Posted on Fri, Apr. 16, 2004
Curves CEO fuses theology and fitness in franchises
GARY HEAVIN CREATES SANCTUARIES FOR WOMEN
By Vera H-C Chan
Special to the Mercury News
Curves, the workout chain, will be flattening out.
Not sales, at $750 million in annual revenues. Not members, at 2 million and growing. Not in world ambition, with roll-outs in 20 countries, including Spain, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, Dubai, Hong Kong and India.
The flattening out will be the number of franchises in America. By 2005 -- 10 years after its first franchise in Paris, Texas -- Curves for Women will max out at 8,000 outlets, outstripping Starbucks and gaining on McDonalds.
CEO Gary Heavin (pronounced "haven") has been a believer in its success since the beginning. "When we founded 50, then 250 (in less than a year), the handwriting was on the wall," says the Texan, who co-founded the first Curves in 1992 with his wife, Diana. The numbers may not have surprised the fitness and nutrition mogul, but the passion that engendered them has.
"If I missed anything in predicting this whole thing," he says, "it was this inability to perceive this culture, this community of women who would create a sanctuary for other women to work hard and work toward good health."
Heavin, a born-again Christian who found his faith after filing bankruptcy and losing custody of his two children, oversees an exercise empire. Clubs have relied on word of mouth -- not simply ads -- to bring members in. Customers have become franchise owners, and meet at the annual Curves convention. Many of the franchise owners, the Web site (http://www.curvesinternational.com
"It's all faiths," Heavin says. "We have Hasidic Jewish franchises in Brooklyn, which are closed on Saturday and open on Sunday. We have Muslim franchises. Many of our franchises are Christian, of course, because 90 percent of Americans are Christian."
Some customers might not be comfortable with the fusion of theology and fitness. "We get a lot of heat because we're so expressive of our faith, and we encourage our faith," Heavin says. Such expressions include Christian music that his wife produces, and articulated Judeo-Christian values in Heavin's newest book, "Curves: Permanent Results Without Permanent Dieting" ($23.95, Penguin/Putnam Publishing).
"Facilities are welcome to play or not play the music," he says. "They're welcome to use my book or not."
Heavin's philanthropy reflects his deep beliefs. For example, he gives to pregnancy centers supported by Operation Save America, the anti-abortion group whose purpose, according to its Web site, "unashamedly takes up the cause of preborn children in the name of Jesus Christ."
"It seems everything is tolerated except the Christian, and that's a tragedy because of the need to put values in our boardrooms and classrooms," he says. "Curves is not going to be another Enron or WorldCom."
His mission to help older women who rarely exercise stems from a personal tragedy. His mother suffered from depression and high-blood pressure. Not long after her divorce, she died at age 40, leaving behind 13-year-old Gary and four other offspring. When Heavin turned 40, he found himself looking for his parent among the women he taught in his center.
"I had my epiphany when I realized what had been driving me all my life," he says. "The Curves model is really to give women who were neglected, certainly by the fitness industry, these women who were giving everything and not taking time for themselves, it was giving them an opportunity."
Heavin himself is in a good place. He reconciled with his father, who died last year. He regained custody of his two children some time ago, and now has two more. This December, he will pilot himself around the world to visit every country where there is a Curves.
"I'm successful," the entrepreneur says, "because of the wisdom I've gotten from my faith."