from his garage to a brick and mortar in February 2010 – within eight months he reached his 250 membership cap with a waiting list – six years later ITF spread nationwide.
With the odds working in ITF’s favor – 90 percent of small businesses fail, while 85 percent of franchises succeed – it is much more attractive and less risky for entrepreneurs to want to delve into an established business model than go out on their own.
Sixty of the 70 ITF franchises sold were to Birmingham-based residents, all of whom were once ITF athletes themselves, like the Jenkinses, who bought the rights to the New Orleans market.
“The franchise fee was $35,000 for the first store and then $17,500 for every additional store – but I am sure that has changed now,” says Jenkins.
Unlike other team-based workout gyms, ITF has strict standards ensuring a universal brand experience – from fitness-related programs to marketing plans to store buildout and equipment.
“They walk you through the whole process, right up until the day you open,” says Jenkins. “They have a team that makes sure that when you walk into the space that it is an Iron Tribe store.”
The costs for the build-out and equipment start at around $300,000. With all this money invested into the gym, Jenkins says they only started turning a profit a few months ago.
In 2014, ITF made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies in America – even with that recognition, they are trying to keep a lid on their rapid expansion by only working with 12 franchisees a year, ensuring they maintain a level of control.
Asked what has fueled their growth, Strickland says it is the personalized service and sense of community.
“People don’t feel like a number because we keep it limited,” says Strickland. “About 75 percent of our athletes used to be members of another gym, and maybe 30 percent of them had a personal trainer; but they were bored, but it wasn’t energizing, fun and community oriented, plus it cost more, too.”
At ITF Downtown New Orleans – whose market is primarily business professionals, 35 to 45 years old (with 60 percent male and 40 percent female) – they are currently experiencing an 80 percent renewal rate.
“Creating a fitness community that is supportive and encouraging of each other is a mentality that people of New Orleans already have,” says Jenkins. “It has been the most fulfilling thing I have ever done, seeing people reach their goals and have more energy to pursue the things they are passionate about in life outside the gym.”