You need to surround yourself with a diverse slate of smart, talented leaders. Leaders who think differently than you and are willing to challenge and tell you the unvarnished truth. Your business will grow far faster if you surround yourself with this kind of team. They will help solve problems you didn’t otherwise know you had. I strongly recommend a CEO never burden themselves with needing to be the smartest in the room, burden yourself with building a high performing leadership team and you’ll be far more successful.
Andrew Alfano is the CEO of Retro Fitness, a leader in the high-value, low price fitness space with more than 150 gyms open or under development in 15 states. Alfano joined Retro Fitness this past May with over 25 years of experience in the retail, hospitality and restaurant industries to mature and drive the growth of the brand across the US. Alfano currently sits on the Board of Fellows for the Culinary Institute of America, and previously sat on the Board of Directors for Make-a-Wish South Florida and United Way, NYC Board of Fellows.
Most recently, Alfano served as President and Chief Operating Officer of The Learning Experience, headquartered in Deerfield Beach, Florida, transitioning from the Company this past spring after successfully spearheading a financial event that exited the majority partner nearly two years early at a very impressive multiple.
Alfano joined The Learning Experience, an Academy of Early Education, in 2015 as Chief Operating Officer and was quickly promoted to President and COO. In this role, he leveraged the existing strengths and talent of the brand as well as the existing staff, creating opportunities for their development and succession planning. As a talent savvy executive, he attracted top talent into key executive roles, quickly repositioning the brand for rapid growth. During that time, Alfano doubled new store openings, driving record revenue and EBITDA growth. Today, The Learning Experience can boast of domestic and international, as well as company and franchise units with over 400 locations open or under development, with European expansion now underway along with other adjacent lines and product extensions.
Prior to The Learning Experience Alfano enjoyed an impressive 16-year career with Starbucks Coffee Company, having joined the brand in the late ’90s and worked his way up from District Manager through six promotions to Senior Vice President, U.S. Business. In this capacity, he was accountable for $3.5B in revenue across both licensed and company-operated stores. As a member of the Executive Steering Committee, he helped develop and execute the strategic 5-year plan and led a field team of Regional Vice Presidents, all while working with the executive team and external agencies to weigh in on brand building and public/media relations.
High energy, driven leader, Alfano helped architect Starbucks’ rapid and strategic growth, in some of the more high profile, complex urban markets, specifically the flagship market of New York. During his time, these markets saw record growth in same stores sales and profits. In addition, Alfano was a key member of the leadership team that helped lead the US Business out of the company’s downturn in 2008.
Alfano and his wife are natives of Long Island, where the family, his wife and three children still maintain a home. Currently, he and his wife spend the majority of their time at their primary residence in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I suspect we all faced hard times when we started our careers and I can assure you I had more than my share. I arguably still do. But I can’t say that I ever considered giving up as much as I can say my confidence was regularly shaken. I had the unique opportunity to take on a lot of responsibility early on, more than I probably should have been given. But I had great mentors and leaders who believed in me, supported me…which stretched me. The drive to continue was partially from fear of failure, but also I didn’t want to disappoint the people who believed in me in the first place. It was those around me that helped shape who I am today and one of the reasons I pay that forward and believe strongly in investing in our people. Especially those just getting started.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are going extremely well. At Retro Fitness, in just a few short months, we have a new executive leadership team, a new state of the art Support Center and are well-positioned for growth. We have targeted very specific markets like our new backyard in Southeast Florida. Dallas, Houston, and the Midwest, in particular, are extremely attractive to us. Retro Fitness has owned the tristate area of New York Metro for some time, having been founded in New Jersey, and believe we have plenty of room to still grow there as well. It is a very exciting time for us and our investors. That said, I do believe my values married quite well with the values and culture that were already in place at Retro Fitness. A people first organization that is relentlessly focused on helping others succeed.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
As Retro Fitness prepares to celebrate its 15th Anniversary, one of the many things that attracted me to the brand was its purpose. Since its inception, every town Retro Fitness has entered, we focused on immersing ourselves in the communities and became the hometown gym, with that hometown feel. In many ways, businesses of all sizes have lost that and are what I believe to be a strong competitive advantage. We protect that feel at all costs as we continue to be a fabric of the community we serve while building a community within the four walls of our clubs. My strong commitment to our franchisees, members and the communities we serve is that as we get big, we will stay small.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
My team, and especially myself, need to be available and accessible for our people. As such, we, myself included, spend a lot of time with our people…listening. This is accomplished by being in the field and speaking with our franchisees, with the people on their teams, and even directly with members in the clubs. We need to keep our pulse on the heartbeat of the business. And that is ensuring our franchisees are engaged and satisfied, as well as having business success. Their people have to have tools, resources, and support to provide a world-class experience and our members want to know they have a voice and are being heard.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I actually have two that I have always lived by in business.
Problems are good — As leaders, we inherently know that problems exist and there is always a better way to do everything. But you can’t fix a problem, or support your people in fixing problems if your people don’t share them. So I have always gone out of my way to create a culture that encourages this dialogue and support. Now the same problem twice isn’t good, but again, you want your people to know you are there to support them and the challenges they’re facing.
Stay Balanced — Good news is on your worst day, it’s not half as bad as you think, but the bad news is that on your best day it’s not half as good as you think.
Since Retro Fitness offers equipment and services very similar to other chains, what did you identify as being the one element that distinguishes you from other gyms?
People are at the heart of everything we do, which is what truly allows us to stand out from the rest. With each location locally owned and operated, Retro Fitness is not just a gym, but a true fabric of the community. The Retro teams are committed to the success of their members, actively engaging and encouraging them each and every day. Our focus is on providing an experience that will better the lives of every member we serve. We truly want our members to come into our clubs, work out and be supported in achieving their success.
How important is niche marketing to Retro Fitness. Do you target a specific audience? If so, how did you identify who this audience is?
At Retro Fitness, we are focused on providing an environment that challenges members to be their best, no matter their fitness level. Niche markets, with gimmicky, fad-based workouts are not what we’re about. In fact, we commissioned a survey a few months ago to find out exactly what potential members really want in their gym experience. The results found that most gym-goers don’t want to work out alone, or in their homes. People inspire people, people want to be with other people and that helps them stay motivated. These findings are what led to our ultra-successful January Buy One, Give One Annual membership campaign, which was all about allowing people to motivate each other to be successful.
As a franchisor, how does Retro Fitness maintain quality and customer satisfaction? If each franchisee will hire his or her own staff, how can you be assured they meet your standards for performance and customer relations? Is your brand name vulnerable to an employee’s “off day”?
Actually our people are our strength. This starts with the selection process itself of a new franchisee, ensuring that they have a passion for the customer experience and are a proper fit for our culture. From there, franchisees are immersed in a world-class training program and supported by an area leader dedicated specifically to them. This allows franchisees and their teams to be successful and provide the right experience to each and every member. At Retro, we go to great lengths to provide the right tools, systems, and resources to our franchisees. When our systems are followed by well-trained people, it all but guarantees a consistent, exceptional experience for our Members and Guests.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- People — You need to surround yourself with a diverse slate of smart, talented leaders. Leaders who think differently than you and are willing to challenge and tell you the unvarnished truth. Your business will grow far faster if you surround yourself with this kind of team. They will help solve problems you didn’t otherwise know you had. I strongly recommend a CEO never burden themselves with needing to be the smartest in the room, burden yourself with building a high performing leadership team and you’ll be far more successful.
- Culture — Culture can’t just be part of a strategy, culture is the strategy. We spend a lot of time talking about, and focused on, culture. As a matter of fact, being in the franchise business, more than having the financial requirements, we really look for franchisees and investors to be a good culture fit for the organization. Take care of the people and the people will take care of you.
- Experience — The customer experience will never be better than your employees or franchisee experience. This needs to be role modeled every opportunity you have and we spend a lot of time focusing on enhancing the experience for our franchisees as the business owner.
- Lead and get out of the way — but don’t go away — You don’t hire really smart people and tell them what to do. Craft a vision and ensure your people have the tools, resources, and support to carry it out. Top talent wants the responsibility…and accountability. So empower them and support them, but lead and get out of their way. But don’t go away…you are still their resource, support and always need to be available and accessible for them, whether it be your team or your franchisees.
- Be Present — you can’t ever be present enough, available enough or accessible enough. As CEO you must be ever present and dialed into every area of your business and with/for your people.