When Liz Goodwin of Durham, N.C., was announced as the Curves Franchisee of the Year for the Southeastern Region last October, a cry went up from across the Las Vegas hotel ballroom.
"That's my sister! That's my sister!" screamed a red-haired woman who met Goodwin at the bottom of the stage for a hug before her acceptance of one of Curves' six coveted Gold Awards for North American franchisees.
Minutes later, the recipient of the Franchisee of the Year for the Northeastern Region was named - Sue Mercier of Pelham, New Hampshire. Again, a ruckus ensued.
"That's my sister! That's my sister!" yelled a beaming Goodwin, who met Mercier at the bottom of the stage for a hug before she went up for her Gold Award.
To the hundreds of Curves franchisees in attendance at the international conference's annual awards banquet, it was a powerful moment.
To Goodwin and Mercier, sisters who live in different parts of the country, it represented much more.
"Just think - two little girls from the projects have made Curves history," says big sis Mercier. "It was a little like the Academy Awards - people don't realize how grand this was."
There were candidates from numerous states in each region, but the six clubs honored with Gold Awards demonstrated excellence that Curves International - now the largest fitness franchise in the world - wanted to recognize, according to CEO and founder Gary Heavin. "Those honored are doing everything the Curves way and it shows in the success of their members. We honor them for all that they have given back to the women in their clubs and the people in their communities," Heavin said at the awards ceremony.
Like Heavin, who, with his wife Diane, founded Curves in 1992, the sisters came from humble beginnings. "We are both graduates of Lowell High School, from a poor family, but determined to do something good. We figured we could do anything," says Mercier, who grew up with her sister in Lowell, Mass., in the 1960s.
Mercier opened her Curves in Pelham less than five years ago after an exhausting, but rewarding 30 years as a nurse. When she considered a second career, it seemed natural to think about running her own business.
"Throughout my entire nursing career, I had this entrepreneurial thing," she says. She sold for Fuller Brush part-time, and worked for Primerica, going to people's homes to draw blood when they were buying insurance. "I'm not afraid to work and have always worked hard. That's our background; we had to work hard for whatever we got. I'm competitive, too, but in a good way. My sister and I come from the same mold as far as that's concerned."
In addition to everything else, Mercier and her husband, Al, raised two sons, now 27 and 28, and businessmen in their own rights.
When Mercier was 50, the 12-hour days at the ob-gyn office where she worked began to take their toll on her health. "I have osteoarthritis and I had a lot of low back pain. And I'd gained about 25 pounds after my hysterectomy," she says. "I was a physical wreck - I couldn't even walk to the mall. I'd been to the pain clinic, where they gave me cortisone shots in my back. But that was not a solution, and I knew I had to find a cure."
Following a recommendation from her hairdresser, Mercier left the chair and went down the street to join a nearby Curves. "A 30-minute workout was what I needed because I was working long days at the ob-gyn office," she says. Two months later, she'd dropped nine pounds and several inches and was pain-free.
She'd also spent lots of time observing how the Curves club was operated. "I thought, 'I could do this.'" And on one particularly stressful day at work at the doctor's office, she grabbed a phone and contacted Curves headquarters in Waco, Texas.
She and her friend, Suzanne Lyons (now her club manager) took a weekend away. "I read through the contract twice and nothing scared me. So I went home and told my husband, 'I'm opening Curves.' He said, 'I know you will.' I figured I had nothing to lose. If I didn't succeed, I'd go back to nursing."
Two months later, she opened her club in Pelham, N.H., just across the border from Lowell. Soon after, she and her husband moved to a home two miles away from the club.
All in the familyMeanwhile, Mercier's younger sister Liz had relocated to North Carolina, via California, when her then-husband accepted a job at Glaxo Pharmaceuticals. She'd also raised two sons and had been a stay-at-home mom - and then some!
"I was involved in fundraising and was a sports team mom. I sewed and cooked and decorated cakes and got into tole painting at one time. I did all the things I wish our mother had had time to do - she was working too hard - when we were kids," Goodwin recalls.
One of her first new friends was Paula Shaw, who owned a local Decorating Dan franchise and taught Goodwin about decorating and window treatments. "She trusted me with her expensive fabrics. She'd show me a picture and say, 'Can you do this, Liz?' And I'd say, 'Well, somebody figured out how to do it, so I think I can too.' And she'd say, 'I trust you, Liz.'"
After her divorce a few years later, Goodwin pursued her talent for window treatments and briefly tried being a receptionist in a doctor's office but wasn't sure she'd found her niche.
The sisters spent lots of time on the phone, with Goodwin fascinated by her sister's Curves venture. "I have to hand it to Sue - she had the vision about Curves," says Goodwin. "When she told me she was going to do it, I thought, 'Oh God, this might not be good, because it has to be difficult to keep your numbers up.' But I hadn't heard her so excited and upbeat in years. And she didn't seem as exhausted all the time. And when she'd tell me about her experiences with her members, I was envious."
When Mercier went to a conference in late 2002 and learned about Curves' upcoming new national advertising campaign, she called her sister and told her to jump onboard before someone else opened a Curves in her neighborhood. "She made me promise I'd look into it. I told my husband Wayne - my fiancÃ© at the time - that I wanted to do it, and he said, 'I'll do it with you.'"
And so they did, locating an empty space in a North Durham shopping center. "At first, we looked at a space that was about 1,000 square feet, which is the smallest size Curves recommends you get. It looked so small to me that I told the guy, 'Let's go bigger.'"
Goodwin's Curves opened in April 2003. She had never run her own business, but was a world-class organizer, had lots of common sense, and was good with money, she says. It never occurred to her that she couldn't make her new business successful. She was also completely sold on the Curves program, which she believes is an important factor in being a successful franchisee.
"Curves is a proven system - the fastest-growing franchise in history," she says. "I had absolute confidence in the program, and I went to Club Camp to learn how to run a Curves."
Her confidence was not misplaced: in her first year, Goodwin had more than 800 members - a diverse and interesting group that includes teachers, musicians, and crime scene investigators.
Goodwin says her strict adherence to the Curves program in no way places constraints on her creativity. "They give us the tools to work with, and we choose the kinds of promotions and how we market them," she says. At conferences, Goodwin recommends "coming outside the box" when working with members. "When you do that, your compassion kicks in, and your sense and sensitivity kick in," she says.
Her biggest challenge - and her biggest joy, she says - is keeping her members motivated. "For some people, it takes more than earning Curves Cash and other incentive programs. Some people expect a quick fix or the same amount of weight loss as someone else. It just takes time for something to trigger in them, to help them use Curves more effectively," she says.
Mutual aidEarly on, Mercier offered business tips to her younger sister. Now, they bounce ideas off each other and share their successes. And both point to their mother, Alice Tanguay, who still lives in Massachusetts, as a source of inspiration. "Mother, who was one of 15 children and knew how to stretch things, always made sure we had a balanced meal on the table. It might not be the most expensive cut of meat but we'd have a real meal every day," Goodwin says.
Tanguay is a two-time survivor of breast cancer, and has also endured the loss of two sons in an untimely fashion - the first died as a 4-year-old in a home fire when the sisters were children, and the other died several years ago from AIDS.
Goodwin and Mercier's ongoing desire to help others blends perfectly with Curves' focus on community service. In fact, that service, along with profitability and growth, was a major factor in determining Curves' North American award winners.
Every March, Curves of Pelham fills the food pantry at St. Patrick's Church. To date, the club has given a total of 14,000 pounds of food to the church. And in the past five years, the club has raised $40,000 for breast cancer research, much of that through participation in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk.
"That's a lot of money for our little club. It's not big, like my sister's. Each year, I hire a bus, and we all go up together to the walk and have a great time," says Mercier, who won a Curves Bronze Award in 2004.
One of Mercier's favorite events is an annual fashion show. "The first year, it was based on women's weight loss or health issues. Last year, we made it a real fashion show, with each woman wearing a different Curvaceous item. They walk to a song that expresses their personality, and I tell how long they've been at Curves, how much weight they've lost, and give a one-liner about their health if that's an issue. We've had a woman waiting for a pancreas transplant, breast cancer survivors. Then they tell the story of how Curves has transformed their lives. The show is sad, funny, emotional, very special," she says.
Among the Durham Curves fundraisers, one stands out in Goodwin's mind as the most successful and touching. When friend and staff member JoAnn Smith got breast cancer, Goodwin and her staff began selling pink shoelaces at $5 a pair to raise money to help pay Smith's huge hospital bills.
At the end of the campaign, Goodwin was able to present Smith with a check for more than $8,000 from her friends at Curves. "Breast cancer touches so many women. Their generosity reduced me to tears," Goodwin recalls. (Smith is currently doing fine.)
Community service also plays a big role at Goodwin's North Durham Curves. "My feeling is that a woman can be a cute size, can even be beautiful, but that doesn't make the whole woman. There's still something missing," she says. "Women are very important to the charities of the world, but sometimes it's hard to fit volunteering into their schedules. So I try to make it easy for them to participate here - and they never disappoint."
Goodwin, who on any given day, can be seen massaging shoulders or sharing photos, says she has gained a great deal from Curves members. "We share everything from illness to death to other kinds of loss. I hear some heartbreaking stories, and we cry and laugh together," she says. "I'm not the same person I was before Curves. My members have changed me. They've made me more compassionate, more aware of what's going on in the community."
And members, like Mishew Smith, a 600-workout client at Curves of Durham, appreciate Goodwin's brand of charity. "Liz's exuberance and enthusiasm for the Curves program, in addition to her good heart and giving spirit, touches each of us and extends beyond our Curves workout into the community," Smith says. "When we go out the door, we're better people for knowing her."
At Curves of Pelham, members are equally grateful for the help and inspiration they receive from Mercier, known as Sue 1 (Lyons is Sue 2, and fitness technician Sue Michaud is Sue 3). When Nancy Ramirez joined in April 2005, the retired nurse weighed more than 300 pounds. She also had several health problems and could barely walk. Just a year and a half later, she has lost 93 pounds and is working hard to lose more. "Losing the weight just builds self-esteem and confidence," she says.
In addition to providing support, nutrition, and weight management classes, both Curves owners are looking forward to what the new year will bring. One of the most important steps in Curves' growth will be the newly patented "smart system." Under the system, all the machines will be connected to a computer, which will show members working at the machines how many repetitions they're doing, if they're moving too slowly for an optimum workout, or if they're doing the complete range of motion.
"It will revolutionize the workout for Curves members," Goodwin says. Not surprisingly, her sister agrees. "It's all about permanent results without permanent dieting. That's been a basic with Curves since day one. It doesn't get better than that."