No Friend Like an Old Friend

Mike Snyder, who grew up in Michigan and spent most of the last 20 years in and out of California, began work after college as a driver for FedEx in the early ‘80s. He ended up as vice president of the company's eastern region, responsible for $2 billion in revenue and more than a thousand employees.

After 17 years with FedEx, he began working on small- and medium-sized company turnarounds. He has spent the past 10 years doing that at seven different companies, including airlines and transportation businesses. Snyder has also done a lot of consulting with businesses. "I enjoy helping businesses fix their problems," he says. In fact, he adds, he's enjoyed that kind of troubleshooting in pretty much every job he's ever had.

But a few years ago, he and his wife decided they'd had it with so much "We felt, for the kids' sake, we needed to settle down and - as she says - nest," Snyder says.

As he looked for opportunities that would allow them to do that, he found himself in a career dilemma. "I found myself to be ‘overqualified' for most of the jobs that were out there, and I didn't really want to go backwards and take a mid-level management job after running three or four companies," he says.

After a disappointment at a job in Orlando that looked like it had possibilities for a long-term future, Snyder made a decision.

"I told my wife to pick where she wanted to raise the kids, and I'd change my career," he says. She chose Ohio, where the couple and their three youngsters now live in New Albany, which is northeast of Columbus.

He did due diligence on a variety of small- and medium-sized companies and had been looking for years at franchises. "But every time I looked at franchises, I had a hard time with the concept of giving 10 cents out of every dollar to someone," he grins. "It was a weird concept to me."

However, Snyder remained interested in franchising. "For years, every time I'd go into a franchise [unit], I'd ask for the owner's name, and I'd speak with them and ask them, ‘Why are you still doing this? Why not go out on your own? Would you, if you could?' And the vast majority of them said they'd do it the same all over again, that without the marketing and support they received from the franchisor that they could not do it.

"They reminded me that about 80 percent of people fail in their first business attempt, but that, in franchising, after five years, 80 percent of the people are still doing it. It started to make sense and resonate with me," he says.

He remembered when, as a consultant, he'd find so many business owners whose businesses were "running them" and not the other way around.

"In franchising, I found a lot of people who weren't working hour after hour in a single store; they were able to oversee their business as an executive without being consumed by the overwhelming task of being in business for themselves without an infrastructure in place," he says.

Snyder says there was also something else going on in his head. As he went through the learning process, he focused on things he enjoyed doing - like helping people and helping them to improve their businesses. "I wanted to get into work that was good that way. I won't say the corporate world is bad, but it is a continuous gray area, where if you don't bend the rules like others are doing, they're going to beat you and under-price you and then you're out…I was in search of something that, at the end of the day, I could look back at and say, ‘That's really a good thing I'm involved in.'"

He was pretty sure he'd found that when he came across Liberty Fitness. "At first I thought, ‘Women's club - what would I do there? I'm not a woman.' But as I began to understand the principles around which they were developing the company, I thought a lot about it. They were saying, ‘Help the woman, help the world.' I liked that. Most clubs want a million members and don't care if they ever see them again as long as they collect fees," he says.

"But they're talking about making it a club atmosphere, encouraging members to be there not only for building the business but to help them accomplish their goals, and in so doing, are creating the most valuable marketing you can get for an entity. They were developing multiple revenue streams, with the circuit, classes, spa and Nike products, still with the focus on helping people hit their goals. I liked the idea that, you're helping people get fit - you're actually doing them a favor by getting them in there; they'll live longer, healthier lives."

But a funny thing happened as Snyder and his wife read the Liberty Fitness materials. "My wife said, ‘Hey, look, it says the CEO went to grammar school in Gaylord, Mich.' That's where I went! So I said, ‘What's her name?' When she said, ‘Linda Burzynski,' I said, ‘That's got to be my friend Linda.'"

Sure enough, when Snyder emailed the company, he found out that she was his old friend. "In fact, her dad and my stepfather were business partners. I hadn't seen or talked with her in 30 years, but I had the fondest memories of her warmth and I had been in touch with her parents, since our parents had owned some land jointly and I was helping to handle that, but it was amazing to have it happen this way," he says.

He'd already been leaning toward Liberty Fitness, but when he found out who was in charge (Burzynski became CEO of Liberty Fitness in July 2005), that sealed the deal. "That was the icing on the cake for me. I knew her as a cheerleader and a wonderful, warm person, and I guess she still is those things," he grins.

After renewing their friendship and talking about the company, Burzynski and Snyder came to an agreement that he would develop Ohio for Liberty Fitness - opening 40 or more locations in the next six years.

"Linda is so gifted and passionate about whatever she puts herself into; she really sticks to her mission," he says. "More times than not, when we get to talking, she'll say, ‘We're not going to do that - it doesn't fit what we're trying to accomplish as an organization. We're a health and organization - we're not going to do tanning. It causes cancer.' I really appreciate someone who leads with that kind of passion and integrity."

Snyder says his first mission has been to work with the owners of the four existing Liberty Fitness clubs. "I've been coaching owners to help them excel on every level within the club. I've enjoyed being involved at that level, and it's important to make sure our core foundation is solid and that people feel good about what they're doing," he adds.

After diving into his new venture, Snyder remains enthusiastic about Liberty Fitness. "When you're looking into the fitness industry, it's easy to see that it's a crowded space. But Liberty has perfected an approach to equipment that is adjustable and doesn't allow members to plateau, and a variety of classes so that people don't get bored. Then they've layered in a high quality, comprehensive program designed by physicians. And since most of us aren't disciplined to do it on our own, we've put certified trainers in to coach, guide and support them through the process. Add to that, the other revenue streams - the hydromassage and the Nike line and the spa products - and it's magic."

Snyder is especially excited about the agreement with Nike, which had not before targeted Liberty's demographic (30- to 60-year-old females) with their line. "It makes a great one-stop shop for busy women. They can exercise, take care of and pamper themselves, and shop in one location," he says. "I thought, ‘I can sell this concept.' I feel strongly that Liberty has the capacity for what I call ‘first mover advantage' in the combo space. No one else is doing what we're doing."

He's pushing - but steadily and carefully - to get the clubs out quickly "so we can leverage that first mover potential advantage," he says. Because there were already four clubs in the state, he was able to spend a little more time interviewing and scouting locations. In the next five or six years, Snyder plans to have 40 to 50 Liberty Fitness clubs in the Buckeye state.

Meanwhile, the former, now "worn out" college football player, says he's enjoying being a more involved dad. "I love it - I coach the kids' They're in baseball, basketball, and gymnastics right now. It's just nice to be around more," he says.

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