Curves for Women gains on Bally Fitness

If you find an unserved niche, the business-school saying goes, fill it and riches will be yours. Curves for Women aimed at such a niche a decade ago when it founded a gym for women who don't work out. It is now closing in on the largest full-service club in the world, Bally Total Fitness with more than 2 million female members.
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If you find an unserved niche, the business-school saying goes, fill it and riches will be yours. Curves for Women aimed at such a niche a decade ago when it founded a gym for women who don't work out.

In case you haven't heard, Curves has not only hit its stride, but is also closing in on the largest full-service club in the world, Bally Total Fitness. It has filled the niche, it seems.

Curves has nearly 6,000 franchises in the United States and abroad and more than 2 million female members. The gym projects its revenue will grow to $1 billion by next year with membership climbing to 3 million. By comparison, Bally and its five smaller brands have $1 billion in revenue and 4 million members, said Bally spokesman Jon Harris.

Without an advertising budget until this year and growing mostly by word of mouth, Curves International is one of the fastest-growing franchisers in the country, with 250 new clubs opening every single month. The company plans to max out at 17,000 clubs worldwide, according to founder and CEO Gary Heavin. In comparison, McDonalds sells burgers at 20,000 restaurants.

Curves, it turns out, discovered a really big niche -- about 100 million people, by Heavin's estimate. They are overweight women who don't want to work out with hardbodies or hard-core enthusiasts at a typical health club, and are a bit older than the typical 18- to 29-year-old gym-goer.

"These are people who weren't exercising," Heavin said in a phone interview from poolside at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, 12 miles from George W. Bush's spread. "No one was taking care of our mothers and sisters and grandmothers. They were all dividing up the small pie of fit women."

Curves' gyms are a haiku of fitness simplicity, and one that isn't going unnoticed by mainstream media like Time or USA Today. The typical club occupies 1,200 to 1,500 square feet, compared to a U.S. health club median of 27,500 feet, according to the IHRSA trade group. The gyms have no showers or smoothie bar, just a half-hour circuit on Curves-branded equipment on which women do exercises on eight to 12 machines and jog in place in between. A 300-member club can be operated with just one staff member.

Heavin's new book, "Curves," focuses on an integrated fitness and fat-loss program for women. Moreover, it is a literary Trojan horse designed to bring a new population into Curves -- women who want nutrition advice and are resolutely resistant to working out.

The book -- on the New York Times bestseller list for the past six weeks -- "has taken us squarely into the weight-loss business," Heavin said. Next targets? Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers. Soon, Curves will begin offering nutrition classes. When those women see other women just like them doing strength training, Heavin hopes they'll also get the fitness bug.

Curves is also unusual in that it uses only strength-training equipment designed by its founder. Heavin uses hydraulic machines that offer positive resistance in both directions and are designed for a woman-typical height of 5-foot-5. These days, the company's Texas plant produces 150 machines a day, hauled to gyms across North America in its fleet of 14 big rigs. But the market isn't locked up by Heavin's engineering creativity; the club chain is in the market for innovative equipment to help women keep their heart rate up at low levels between strength exercises on the Curves circuit, as well as for stretching equipment.

"We need recovery stations that are reliable and easy to use, as well as devices to stretch," Heavin said. "I'd like to have an apparatus you could jump on that you wouldn't need to set and would be very, very durable."

However, expect a fair amount of competition to supply one of the biggest names in the gym business. "You can imagine," Heavin said, "how many calls I get."

SNEWS View: Everybody jumps all over the likes of Bally or 24-Hour Fitness to sell equipment, but despite sticking to its Curves branding, the growth of this chain may be something to watch. It reminds us of the start of the aerobics phenomenon back in the '70s when women-only clubs sprung up all over, but slowly died off again when they couldn't provide all that the women wanted or needed. At least the more fit or more enthusiastic ones. The inactive market that truly doesn't like working out but knows it should has lots of potential. But success has brought with it some enemies, including a male gym owner in Wisconsin who lodged legal action -- not a lawsuit but something particular to that state called an "administrative complaint" -- against 180 outlets there for not allowing him to work out at Curves. The issue was resolved in May, when Wisconsin passed a bill allowing Curves to be a women's-only facility, according to Curves spokesman Roger Schmidt. Because this is so isolated, it is not deemed a "precedent," although we know anything can happen -- especially when deep pockets are involved.

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