Ben Bergeron: Will Being a Great Coach Make You a Great Gym Owner?

A photo of Ben Bergeron and the title "Will Being a Great Coach Make You a Great Gym Owner?"

Mike Warkentin (00:02):
Being a good trainer does not make you a good gym owner. We’re going to debate that statement today, and I’ve got one of the top coaches in the world to help me do it. It is Ben Bergeron. This is “Run a Profitable Gym.” I’m your host, Mike Warkentin. Please subscribe so you don’t miss a show. Now, Ben doesn’t need much of an introduction. I’m going to give you the short version. He’s the founder of CrossFit New England and CompTrain. He’s the author of the book “Chasing Excellence,” which you can find on Amazon. He has coached CrossFit Games and Affiliate Cup champions and a host of other Games athletes. He retired from coaching in 2023 at that level, but he’s still a major force in the industry, and we’ve got him coming to speak at the Two Brain Summit June 8th and 9th in Chicago. Please get tickets via the show notes so you can see Ben in person. Ben, welcome here. I’m excited to jump into this one with you.

Ben Bergeron (00:43):
Thanks, Mike. Yeah, equally excited.

Mike Warkentin (00:45):
I’m fired up because I made a huge mistake back in 2008. I think you and I and Heather met in 2009 for the first time at the ranch in Aromas when we were all slugging it out in the dust there. A year before that, I made a huge mistake, and I thought that just being a great coach was going to make me a great business owner, and that thought maybe cost me, I don’t know, $500,000 over the next few years. So, take me back to like 2008, 2009. You were in earlier than that, I know, but what did 2008 Ben Bergeron think of that statement? You know, being a great trainer is going to make your gym successful.

Ben Bergeron (01:16):
Yeah, I think that’s what we were—that’s kind of what we were all sold essentially is that was the prerequisite. If you love this, if you’re passionate about this, if you’ve gone and done your Level 1, certainly if you were going to or sending people to the Games, it was like you’ve got to open an affiliate, and you’d be successful. And there’s—that’s not not true. Like, it is important to have passion. It is important to have ability, but fast forward 25 years or whatever that is, 17 years, and we know that it takes quite a bit more than that. But yeah, in the 2008 world, that was the prerequisite, and that’s what we thought the right thing was, and I still to this day do think that that is—if there’s two sides of the coin, and that’s the why I think it now, it’s just that you can’t have one without the other.

Ben Bergeron (02:12):
So it’s not you need to be—there’s this phenomenal book called “Unreasonable Hospitality” by Will Guidara. He was the—he ran Eleven Madison Park in New York City, which got voted best restaurant in the world. And the thing that I really took away from that was, there are two aspects to being a successful restaurateur, and that is to be restaurant smart and business smart. And gosh, if there was ever a good parallel for us as gym owners, restaurants are it, like, it’s the same model. You have a product that you hope people come to on a daily basis, and they’re served it by somebody, a coach or a waiter. There’s the programming, which is the food. There is the ambiance. There is the excitement. There is the vibe. There is—it’s a really, really strong parallel for us. So, you know, that’s the not so well-kept secret at this point: that it takes both sides.

Mike Warkentin (03:13):
Yeah, and you’re right, because my gym didn’t go under. Back in 2011, we opened it after I did training on the side and bootcamp stuff. We opened this gym, and I tried to be a great trainer, and I guess I was good enough that I kept clients and stayed open. The reality was that there were only two gyms, CrossFit gyms, at the time in a city of 700,000. So, by default, I got half the athletes, and we managed to survive. As competitors started to show up in the market, I realized that, whoa, marketing and retention and all these other systems just—I didn’t have any of them. And I was still getting by trying to be a great coach. And I started to think, “Maybe there’s something else I’ve got to do.” You know, when did that realization start to hit for you? Because for me it was maybe like three or four years after I opened my gym in 2011; it was about 2014. Other gyms started popping up and competition started happening. And the market was not just me and somebody else. What happened with you?

Ben Bergeron (04:00):
Yeah, it wasn’t—it probably wasn’t as binary as like all of a sudden going like, “Oh, OK, I need that.” Mine was a little bit more like a turning of the seasons. It was a little more phased because I always had an interest in the business side, but my business side wasn’t complete. I was only—when I thought of business, I was like, I still thought it was: hire and develop great coaches and create a great culture/community. That’s what—and that’s really where my efforts went into in terms of creating systems and processes and standardization and trying to really drive towards a mature business. But it was really—there were definitely a few sort of key moments for me. So, I affiliated in 2007. 2009 is when we went from doing it as a part-time business to getting a real gym, our own location, hiring, training coaches—not just Heather and I running classes.

Ben Bergeron (05:04):
So that was the first kind of step to like, “OK, we are true business owners. We’re not doing this on a part-time basis.” That was at 2009. Had some early—that’s where we met you at the first ranch. Had some early success of the Games. We won the Affiliate Cup in 11, I think, which kind of put us on the map. And then we ran a really competitive gym. We had a lot of members and ran a really competitive gym for about the next four or five years. And it was really centered around the sport of CrossFit, and it was really centered around hiring really high-level athletes as coaches—that were great coaches. They were—we had great coaches that were great athletes, but that was the first really eye-opening moment for me was about 2015 maybe. I was running an event called the East Coast Championships. The ECC.

Mike Warkentin (05:54):
I remember it. Yep.

Ben Bergeron (05:55):
Yeah. And we had at the time probably six or seven full-time coaches, which is crazy. Like I don’t—I’ve won now, you know. I just paid—the other part of that was I just paid no—when I said like early on, I was paying attention to culture, I was paying attention to doing things the right way in terms of putting on a good product, but I had no idea about the finances side of things. That was the biggest missing gap for me, way more so than marketing or retention or what’s your CAC or LEG or—all of that stuff to me is still not the most driving factors. Digressing back, we had the ECC, and we were doing the load in for the ECC, which is basically what we, the gym—CrossFit England was the staging ground where we kept all of the stuff year to year that we had then load into U-Hauls to bring down to the World Trade Center in Boston.

Ben Bergeron (06:47):
And this was like the “Aha!” moment for me. We had great coaches, and we had a good community and culture in the gym, but we didn’t have the right culture in terms of running a business. And when we did the load in, it’s a big project. I mean it’s four U-Hauls; you know, it takes two days to do the thing. And we’re loading it in, and we kind of run this dual business where we have some people at CrossFit New England that are also helping run this. But then we have a bunch of other coaches that aren’t; some of them are competing in the event, but as we’re loading it in, it’s only three of us that are doing all of the loading. And the other coaches are kind of just doing it—like one’s, you know, making some food, the other one’s plugging away on the internet and the other one’s working out, and we’re just walking by them, and they’re not looking to help a hand at all.

Ben Bergeron (07:37):
And that’s when I realized that was the “Aha!” moment for me of in terms of what I thought I was creating for culture is not culture. I thought I was creating culture in terms of like a place where people are positive, they don’t complain, there’s no gossip, there’s no drama. All of those are very important—very, very important. And you can’t not have those for a really strong culture. In my mind, what I yet to define was truly what it meant to be someone that would excel in a team environment. And that to me was the real—I took a big step back and had a come-to-Jesus moment with my staff. We call it the picnic table talk, where I brought them outside maybe a few weeks after the ECC, and I would say, “Hey guys, you know, things are going to change around here a little bit.”

Ben Bergeron (08:25):
And I think that you’ll be really surprised in a year from now how few of us are here.” And that kind of like—to that point, we had had next to zero turnover in four years. Nobody left. And why would they?

Mike Warkentin (8:38):
It’s a great job.

Ben Bergeron (8:39):
Yeah. Full-time employment. You coach two classes a day, and you get paid for 40 hours a week. And that’s where I was like, “I’m not running this business. I’m just not—like, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing.” So I went like full circle, like all the way back. And we had—again, we had about eight employees. I fired one. All the others left on their own except for one. Wow. So, at the end of the year, no turnover for four years, realized what I was doing with mistakes I was making without firing anybody.

Ben Bergeron (09:12):
Everyone—so six of the eight left on their own. All on great terms, but they just—I told them, “This might not be for you, and I don’t blame you because this isn’t what you were hired for. This isn’t what I said you were signing up for. So, if you don’t feel like this is for you, I get it. I get it. Like, go do something that lines up with what it is that you truly want to be doing, but this is not what we’re going to be doing going forward.” And to your—very similar to your like “all of a sudden” this—the business started being a business.

Mike Warkentin (09:45):
Wow. So that was actually known in CrossFit New England lore as “the picnic table talk”?

Ben Bergeron (09:49):
Yeah, yeah.

Mike Warkentin (09:50):
Wow. Yeah. And like listeners, let’s not forget. Like Ben at this time, I mean, you’re still like—I think you were doing Level 1 seminar staff at that point as well probably. You were running, or at least—

Ben Bergeron (10:01):
I was doing Seminar Staff. I was doing Seminar Staff, I think, in like 13, 14.

Mike Warkentin (10:05):
Yeah. Because I remember interviewing you in like CrossFit Minneapolis on a tire in the back or something at some point around that area. And like, so you’ve been doing that, you’ve got top athletes, you’re running the ECC, you’ve got a gym, you’ve got all this stuff going on, and then you kind of have this screeching halt. You’re like, “Whoa, this business is not doing what it should.” And then you go from these long-term staff members to you said you kept one. Like, that’s incredible. And I had a similar thing, not on the same scale, obviously, as you were doing, but we had a moment where we’re like, “This is just not going well.” And that’s actually how I ended up connecting with Chris Cooper. I’m like, I haven’t paid myself ever. This gym is losing $5,000 a month, and I am in trouble. And if I don’t do something, we’re done. You know? And so that was real; that was my come-to-Jesus moment where I had to start thinking like a business owner. And luckily Coop was able to help me and fix that. What did you do? So that’s a huge speed bump where you just draw this line in the sand between the previous version of CFNE and going forward. What changed? Like what did you change, and how did it—what happened with the business?

Ben Bergeron (11:00):
Yeah, so the first thing, I mean, first thing: I took full responsibility, like it’s totally on me. Yeah. It was totally on me. It wasn’t their fault at all. The coaches we had were phenomenal, amazing people. I mean, it’s like people would know the names, you know; it’s the Rachel Martinezes, it’s the James Hobarts, it’s the Kevin Montoyas. Like they’re—it was awesome. We had like an all-star studded staff. I think at one point we had like five or six L1 staff members coaching at the gym. You know, Mel Ockerby, Mat Frankel.

Mike Warkentin (11:30):
Yeah, all these big names from history.

Ben Bergeron (11:31):
Yeah. Yeah. It was amazing. It was amazing. But the basic—what I started with, what I thought was the most important thing is, and I still to this day think this is the most important thing, is to get the right people. And what I deemed as right people was a miss. And it wasn’t that they weren’t awesome people. It wasn’t that they weren’t awesome coaches. What I needed to do—and it was, these people might still be these people, meaning that the people out that left, but I wasn’t clear enough at the onset. So, I totally revamped what we stand for. Like what does it mean to be a coach at CrossFit New England? And it became crystal clear, and it was to be here, you’re a team player. Like just through and through, super simple, like crazy simple.

Ben Bergeron (12:20):
So then you just start to create the characteristics of “What does it mean to be a good team player?” Humble: It’s not about you; it’s about team wins. And we started defining these things and started creating all these like, “So what does that mean?” Like, we want people to stand up for what they believe in. If you’re on a basketball team and you’re a player, and you think that against the next team you should be playing zone defense, God, you better go up to the coach and say, “Coach, I think we should be playing zone.” But if the coach decides to play man-to-man, you still give all of your efforts, everything you have when you go to that game and play man-to-man, even though you didn’t get your way. So yeah, everyone gets a say, but not everyone gets a vote.

Ben Bergeron (13:01):
Like that’s what being on a team is about. It’s about team wins, not your wins. If you’re on a team, and you know, it’s really easy because we’re in athletics; it’s a perfect parallel. Like it’s what we do. We coach people to compete. If you’re on a team and the team wins the first round of the playoffs, but you had zero points, one rebound, one assist, and you only got in the game for six minutes when you normally play 36 minutes, and you’re sulking in the locker room, that is not a team player. That is not what it looks like. That is not. And the reason it’s not is humility. Do you define wins in team wins or your own personal success? The biggest characteristic of humility is somebody that embraces, looks for and seeks feedback. Teach, tell me how to be better. I don’t have this thing figured out.

Ben Bergeron (13:45):
I’m coachable. Like I want to learn, I want to grow. So, we have that one. Next is work ethic. Like good teammates work hard. No one has to poke, no one has to pry. No one has to say, “Hey, can you do—?” Like, they’re going above and beyond. They’re looking for ways to help the team. They’re looking for ways to expand their role. They’re looking for ways to take on more responsibility. They’re looking for ways to not only do what they do, but to not make their own position better, but make the team and the organization better. So, it’s people who don’t look at the clock, and it’s people who want to be at work. And the last one is people with emotional intelligence, people smarts, good communicators, don’t make things socially awkward. They don’t gossip; they don’t complain.

Ben Bergeron (14:30):
They have really good sense of group dynamics. So, you put those things together, and we became, I became—as people were leaving, as people were coming in, I was so over the top. I called it like—it’s from a great book called “The Hard Hat” about being a great teammate and I—Cornell lacrosse—and I learned that this is one of the ways that they, Cornell lacrosse, is like a powerhouse, yet they’re in upstate New York, and they play in shorts and the season starts in the 1st of February outside. So, what do they not want to get? They don’t want to get these divas that are just there for the spotlight and want to be— So, they tell them in the recruiting process, like, “Hey listen, we’re going to be straight up with you. We’re in upstate New York. Practices start February 1st.”

Ben Bergeron (15:19):
“We’re practicing in shorts. A lot of times we have to ourselves shovel the field from snow before we go on the field.”

Mike Warkentin (15:25):
In shorts.

Ben Bergeron (15:26):
“In shorts. And guess what? I know that you were a stud in high school. You’re going to sit for the first year. You’re not going to play. If that doesn’t sound like something you are excited about, this is not the place for you.” And they call it the hard hat because it’s about going to work. Bring your lunch pail. They have a workman-like attitude, and they’re just very clear. So, what do they get? They get the people that fit their team. And that’s why I just wanted to—so we did what we call a core value speech in the hiring process. After they went through a couple stages from send us a video, send us a letter, come in and have a call.

Ben Bergeron (16:00):
OK? Then somewhere in between having an in-person meeting, I would give the value speech, and it would go something like—try to scare them away. You know, “Hey, just so you know, this doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s just the way we operate. If you’re going to be uncomfortable with a couple things, this is not going to be the place for you. After every single class for the first three months, I’m going to give you feedback on things that you could do to improve. Now, some people don’t like to hear that. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It’s just going to make you really awkward. It’s going to make it really awkward and uncomfortable for you if that’s something you’re not excited about. We work really hard here. When we’re prepping for an event the next day, no one asks anyone to be here, but everyone’s here at 8 p.m. on a Friday night.”

Ben Bergeron (16:43):
“If you have family obligations, obviously, it doesn’t make you a bad person, it’s just, it’s going to be weird if you are not here and it’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. And we don’t whine. We don’t complain. We don’t make excuses. Like we wear bracelets, white bracelets, that say that on that. It’s a real thing. Yeah. If you get off on talking about people behind their backs, you know, and not in a bad way, just like that’s how you connect with people. You gossip about people when they’re not—hey, like this is going to be a weird place for you. You’re not going to like it.” So, from there, all of a sudden, like fast forward a year, and the people who are rolling in, it’s a different ball game. And now when, instead of the ECC load in where it’s, you know, three people working and six people doing their thing, now it’s like these crazy—a good example of that is—it popped out because it was so obvious to me. But because it was very shortly after, that coaching staff rolled out and a new coaching staff rolled in. Conor Nugent and Dan Lupo were two of them. Conor Nugent was coaching the 5:30 a.m. class, and he is coaching the Filthy Fifty. Anybody that’s ever run Filthy Fifty in a class knows how much setup that takes.

Mike Warkentin (17:54):
That’s chaos.

Ben Bergeron (17:55):
And yeah, it’s 10 different stations. So, and we have classes of 25, 30 people, so you have to be there, so our members start showing up at about 5:05, 5:15 for a 5:30. So, he shows up at 4:30, which is awesome in itself. Like that’s what we want. He shows up at 4:30 to start helping, so that’s what we want. Dan, who was working the front desk that day, who doesn’t need to be there until 5:30, at 4:45 walks in the door. Conor’s like, “What’s up man? What are you doing here?” He goes, “It’s Filthy Fifty—thought you could use some help.” It’s like no one told him; no one asked him. But like contrasting those two things of like one—it’s just getting the right people on the bus is more than what people think it is. It’s not just getting talented people. It’s not just get—you know, and it’s all about the entrepreneur. It’s all about the business owner. It’s all about the founder. It’s all about the entr—and I thought I was doing a great job of it before, but I wasn’t doing it intentionally enough to drive the behaviors that we wanted.

Mike Warkentin (18:56):
Wow. So, you really cleaned house, got a brand new thing in place and really, it was like shades of Dave Castro there where he was given the briefing of like, “You may not want to be here after the first day,” like that ring the bell, get out of here, kind of thing, right? You’ve seen that a hundred times at the Games, but you got these people and said, “This is the deal. You’re going to get feedback and laser focus on this team building aspect.” For me, it became, I need—I realized that it wasn’t so much about my team building, it was like I needed to put some structure in place for my team members to thrive. So, for me, I started looking at like, I had no standard operating procedures. I had no plan for how people do a class, how things were structured.

Mike Warkentin (19:32):
The finances were a complete disaster. And that’s where I really had to start focusing. Talk to me a little bit about that end of things. So, you’ve now got the people in the bus, and you’ve got these amazing people that are showing up early and doing the culture. How does the nuts and bolts and the finances go on your end? Like, do you start to see a real change there where things get better? Because for me, I had given nobody any structure. I was paying too much, not taking enough in. I was giving people classes I shouldn’t have. I was bleeding revenue. I didn’t know how to get new members, and I was scared to tell them I was—I didn’t want to bounce a paycheck. How did that stuff go for you? And did things improve?

Ben Bergeron (20:04):
Yeah, the operating procedures, that’s what I kind of liked to do. So, I had an operations manual for, so we had that in place, but if you don’t have the right people, like, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. Like, you know, you’re supposed to clean the rig on these days, but no, they coach your classes and work out. Like, so then I’m like—and I just get frustrated because I didn’t know how to lead. No matter what you have in terms of SOPs or expectations, roles, responsibilities, checks and balances, QC, no matter all of that stuff, it has to start with the people. And the people starts with the hiring process. Even with the hiring process, you’re going to get it wrong. I’ve gotten it wrong so many times. Just—I mean this is the, talk about timely—hired someone two weeks ago, let them go yesterday.

Mike Warkentin (20:57):
OK. So, you’re quick to fire now if someone’s not right. OK. Yep. That’s hard for gym owners, and that’s excellent though.

Ben Bergeron (21:05):
It’s hard. Really hard. It sucks. Like it sucks. Like it’s the worst part of the job. OK. But then just to answer your question more pointedly, finances was—so again, opened in 2007, full-time 2009. Embarrassingly, probably didn’t get finances dialed until COVID hit.

Mike Warkentin (21:24):
Really? Hey?

Ben Bergeron (21:25):
Like 2020.

Mike Warkentin (21:26):

Ben Bergeron (21:27):
12 years in, really didn’t have much eyes on P&Ls, budgets, projections, where the money was going, and that’s—we had a big business, so we got away with it, but it was so suboptimal.

Mike Warkentin (21:43):
OK. Like that’s fascinating. I know people wouldn’t assume that.

Ben Bergeron (21:47):
I didn’t even know. I was like—that’s why we ended up with eight coaches because I was like, “Hey, you’re a cool dude. You’re a good athlete. You want to coach for us?” “Yeah, yeah.” “You’re in.” “You know, I met you at the Games, and you want to move to Natick? Like, this is really cool man. You’re awesome.”

Mike Warkentin (22:00):
They were like, “Payroll is out of control here.”

Ben Bergeron (22:03):
Right. It took until COVID when it was almost like a forcing function that you had to because we’re going to go out of business. So, you know, that’s the biggest thing. In hindsight, if I was to go back from day one, that’s the thing I would’ve paid way more attention to. Like, you cannot run your business without your eyes on finances. Like, you just can’t. And again, we got away with it, but to your point, we’re doing a million dollars a year in one single location, one location, million bucks. And I was, a lot of times, I was taking home less than my coaches. A million-dollar gym in some of these years. I’m taking home 40 grand because I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t know that. And I was like, you don’t know where it’s going. You don’t know what it’s doing. Now, as you said, I had other business revenue streams. But that was something like I—sometimes good comes from bad. COVID, bad. Learning finances, good.

Mike Warkentin (23:01):
Well, Chris Cooper had a similar experience where he had his CrossFit gym going and his personal training studio down the road was floating the boat because that was losing money and the PT studio was working, and you know, he got in the same spot where he realized that he coached, I think it was something like 13 PT sessions in a row and still was arguing with his wife about expensive cheese. And he’s like, I cannot work more. I need to do better. And started putting an eye on those things. And then we started during COVID, the same thing. There were a lot of gyms that, you know, we were coasting along, and you had to make some really tough decisions to start. Like if you didn’t, you were dead. Right? So, I guess I want to dig into that a little bit. Like when you, so 2020 then, what do you start doing? Like how do you start getting excellent at business? And you said it wasn’t a passion of yours to like look into spreadsheets and P&L and all that stuff. How did you get excellent or achieve excellence in that realm so that your business could thrive and survive and create careers for people?

Ben Bergeron (23:47):
Actually, I actually like it. Yeah, I think the P&L tells stories. It’s—I like projecting it out. I like seeing what, you know, changing a number and seeing what will happen, and “What if we move this?” You know, I think that in most—I was scared of it. It was a thing, and I didn’t understand—let me say it another way. I didn’t understand how easy it is and simple it is. It is not confusing. It is very simple. I just didn’t have an understanding of how easy and simple it was. And I didn’t have an understanding of how impactful it was. So, I just went like, “Hey, that’s not the way I do my business. I’m just striving for excellence. You know, I’m just trying to make a great user experience, get my members results, and make a place that people want to be at, that don’t want to leave after the workout.”

Ben Bergeron (24:32):
That was the aim. But it was sim—like when COVID hit, it’s like you had to go, “Where’s the money going to come in from? Where’s the money going out? How can we create any additional revenue stream?” So rent out equipment, do Zoom classes, like do whatever we can to stay alive. And you had to become really crafty. You had to figure, you had to figure it out. And it’s now, it’s pretty simple, honestly. I mean, once you get the template laid out of what a P&L looks like, and you get the numbers on month to month, and you put them in, it’s fun.

Mike Warkentin (25:10):
It’s not bad.

Ben Bergeron (25:11):
It’s like, yeah, no, it’s like you get to see the rewards for your effort. You get to see what’s happening. And man, it feels so much better to be making these educated decisions instead of just like throwing darts in the dark. You know, maybe this will work, and maybe we can do this, and I don’t know.

Mike Warkentin (25:28):
And that’s where the coaching excellence, the actual boots on the ground in the class with the chalk on the bar, that’s where that starts to get amplified. Because if you’ve got your systems and structures and everything else in place, that excellence is still there. Because that’s hard too, right? Like that’s the thing where you can’t make a good—great coaches are hard to create, right? Because they’re these people that have this thing in them that makes them great. If you can put the business around those people and then put the right people in the right spot, it’s like rocket fuel, right? But if you have these people and they’re great and they’re just—you still can’t pay the bills, that’s not going to help. I guess going back to like 2008, 2009 or even earlier for you, maybe it wasn’t so much about chasing excellence just as a coach, but chasing business excellence as a whole, you know; would you agree with that? Like it’s trying—and you’ve written the book “Chasing Excellence,” but would you agree that that was a more accurate interpretation where we have to be excellent trainers, but we also have to make sure that we pay the bills and achieve excellence in the structure of a business?

Ben Bergeron (26:22):
Are you saying that that was the—are you asking if that was the—

Mike Warkentin (26:26):
Is that what we should have thought back in the day? Because when I saw excellence, I was like, if I’m a great trainer, if I’m a great coach, people are going to come here, and they’re going to want to train with me.

Ben Bergeron (26:34):
OK. Got it.

Mike Warkentin (26:35):
Yeah. And maybe what I needed to think back then was like, what if I’m a great trainer, and I run this incredible business where the burgers are made the same way every time. They’re always delicious. The staff is always asking, “How are you doing?” They’re always giving you an extra perk. You want to come back to my restaurant, to use your analogy. What if I looked at it not just as a great coach, but as that whole thing back in the day?

Ben Bergeron (26:56):
Yeah. Right. So that gets back to that restaurant smart and business smart. You’ve got to be gym smart. Gym smart is the coaching. It’s how to run a great class. It’s how to connect with your members. It’s the how to see, demo, correct, teach, and group management, build relationships—all the things that go along with being a coach and a leader in front of a class or one-on-one, however your gym is formulated. But the business smarts is something that we were told in the beginning did not matter, like in this community. Like we were just—you know, it’s very, very—you know, we were told “chase excellence, not clients.” That was literally, that was literally the verbiage that we were handed. And man, I bought that tooth, line, sinker. But I’m glad that it was the thing. Because I don’t know if I would’ve fallen into this community if it was otherwise.

Mike Warkentin (27:44):
It screened some people out for sure.

Ben Bergeron (27:46):
If this community was about, like when I came in, if it was about, “OK, now create your SOPs marketing funnel, here’s the—create the standard operating, create your retention programs create this, here’s how to do the P&L and the forecasting.” I’d have been like, “I don’t—” Yeah. I fell in love with “improve human movements and build community” was the mission statement from day one. And that’s what I fell—and I’m glad that that was the thing, you know, and then if it was excellence, it was how clean are your bathrooms?

Mike Warkentin (28:18):
Yeah, I remember that one. Yeah.

Ben Bergeron (28:20):
That’s what I went towards. And that’s not wrong. It’s not wrong, but to your point, it’s not complete. And a lot of people thought that that was the complete answer. And there is excellence in terms of the gym smarts. And that’s what it is. Are your bathrooms clean? Do you have a good customer journey in place? And are the customers excited to show up and be there every day or delivering results? That’s what the gym smart part is. But then as we’ve—as you and I have both experienced firsthand, it’s a rocky road, and it’s a short road. It’s going to be less than a decade if you’re not paying attention to the other parts.

Mike Warkentin (29:05):
Like, so fast forwarding now, like when you started there were probably, I don’t know, 100 CrossFit affiliates or less or whatever; you’re probably very early on.

Ben Bergeron (29:11):
I think I was around like 450. I think I was under—one of the first 500. And now because so many have fallen off, so many have fallen off, I think I’m one of the 100 originals now.

Mike Warkentin (29:21):
Yeah, so you’ve moved way out with like early adopter, the whole thing and that—you know, so you get in with that passion. Let’s look at it now. Like a new gym owner out there right now is looking at this and doesn’t have that same early-adopter, 2007 kind of mentality where it’s just like all about the passion and whatever. You’re going into a saturated market in many cases with a ton of competition. Functional fitness is no longer this Marc Dwight warehouse kind of thing. It’s like right in front of you. It’s being commercialized in like F45 and all these other studios. How do you meld that passion now with the business excellence side? Like how do you make that perfect restaurant? Like if you were advising someone who says, “I’m thinking about opening a CrossFit gym in San Diego,” what would you say to that person?

Ben Bergeron (30:00):
First thing I’d want to know is what are your expectations—what are their expectations? You know, so “I’m opening up a CrossFit gym in San Diego.” “Great. What do you—how many classes do you plan on coaching a week? How many members do you plan on having?”

Mike Warkentin (30:17):
So your nuts-and-bolts business plan right away.

Ben Bergeron (30:19):
Yeah. “What’s the rent in the space? Do you have a space? What’s the rent?” So, it’s the two biggest things. What are your—so you need to know: Does this person have expectations for profitability? So, it’s—and the two biggest costs are people and facility. So just start there. Like, how much is the space going to cost, and how much are you going to pay your employees?

Mike Warkentin (30:45):
Well, this is mind-breaking stuff, Ben. In 2009, when I was thinking about this, it was like, “I need a warehouse, and it’ll be full.” That was my whole thinking, you know? So, this is—what you’re saying now is crazy.

Ben Bergeron (30:54):
Mike, actually, my suggestion is always when somebody says that first, my first question to them is, “How many clients do you have right now?” And if you don’t have 40 clients that are—you’re going to open up the doors, and they’re going to be there to sign up on day one, do not open a gym. You can’t open it. We could do it back then because we were opening up in 600 square feet. Right. And if you were the only CrossFit gym in the space, they’re going to find you to do that thing.

Mike Warkentin (31:19):
30 soldiers will be knocking on your door tomorrow.

Ben Bergeron (31:21):
Yeah, exactly. But when you open up now and you’re opening up with 4,000 square feet, 6,000 square feet, and you’ve got to buy the 10-person rig, and you have to have six rowers; like, our all-in startup costs were under 50K.

Mike Warkentin (31:36):
Yep. Mine too. Exactly. Same thing.

Ben Bergeron (31:38):
And everyone’s was then, and we opened up one of the biggest; you know, we did a build out, so I was a little bit different where we built some bathrooms, and we spent about 80K to build bathrooms. But the thing that I was able to do was when I opened up, I had 60 clients when I opened the doors, and I knew 40 of them were coming with me when I opened the doors. And 20 of them bought lifetime memberships. 20 of them gave me $3,000 each.

Mike Warkentin (32:04):
Are they still around by chance?

Ben Bergeron (32:06):
I have about, I have about, I’ll say 70% are still here.

Mike Warkentin (32:11):
Look at that. Wow. Yeah. Do you ever regret giving them lifetime membership?

Ben Bergeron (32:15):
No, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. Yeah. I wouldn’t be here. Yeah. You know, so that’s what—so, but the biggest thing is I opened up and on day one we had classes running and revenue coming in, and we had people out in the streets praising us and talking to other people about what this place was all about. If you open up thinking “I built it; now, they’ll come,” like, yeah, you can work, you can do a lot with paid ads and working the funnel and all the rest. It’s just not, it’s not an effective day one strategy. It’s just not. And when you lay out first, last, security, and you have to hire some lawyers to do some things for zoning or whatever it might be that we had to do, special permits. You lay down the rubber floors, you buy the rowers, you buy the rig, you hire a couple people, you buy a front desk, and you’re into this thing for 100K on day one, and on day 30, rent for number two is due.

Ben Bergeron (33:13):
And so is payroll. Like, unless you got—unless you got 40 people walking on the door on day one, don’t do it yet. So, then what do you have to do? You have to go and build your business being a trainer and a coach and create a reputation. That’s the way I would—but I’m a grassroots guy. That’s what—the other way you do it is you take on investors. I just think that’s a—partners, investors and the amount of people. You know, I do a lot of consulting for gym owners and the number of people, the percentage of people that have started this with partners that want out of the partnership is so close to 100%, it’s crazy.

Mike Warkentin (33:52):
It’s really tough. Chris has written about this. It’s an option, but it’s not the greatest option. The better option often is to just go to the bank because when you pay the bank back, they’re done. They don’t have to be around. And they’re not trying to make, push you into decisions and so forth. And I’ve seen some gyms, and I’m sure you have too if you’ve done consulting, four or five, six partners—those are tough to run. It’s tough to make decisions. You’re splitting this pie; you’re razor thin. If your profit margin’s not good and all of a sudden you’ve got three—a million dollar gym, three owners are taking home 10K a year or something like that. Those are out there.

Ben Bergeron (34:22):
So if you’re going to go open up a gym with four or five partners, the goal can—you really need to get on the same page, alignment of vision and values. Where are you going to be in three years? Where are you going to be in 10 years? What’s the North Star? A lot of business jargon, right? You really have to get laser focused on that. And if the goal is to open up one gym, really well-define what are the roles and responsibilities of each partner and get down right to like, OK, are each of us paying a membership? Are our spouses paying memberships? Are our kids paying membership? Like, you have to go like right down to the nitty gritty of all of it.

Mike Warkentin (35:02):
That’s the SOPs.

Ben Bergeron (35:04):
And if it is to open up one gym, I’m telling you right now, in 12 months, not everyone will be there. You’re going to end up buying people out. People are going to buy out other people. Because it’s not going to work. It just—it will not work. If the goal is to open up 30 gyms in the next decade, that’s a different thing. You need the capital. People can play different roles. They can be silent partners; they can be pure investors. That’s a different team dynamic than “Let’s open up one gym.” Because and people are like, “I just want to be there to work out and do this thing.” But they actually have a lot of say in the programming, and they think they show up at class at this time because that’s when they want to be there. That’s a rat’s nest.

Mike Warkentin (35:44):
I’ve got to ask you this one because this is—I think you’re the probably the best person on earth to answer this question. People sometimes think that having success in competition, putting an athlete in the CrossFit Games is going to make their gym successful. I made that mistake. We put a person in the CrossFit Games, and the gym was losing $5,000 a month. Is it possible? Is that a viable business model to think “If I get someone in the Games, my gym will be successful”?

Ben Bergeron (36:08):
Mike, can you name—how many people can you name from last year’s Games that finished 20th to 40th place?

Mike Warkentin (36:14):
I can’t name a single one.

Ben Bergeron (36:16):
There you go. No one knows. No, no. Honestly, it will—now here’s the deal. If you send 10 people to the CrossFit Games and three of them win the CrossFit Games, which is the case where we were, that does impact the business.

Mike Warkentin (36:34):
That’s a different story.

Ben Bergeron (36:35):
It does. People are dropping in from … whenever they come to Boston. You know, we had 52 drop-ins last week.

Mike Warkentin (36:44):
You’re a flagship affiliate, flagship affiliate.

Ben Bergeron (36:46):
Yeah. And people drive past six affiliates to get to us. You know, but it’s because of that. But if you get one athlete to the Games, it will have a zero impact. It’ll have an impact inside of your affiliate. There’ll be a lot of pride. But in terms of getting members and even in terms of retention—in terms of retention, I would actually say that your churn will probably go up if you get an athlete to the Games.

Mike Warkentin (37:09):
Why? Why? Tell me why.

Ben Bergeron (37:10):
It’s a division of focus. You as the leader aren’t focused on the average member.

Mike Warkentin (37:17):
It happened to me exactly like that.

Ben Bergeron (37:18):
Exactly right. And the members will feel it, and as much as you try to do otherwise, churn will probably go up. So, it’s really—the question is twofold. A member to the CrossFit games, zero impact, probably negative. 10 perennially, like you’re always sending people, you win the CrossFit Games, you get named “Fittest Gym in the World” a couple years in a row, you’re always sending people, then all of a sudden, the competitive athletes start to try to seek you out a little bit, and it’s a little bit different. But I’ve really got to triple down on the message: You getting one athlete to CrossFit Games, you getting two to CrossFit Games will have no impact.

Mike Warkentin (37:56):
Yeah, because I mean, I won’t call it a lottery win because there’s skill involved, but like how many Invictus gyms are there? Like how many CrossFit New Englands? How many—they are just not that many. Like what you did is so rare that you can’t plan that. It’s not a viable business model, right? Like you just can’t do it.

Ben Bergeron (38:11):

Right. But people travel all over the world to go and train at Invictus, and people travel all over the world to come and train here. It’s like—so yeah, it’s just like—but that’s got to be a decade-long plan. And you’ve got to get—like, you have some pretty early successes to say like, “This is the route I’m going.” Meaning, essentially, you’ve already done it. Unless you’ve already gotten multiple athletes there, that cannot be the business plan.

Mike Warkentin (38:36):
I remember having a conversation with Rob Orlando back in the day, and we were on the phone, he was yelling at me; he was like, “It is literally my job as a coach to tell people you are never going to the CrossFit Games.” He’s like, “I do it all day.” And I laugh because that’s probably the best thing in some cases that you could do and focus on your business. I want to wrap this up, Ben, I’m not going to keep you too much longer, but I want to ask you a couple of quick ones as we finish this out. CrossFit’s got 10 general physical skills. Everybody can list them all. I’m sure you’ve had them on the top of your head. Give me a couple of essential business skills for a gym owner in 2024. What is non-negotiable now?

Ben Bergeron (39:09):
Let’s start with the ones we’ve already discussed. The ability to build and lead a team. Like there isn’t a—I mean that’s 1a, and 1b or 2 is so far down the list, it’s not even there. But I would say the next one is to have a grasp of your financials.

Mike Warkentin (39:27):
So you’re talking team building, and you’re—sorry, team building and financials are the two.

Ben Bergeron (39:31):
Yep. Yep. And then the third is you have to be or you either need to get a high-level coach. Like you have to be—someone’s got to train the other coaches. And if it’s not you, somebody has to get coaches to understand more than just the points of performance of a squat, how to find the second position of a clean; they have to know more than just what is the catch and receiving position of a row stroke. You have to have somebody that can really lead some classes. Like really know how to lead group classes. Those would be my three.

Mike Warkentin (40:09):
OK. So those are three big ones. That’s the equivalent of like power, strength, stamina, those kind of things in the CrossFit list. And we’ve talked about this and bumped into it a whole bunch of times during this conversation. You are speaking at the Two-Brain Summit: “The Simple Solve for Team Accountability.” Can you give people a little bit—we’ve talked about, I mean, you’re invested in building a team; obviously, you’ve done it. You had the picnic table talk, brand new staff. What are people going to learn from you at the Summit on this topic?

Ben Bergeron (40:34):
Yeah, accountability. I mean, I think it’s the biggest number one thing with teams. Like people always talk about the power of delegation, like you can’t do it all. This is the e-myth thing, right? You’re like, you can’t, if you want, if you’re going to be a—if you like to bake pies, awesome bake pies. Once you create a business where you’re selling pies, OK, you can sort of, you can still be the one kind of like doing the thing, but if that business is going to expand, you can’t be doing all the things. You can’t be at the cash register, you can’t be doing the marketing, you can’t be talking to—doing the other stuff and also washing the dishes and doing the pies and paying the bills. So, you have to delegate. OK? Like, but after delegation—this is what I think everybody misses—so we’ve got the SOPs in place. Cool. Like, and you delegate to a person. How do you hold them accountable? Like how do you actually get them to do the thing? That’s what we’re talking about.

Mike Warkentin (41:29):
And that’s huge because there are gym owners listening right now who have a staff member who’s crappy, who’s not doing the job and they don’t know how to, A, get rid of that person, or B, get that person back in line. And those are the two options because the third option of just letting it go is a disaster in your gym, right? So, if you can solve that problem for gym owners—

Ben Bergeron (41:47):
Just like the other stuff, it’s really—compared to teaching someone to coach, it’s really simple. It’s a framework. It’s really, really simple stuff.

Mike Warkentin (41:56):
OK, listeners, Two-Brain Summit, Ben is going to be there. He’s going to solve problems for you and help you keep your team accountable. Please get tickets via the link in the show notes. Ben, I can’t wait to see. It’s going to be in about three months. We’ll see you in Chicago, and you’re going to solve problems for gym owner. Thank you so much for being here and sharing all this stuff. This was awesome.

Ben Bergeron (42:10):
Excited for it. Thanks Mike.

Mike Warkentin (42:12):
My pleasure. I’m Mike Warkentin, and this is “Run a Profitable Gym.” Please hit “Subscribe” on your way out so you don’t miss another show just like this. And now here’s a final message from Two-Brain founder Chris Cooper.

Chris Cooper (42:22):
Hey, it’s Two-Brain founder Chris Cooper with a quick note. We created the Gym Owners United Facebook group to help you run a profitable gym. Thousands of gym owners, just like you have already joined. In the group, we share sound advice about the business of fitness every day. I answer questions, I run free webinars and I give away all kinds of great resources to help you grow your gym. I’d love to have you in that group. It’s Gym Owners United on Facebook, or go to to join. Do it today.

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