The Little Gym’s president and CEO speaks with 1851 on what fuels franchise development.
Today, Alex Bingham is known as the President and CEO behind The Little Gym. However, his experience with the franchise brand didn’t begin as a corporate executive — Bingham started out as a student at The Little Gym’s original location in Seattle when he was just two years old. Since then, Bingham has held a variety of roles within the brand, rising through the ranks to become its chief executive. The Little Gym has continued to grow as well — the brand recently celebrated the opening of its 400th location.
1851 Franchise spoke with Bingham to learn more about how he rose through the ranks at The Little Gym as well as how the brand has been able to achieve its 400-unit milestone.
How did you first get involved in the franchising industry?
For the past 16 years, I have been involved with The Little Gym International in a variety of different roles. I started as the Gym Director of a corporate-owned store where I taught programs and classes for all age levels, including Parent Child, Pre/K, Grade School, Karate, and Sports Skills. That experience led me to take on a Consultant role for our domestic and international locations, focusing on assisting our franchise owners with the pre-opening process and general operations. I then moved into a management role; first as a VP of Operations, from which I transitioned to Senior VP of Franchise Services overseeing Domestic and International Franchise Services, Marketing & Brand Development, Curriculum, Leadership and Training. That ultimately led to the role of COO, and now President and CEO. But, you could say that I actually got my start with The Little Gym as a toddler. I was a student at the original location in the Seattle area from ages 2-5, where I was fortunate enough to have the company’s founder, Robin Wes, as my instructor. It’s safe to say that The Little Gym has been an integral part of my life from a very young age.
What do you love about the industry?
What I love about franchising is the ability to impact more than one constituency at the same time—both the ability to have a really positive impact on franchise owners by helping them realize their dreams, and also add value to the consumer’s life through the products and services we are offering.
What do you wish you could change in franchising?
One of the most difficult parts about franchising is that you always want to help more—the fact that you can’t ultimately control execution is something that is inherently a challenge in franchising. The only way to change that is to become a chain, which is not what I wish or want to become, but that is one of the more difficult challenges that we face in franchising.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since you started out in franchise development?
The biggest change is the huge increase in the amount of concepts that you now see franchised, yet the number of qualified leads has stayed relatively static. This all translates to much greater competition and demand for franchisors to be extremely service-oriented, and to really bring their A game to both their owners and the product being offered. We are fortunate that we have always been service-oriented, but that is now less of a differentiator because so many new franchises do this as well; it is important for us to continue to adapt and improve our service as a franchisor.
What makes a great franchisee?
To understand the role that the franchisor plays to make them successful. And even more importantly, the role they play to make their business successful. Other attributes that make a great franchisee are that they are driven, positive, aligned with where the brand is going, and that they see that while their business is their primary responsibility, they also have a responsibility to the brand and their fellow franchisees. We are all in this together and success is shared mutually.
What’s the number one thing that sells franchises?
I suspect that it is different for us than other brands—what sells franchises for The Little Gym is heart. It’s wanting to give back to kids and their communities. The vast majority of our franchisees were once customers at a local gym. They have seen the impact that the program has on kids and want to then bring that to their neighboring communities or a new communities. Profitability and an avenue for a change of pace or lifestyle are also important factors for selling franchises, although they are secondary for us to the added benefit of doing something that gives back to children and the local community.
What have been the most important things you’ve learned on The Little Gym’s road to 400 units?
I think that we have learned a lot about how to create a partnership type of relationship with our franchisees and to really foster the concept of mutual success together. That is the basis of the relationships we have and we want to stay focused on that. We have also learned that sometimes momentum can go in wrong direction and can be tough to stop (i.e. the recession) but, on the flipside, positive momentum can come equally as quickly and be even harder to get in the way of. Because of that, we are optimistic that our current momentum will make the road to 500 units shorter than anticipated and deliver a tremendous amount of success to our brand, franchisees, and customers