When Jim Rowley stepped in to lead Crunch Fitness in 2009, one of the very first things he did with his partners and senior leadership team was to design an emergency action plan. A third generation military man and former marine sergeant, Rowley was acting on his ingrained belief that “if you stay ready, you never need to get ready.”

In the event of a hurricane, an earthquake or “any natural disaster or catastrophe,” Rowley wanted to already be ready, which meant being in a position to take care of his team and their customers. It was 11 years in the making, and it was only the second time that Rowley had the chance to roll out that action plan; the first time was in response to Hurricane Sandy, but this time it was to a pandemic—Covid-19.

“When Covid hit, the first thing I did was assemble my team. And we brought out the emergency action plan, which ensured a high level of communication, maintaining payroll and technology systems as developments changed over time,” Rowley said.

Like many businesses, Crunch Fitness did have to cut expenses and lay off team members, but it did so while providing compensation and health benefits to help many ride out at least part of the pandemic. Crunch then used the enforced “downtime” to improve their facilities. “A lot of people stopped spending money and stopped thinking about strategy,” observed Rowley. “I said, ‘Let’s take this time to get better.’” No aspect of Crunch Fitness operations were left unexamined, and once society began opening up, the 400 franchise and corporate-owned fitness clubs found they were not only a better business but had managed to grow Crunch by five percent during the pandemic.

A 30-year veteran of the fitness industry who had to beg for his first job, Rowley was a three-sport athlete growing up, but in high school, his athletic focus shifted to football only, and, later, a four-sport coach for his children in youth sports. But listeners to this podcast don’t have to be any of those things to benefit from the vividly drawn lessons Rowley shares from his amazing career. These include:

• Why asking the right questions is a more important leadership skill than having all the answers.

• What he learned from reading about Navy Seal Kiko Suarez in regards to communicating leadership strength to his team.

• How to build a resilient leadership career regardless of your industry.

Rowley looks every bit like the owner of a fitness franchise, but he recognizes that it’s not about the weight on the barbell, it’s about going in and recognizing who you are there to serve. “I have a technique,” he said. “If I feel like the team is too focused on goals or KPIs, I get us out on the floor and I’ll ask my team, ‘Who’s that on treadmill one? Tell me about him.’”

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