A Triathlete In The Corner Office: Athletic Republic CEO Charlie Graves

athletic republic
Athletic Republic CEO Charlie Graves.

Athletic Republic CEO Charlie Graves was an Olympic-level swimmer and professional triathlete, and the lessons he learned as an athlete have had a big impact on the way he leads his business.

“Preparation is something completely within your realm of your capabilities and it’s something that if you put the effort into it, it’s going to give you a greater chance for success,” Graves told Chief Executive. “I never wanted to be in a position as an athlete or now as a leader to say I wasn’t prepared enough to win.”

Athletic Republic is the industry’s leading performance sports training franchise, with 120 North American locations. The company trains athletes through an individualized approach using science-based methods and state-of-the-art equipment in a small group setting. Since taking over as CEO over a decade ago, Graves has streamlined and simplified the company’s complex training system to a Test-Teach-Train approach, resulting in improved speed, power, agility and stamina of more than one million athletes. To expand the brand’s performance training success across the country, Graves has aggressive plans to open 100 additional training centers over the next three years.

Chief Executive spoke with Graves about the challenges of leading a franchise organization, creating a successful company culture and how his experience as an athlete has influenced him as a business leader. Here’s what he had to say:

The challenges and opportunities of running a franchise-based business

I think the first lesson is one of eliminating distraction. When I first stepped in here, I looked at tangent businesses that could be part of this entity and made a great mistake of not focusing strictly on our core, and learned the hard way that you have to invest and develop and expand your core business first before you can take on anything else. And the first couple of years I was in the job, I was chasing all sorts of things, strategic partnerships with big brands, investing in technology that was ahead of its time, things that were good for the business but not core to the business, not our product. And I think for me, first off is when I came back and recognized that we had to expand our core offering, concentrate on helping our franchisees turn that passion they have into profitability, focusing on that first before the corporate profitability. That was my first lesson.

I think I jumped to how do I help make my business more profitable versus my operators more profitable? And the realization is that once my profiters were more profitable, then my business would become more profitable. So my first lesson was one of how I had learned of chasing the shiny white star that was going to improve profitability at the corporate level, but didn’t have any impact on the unit level where years later I finally came around and said, “No, we have to be best in our units first and that will feed the business.” And that transformation is what has shifted our business completely.

We also integrated systems so that franchisees could run and have good business intelligence. So they knew how to operate their franchises. In a very fundamental way, how many sessions do I need to deliver a day to break even? What are the KPIs that are driving my retention, referral and acquisition? Understanding those metrics was something that didn’t exist in this business and be able to help them identify the areas that they are performing to norm or not and so they could apply additional focus into those areas.

Company culture at a franchise organization

It absolutely starts with culture. Let’s start with the logo—it is important. When I bought the business, it was called Frappier Acceleration Sports Training. I loved FAST, the acronym, but it wasn’t something I could trademark. We ended up spending a fair amount of time trying to think about how we wanted to present this. And as we did our focus group work with our franchisees, it was really clear that we wanted a community of athletes, that we wanted anybody that wanted to get better to come in under our banner. And so this republic of athletes, this Athletic Republic, was really that commitment from the brand side to say, “If you’re an athlete that wants to improve, we want you flying our flag.”

From a value side of it, if you think about our core mission is about transforming potential into performance. Everybody has the capabilities to be better and if you want to dedicate the time, energy, and resources to this, we’re going to help you improve your capabilities. Our mission is transforming potential into performance and we looked at the value system to support that. We’re a sports-based business so it’s great to have values that are embedded in the words of sport. Our value system has a couple of components: Number one, we believe in the transformative power of sport. We may develop an athlete’s speed, power, agility, but I will tell you the greatest thing that we develop for an athlete is confidence. When an athlete walks out of here standing a little bit straighter, knowing that on game day that they did all the preparation and they are ready to bring it, that’s probably one of the greatest gifts we can give them. And one of the greatest sources of pride that our trainers and I have is that we’re making more confident athletes. And that passion our trainers have and our franchisees have are reflected in that first value of the transformative power of sport.

Number two, we embrace the spirit of sportsmanship, fair play. There are a lot of things, you know, in this world today that don’t play by the rules. We deal with a family’s most valuable asset, their children, and we have to treat them with a high regard and respect. And that spirit of sportsmanship comes through in all areas of how we operate. Respect, dignity, not just between our athletes but also in the peer level between our trainers and franchisees. Because we hire so many trainers that come out of an exercise science background that have been a former athlete or a coach and because we are in an industry that is always pushing the physical limits.

Number three is we are always improving. So we look for people that are life-long learners that want to continue to get better themselves in our network, not just helping the people with us.

Number four, we’re good teammates. We have good teammates. Back to the vernacular of sport, if you can’t contribute to a team, if it’s the “me” instead of “we” mentality, you don’t do very well in our business. You have to be able to operate together and understand that you’re here to help others, not just yourselves.

And five, our last one, is we’re competitors, not participants. We expect everybody to bring their very best every day. We want them to win. We want them to keep score. We want them to understand what it takes to be the best both on our training floor and the athletes that they’re training. If you’re just coming in here to finish, to just mail it in, that’s not the person that we’re looking for. So you have to be a competitor to do well in our business. All those five values speak to not just our franchisees but also the training staff that they bring on to help them execute our system.

How his athletic background informs him as CEO

As an athlete, you have to be committed. You have to have…what’s old Yogi Berra’s old saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you may not get there”? So being goal-focused, being mission-focused as an athlete, that’s critical. That achieves results and success, I think the same thing in business. So number one would be understanding there has to be objectives and you have to have a plan to get there.

Number two is that there is no replacement for preparation. I may not have been the best athlete physically, but I was physically and mentally better prepared than anybody else because those were things I could control.

Number three as an athlete is you realize you can’t do it on your own. Winning requires a team. Even in the sports that I played, as a swimmer, a triathlete, and now a frustrated golfer, you can’t do this alone. You can’t be successful at the highest level on your own. You have to have a team and they all have to understand what that common goal is.

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