– Words by tessVan Straaten Photography by Don Denton
As an athlete who played college football and some professional football and who has coached lots of kids’ sports, Fitness World president and CEO Chris Smith is used to taking hits and overcoming setbacks. But the COVID-19 pandemic definitely put him to the test.
“This has been the most challenging business environment I think any of us have ever seen,” says the 47-year-old father of five.
Chris had a pretty good sense of what he was getting into when he decided to buy the company, after Steve Nash Fitness World—of which he was also president and CEO—filed for creditor protection in the early days of the pandemic.
“I had the unfortunate task of terminating thousands of employees in a matter of seven days, which is terrible and one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do,” Chris says. “I don’t know if I needed redemption, but I really felt I needed to get this business back up on its feet, and I just had a strong feeling that if I didn’t find a way to open the business with a new partner, nobody else would take on that risk. That would have just left me with unfinished business and a sick feeling in my stomach.”
But as the public head of the company, Chris faced a lot of backlash from people who didn’t understand what had happened.
“We were one of the first businesses in the pandemic to publicly face challenges and people were looking for someone to blame,” Chris says. “I didn’t own the business, I wasn’t an owner, but what do you do during the pandemic if someone gives you lemons? You make lemonade and in this case, I got dump trucks full of lemons.”
Chris was convinced the company could re-emerge stronger, bigger and better than before. After talking to thousands of Fitness World members, he and others worked to change everything about the business, from the pricing model to the membership agreement.
“It was a consumer-driven strategy,” Chris explains. “We went and changed everything—literally everything—and I’m really proud of that. We’ve gotten better and we’ve grown the business every single month.”
Chris’s passion for exercise and its benefits began in his youth. His divorced parents didn’t have much money, and playing sports was his salvation.
“Lifting weights, exercise and wellness changed my life,” Chris says. “They provided for me like nothing else could.”
He’s now spent his entire career—close to 27 years—in the fitness industry, after getting into the business as a personal trainer.
“I stayed in it because I found something that I love that can truly make people better and something that makes a difference,” says Chris. “That’s what I love—making a difference for others. There’s nothing else I’d want to do with my life.”
In mid-December, the BC government once again announced that all gyms would have to close down the next day, for at least a month, due to rising COVID case counts fuelled by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.
“We were shocked, along with the rest of the health and wellness industry,” Chris says. “The information that’s available is overwhelmingly supportive of the fact that gyms, fitness centres, and health and wellness facilities should be open. Frankly, you’re in a lot more danger going to a grocery store than a gym.”
Chris was once again faced with laying off staff—this time, more than 500 of Fitness World’s 650 employees. And he struggled with how to explain the government mandate to their 75,000 members across 15 locations when he says there’s been no data to support gym closures.
“I think there’s definitely a lack of understanding around health and wellness, and the role exercise plays in not just physical health, but mental health,” Chris says. “Of all the things that are essential, health and wellness are as essential as it gets. The number one thing you can do to keep yourself healthy overall is to exercise three times a week.”
But despite the setback of a second COVID-19 closure, Chris says he’s still feeling pretty bullish.
“I’ve been operating as a frugal chef for a long time now, and making sound decisions for the business from day one, expecting the unexpected, and always kind of preparing for those worst-case scenarios,” he says. “After the first shutdown, we made strategic decisions to operate the business in a different way and while it’s been very challenging, there have been lots of curve balls thrown at different periods of time, so I’m fortunate to be surrounded by great people. My team is able to react to these situations and find ways to turn negatives into positives.”
Chris says the biggest lesson he’s learned over the years is around attitude and the kind of mindset you choose to have.
“One of the phrases I live by is, ‘your attitude determines your altitude,’” he says. “There have been a lot of times I could have personally given up, and a lot of times where people on my team could have given up, and the consequences of that giving up would have been bad for a lot of people. What I’ve learned through all of this is you have to keep yourself centred, and centred in a place of positivity, because if you don’t—especially as a leader of a business—it’s a slippery slope you don’t want to find yourself on.”
As for whether he’s regretted buying a business during a pandemic, it should come as no surprise Chris has another sports saying for that.
“No risk it, no biscuit.”