Pioneers don’t need maps or a compass. They certainly don’t rely on GPS to reach their destination. No. True pioneers get directions by reading the landscape. They gather feedback from their surroundings to know the precise time to move forward, when to change direction, and when to set camp for a spell. They can visualize a path where no one else has walked, and then mark that path with valuable lessons for future generations to follow and go beyond their footsteps.
In the 1980’s, Brenda Loube and Sheila Drohan were staring out at the vast landscape of what was to evolve into a booming health and fitness management industry. With just a handful of corporations investing in employee wellness and fitness programs, at that time most fitness and wellness careers were kept to commercial clubs or health care and rehab facilities. These immediate surroundings didn’t shout “opportunity ahead”. Rather, it was a faint whisper and subtle queues of our nation’s health climate that spoke to Brenda and Sheila. They sensed the opportunity to improve lives and reduce health disparities by meeting the everyday Joe and Jane where they are with health intervention in the workplace. Before long, the two women found themselves among the pioneers of fitness and wellness management.
On March 28, 1988, Brenda and Sheila founded Corporate Fitness Works. With just three wellness and fitness contracts and a dream, the two did everything – from folding towels in the fitness centers to negotiating contracts. Today, the company celebrates 30 years in business with 700 Team Leaders Leading the Health Revolution for corporations, government agencies, educational institutions, and residential clients nationwide. Recognizing this milestone achievement, we asked Brenda and Sheila to reflect on their journey and those trailblazing moments that have shaped the company’s success.
Take us back to the day you both decided to make the leap as business owners. What in your gut told you that this was going to be a success? Did you ever think it would become what it is today?
Sheila: Looking back, we did not think we would be where we are today, but we certainly had goals to grow. Our gut feeling was that we would be successful, because we truly believed in what we were doing. Also, we saw the need to make health and fitness more accessible and convenient by bringing healthy lifestyle to the place where people spend most of their day – at work!
Brenda: When we first decided to pursue this business, we sent out inquiry letters to companies throughout the U.S. We were fortunate to find one that was interested in bringing us on to grow the market. In just six months we secured our first contract, which quickly grew to three contracts. After one year with our first fitness center, we knew we could do this on our own. When presented with the opportunity to purchase the contracts and form our own company, we went for it! We were confident this business model and concept would be vital for so many reasons. The greatest asset for any organization is the health and well-being of their employees.
Since the beginning, you both voiced your intent on creating and sustaining a business where fitness and wellness professionals can grow and flourish in their field. What were your first jobs involving health and fitness? When did you realize the possibility of fitness and wellness careers being more than a trainer, instructor, rehab specialist, health club manager?
Brenda: My first job was as a physical education teacher, then gym supervisor at the Jewish Community Center in Rockville, MD, and later a program manager at a private health club. Somewhere between those jobs and working in cardiac rehab at Georgetown University, I realized the opportunities in the health and fitness industry were narrowly focused. Preventative health practices were almost non-existent, and something we still face today with chronic disease and the traditional medical model. I knew back then and feel even stronger today, that the opportunities to shift the health paradigm are extensive in the corporate wellness and fitness industry.
Sheila: My first job out of college was with the YWCA in Summit, NJ, then later in Washington, DC. While working there, I went back to get my masters and I realized how much I enjoyed the management and business side of health and fitness. This drove me to want more than what I was doing at the Y. During my time at the National Capital YWCA, I saw a need for onsite programs, as companies were calling me to provide services and classes at their offices. This discovery fueled my drive for wanting more in a fitness business career. It was all coming together. Meeting Brenda was the icing on the cake. Through our individual strengths, we complimented and pushed each other to work those long days and do the tough work to get where we are today.
Many who know your story, are aware that Sheila’s mother, Mary M. Drohan, was pivotal in the start-up of Corporate Fitness Works. Mortgaging her house, she loaned you the funds to start the business when banks and lending agencies were telling you no. What did that mean to you then? What does it mean now and how do you continue to honor her legacy?
Brenda: The simple fact that Mary Drohan truly believed in us, went a long way. Without her generosity and total faith in us, we would not be sharing our story today. It was truly a gift and an amazing gesture that I will never forget. Her generosity will always be remembered, and the appreciation is as strong as ever
Sheila: This meant EVERYTHING to me! I still, 30 years later, get emotional when I reflect on what she did for us. Especially since she did not have a lot, financially. We honor her legacy by continuing to tell the story. We have also established the Mary M Drohan Award, an award we give annually to one outstanding Team Leader in our company; someone who stands above all in contributing to the company, as she did for us!
Over the years, Corporate Fitness Works has been recognized with many awards and achievements. Is there an award you are most proud of, or a moment of recognition that fortified what you set out to achieve by founding this company?
Sheila: We are most proud of our continued growth as a company. Through all the economic changes we have faced over the years, we have continued to do well and positively impact the lives of so many. This is a testament to the team we have, their passion for our company, the achievements we have made at the sites and how we impact our members daily. There is nothing better than having a client talk so positively about our team and all that we are doing! That is after all, what we set out to accomplish in forming this company. On that note, being ranked #15 on TBBJ’s list of Top Women-Owned Businesses headquartered in Tampa Bay last year was an exciting highlight, as was making the list as #20 on Florida’s Fastest 100 growing privately held companies in 2016.
Brenda: In addition to the business growth and recognition among Florida’s top businesses, as a 100% women-owned business that supports fellow Women Business Owners and supplier diversity, we are extremely proud of the leadership opportunities and recognition that we have received through our involvement with WBENC, Women Business Enterprise National Council. Being honored with the Women of Distinction award was a particularly proud moment. The award was only given to 25 of the 14,000 Women Business Owners. Our exposure for access and opportunities are priceless and we have the capacity to handle the future growth that I could not be more excited about. Also named among Top WBE CEO’s of 2017, along with serving as Host Chair and Wellness Sponsor for recent conferences have all been key moments of recognition and exposure for Corporate Fitness Works.
When you look back at the amazing growth Corporate Fitness Works has had in the last 30 years, what do you consider to be the most defining moments for the company?
Sheila: We both agree that one of the most definitive moments was the purchase of L&T in 2014 and the successful transition within our company. We tripled in size that year with new business added from several great new contracts.
Brenda: I’ll add in stating that the resources, the depth in talent and experience we gained from this experience has been amazing. This acquisition was the spring board to give us the growth we needed to truly be competitive in the market today and take our company into the future.
Sheila: Another big moment for us was in 1999-2000 with the build out and management of the Sprint World Headquarters facility. At 71,000 square feet, this continues to be our largest managed site, and proved our capabilities for large scale facility design, equipment procurement, program development, pre-enrollment, to ongoing operations. In the same light, adding Pittsburgh as a new region in 2001 provided great opportunities for us. Finally, our involvement with WBENC has provided us with great exposure to a lot of top corporations, which is now bringing us some great clients and expanding us into new cities and regions across the country!
If you could go back to your 1988 self and share some words of wisdom, what would you say?
Brenda: This is such a great question. Our purpose and vision for the company has stayed true for the past 30 years. The decisions made back then have led us to where we are now, and we wouldn’t change that.
Sheila: I whole-heartedly agree! It is interesting to look back and see that a lot of the beliefs and values we started with, are the beliefs and values we continue to practice. We may have improved and refined them a bit, but our values have not changed.
Brenda: The words of wisdom we would give to 1988 selves are relevant to any present-day entrepreneur. Stay true to your core values. Make these values the environment you want for yourself and your team. When making key decisions, maintain your focus on the true purpose of your business. Our intent was to grow our business, improve the lives of others, and create new jobs for health and fitness professionals. Every significant business decision we ever made, led us back to that purpose. Never lose sight of your greatest asset – your teammates (employees). Hire your team for the position. Honor and trust them to move the needle and grow the company.
What do you predict for the future of corporate wellness and fitness? What will be your next pioneering move/chapter?
Sheila: The future for Corporate Fitness Works is great! With our continued growth and recognition, it is evident that we are a major player in this arena. My prediction is more growth and expansion through innovation and other revenue streams that will enhance our services within management and beyond. Personally, my next chapter is to position and develop the team to be the infinite successors of Corporate Fitness Works.
Brenda: From where we sit, the future of corporate wellness and fitness is bright and exciting. Organizations are beginning to understand what it takes to create a truly thriving culture; where employees can bring their best selves to work – and home – each day. My prediction is that we’ll see more focus on wellbeing initiatives that serve people holistically and attend to more than physical health. I also think we’ll see wellbeing further integrated into other cultural transformation and employee experience initiatives. I have always said that, without your health, you have no wealth. If your employees are not bringing their best selves to work, they are not performing at the top of their game and the company is missing out.
Our next pioneering move is already underway as we are expanding Corporate Fitness Works by creating a new line of business called ViDL. Based on updated thinking about human nature and behavior change, ViDL brings individual health and organizational health under one roof. It offers a wide array of programs and services to address personal wellbeing holistically and attends to crucial elements of cultural transformation. ViDL, just as it is pronounced, is vital to organizations to position their companies as thriving, purposeful, and productive organizations, where employees are respected, valued and are freely encouraged to expand and grow as a person and a professional.