This is the story of how Franco’s Athletic Club located in the American state of Louisiana is using generosity to become one of the world’s most admired health clubs. It is written by Ray Algar, founder of Gymtopia.
I first met Sandy Franco, one of the co-owners, when she was presenting at the 2013 IHRSA European Congress in Madrid. Her message was a simple one: Invest in your community and the community will invest in your club. Sandy and Ron, her husband, have consistently pursued this strategy for 26 years.
Our world has just changed
The Francos acquired the 28,000 square feet (2,601 square metre) racquetball and social facility originally known as the Bon Temps Club in 1988. Two years following the acquisition, their world fell apart after Danielle, their two-year old daughter was diagnosed with cancer. However, the Franco’s had already made a big impression in the small city of Mandeville and received an outpouring of support even from people they had never met. As Sandy recalls: ‘It was friends, family, members and the wider community who rose up and supported us. They were writing us letters, they were supporting us, they pretty much carried us through this time and it is something that we will never forget. It was not a conscious thing when we said let’s start being community players, we feel an obligation; they were there for us and we want to be there for them. Our precious daughter, thank God, has grown to become a vibrant young woman. So we’re constantly striving to fulfil the promise we made at that time—to give back to the community that gave so much to our family.’
So for the past 26 years the Franco’s have been reciprocating and as their club has grown, so the more they give. Today, Franco’s has grown to more than 250,000 square feet (23,225 square metres) of indoor and outdoor space for fitness, sports and recreation, with approximately 15,000 members.
Never say no
When it comes to requests from charities, schools and community groups, the Franco mantra is, and always has been, ‘never say no’. Why so generous you may be thinking? First, they do not see these requests through the lens of random acts of charity, but as ‘investing’ in a community that creates long-term value for their business. ‘We believe that by giving back to our community, we have grown our facility and our membership’.
Of course, saying yes does not always mean writing a cheque, but also includes offering its courts and studio space to schools, dance and sports teams and donating use of the swimming pools for special needs children for mental and physical stimulation therapy. Sometimes the club just needs to act as the catalyst and mobilise its army of members, employees and supporters. A recent demonstration of this compassionate activism was fund raising for a local cancer centre. Organising a gala dinner for the first time, the club sets itself a target of selling 300 tickets and raising $75,000, but instead sold 500 tickets and raised $185,000. Will this drive short-term membership sales? Probably not, but the club’s reputation has just been given a steroid-like boost. Franco’s has now directly raised more than $1.5 million for a wide range of non-profit organisations and donated significantly more from in-kind use of its vast facilities.
We love what your club stands for
During Sandy’s Madrid presentation she shared the story of how Franco’s was looking to expand into a second site and they faced tough competition from a much larger national chain seeking the same property. The property landlord could not decide between the two businesses and a representative visited Franco’s to better understand their operating philosophy. A tipping point during the visit was him being captivated by a studio class for local children with special needs. Franco’s was awarded the lease to operate the new club leaving the larger rival with a far stronger balance sheet, surprised and perplexed. Sandy summed it up: ‘People who appreciate your efforts will want to be a part of your club and to do business with you.’
Why is this community so engaged?
Something remarkable is occurring in the Franco’s catchment area where according to a local 2009 report, more than 26% of the population belonged to a health club. The US national average at the time was 14 percent. So what’s driving this remarkable level of engagement? I am not sure I know, but what is clear is that Franco’s has spent the past 26 years getting out of their club and into their community. This is against the backdrop of Louisiana having the sixth highest adult obesity rate in the United States (source: The State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America).
Franco’s receives America’s ‘Outstanding Community Service Award’
Each year IHRSA selects one club from across the United States to receive its Outstanding Community Service Award. It is presented to a club committed to making a difference in, and beyond, their community. Unsurprisingly, Franco’s received the award in 2013 but it was Ron Franco’s comments during the acceptance video that revealed their driving motivation. ‘Everyone in life wants to leave a legacy. I think getting involved in the community, doing good things for your community, reaching people, touching lives, that’s a legacy you want to leave. It is not how much money or how many clubs you have, but the affect you have had on people.’
So how would you sum up the legacy of your business over the past five to ten years, but more importantly, what is the core story that others are saying about your brand right now?
Sandy and Ron Franco’s is a remarkable story of sustained generosity spanning nearly three decades. Their business is a great example of what it truly means to be a part of a community and as a result the community embraces the club and all it stands for.
If we came along today with our magic wand and made this club disappear, would it be missed by members, staff, the wider community and all its other stakeholders? Of course it would. So if you want to create a remarkable business, take a close look at Franco’s.