Dane Fort’s stock-in-trade is dreams. A visionary rather than a dreamer himself (under his leadership, California Fitness & Yoga grew from a single studio to 55 locations in under 13 years), the CEO of Fitness & Lifestyle Group Vietnam uses his relentless drive to make wellness dreams come true for others. His biggest ambition today is to touch the lives of all Vietnamese people, whether they are among the chain’s 250,000 members or are yet to become healthy living converts.
And with 60% of the market share, Dane’s company is better placed than most to achieve that goal. That the three months following the easing of the lockdown should become their busiest months to date (check-ins spiked by 20%), speaks of a sea change in Vietnam’s fitness world. No longer is gym membership perceived as a status symbol but the golden ticket to healthy lifestyle.
Partly to capitalize on this momentum, Dane and his team have launched the Cali Dream website – a fitness Santa’s workshop of sorts providing a fast track to better health. It also offers a fascinating window into the country’s fitness aspirations.
In our “How I Manage” interview with the man driving Vietnam’s fitness revolution, we ask Dane about his vision of improving the health of all of the nation's 96 million people and how he plans to get there.
From a single Club in Saigon’s Chinatown to a part of the Fitness and Lifestyle Group, what was the journey like for you and California Fitness & Yoga?
A lot of people call us an overnight success but that success was never a sure thing. The first day we opened up for sales, the height of our ambition was selling one membership, just to confirm investing $4 million in a state-of-the-art fitness facility in Vietnam - far more than one would invest in the US - was a sound decision.
The year was 2007 and at the time there were two types of gyms in Saigon: the hotel gym and the “I’ve got weights in the front room of my house” gym, so we were really pushing into uncharted territory. But as people started crowding into the sales office, whole families buying 5-year memberships, we knew we were onto something. We sold over 100 memberships in 3 days. So it was definitely a wild ride.
The following year we opened our second location just as the financial crisis hit. Like all businesses, we were impacted - mostly from a financial side, where we naturally had the burden of financing our first locations. But on the client side, we started really taking off as the word of mouth on the quality of our services and gyms built up. All things considered, that year turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Because of the economic landscape, many international chains ended up not entering the market - while at the same time we tripled our core market. This made it very hard for competitors to enter later on.
In 2014, as the market picked up we partnered with Mizuho Bank to finance a larger vision - one focused on offering more services to a broader range of clients, no matter where they were in their life cycle. As a result, in the span of 1.5 years we started five new brands: CaliKids, California Centuryon Gym, California Yoga Plus, UFC Gym and Eri Clinic International.
While that growth cemented our position within the premium accessible market, by 2018 we had a different challenge: meeting the needs of an ever-growing middle class.
So in late 2018 we transitioned Mizuho out of our business and brought in a new strategic partner - one that would help us take on such challenge. That’s when Fitness & Lifestyle Group, the 3rd largest fitness group in the world entered the scene.
We leverage their expertise and brand portfolio to expand our offering and grow further. Since then we added a few more iconic brands - such as Jetts 24h Fitness and Hypoxi Studios to our portfolio. A few more will come in the coming years too!
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With over 4,000 employees working in seven provinces, how do you manage such a geographically dispersed team?
The secret is to hire people who are better than you and get out of the way. And you have to be completely content with being the dumbest one in the room. Our team on the ground is fantastic (some of us have worked together for 20 years) and I have complete trust in them.
At California Fitness we believe in being kind over being right and in fostering an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes. As long as our family members (as California Fitness staff are known) understand it’s not OK not to learn from their mistakes. This breeds an environment of robust dialogue where I might add a tidbit of information here and there but the final decision will always be my team’s as they see so much more than I do.
Three mistakes successful leaders in your industry know to avoid?
Growing irresponsibly is one - both from a financial perspective - make sure you have a business that can finance its costs of growth; but also from a human perspective. This last part is often overlooked but it’s incredibly important (and, we learned it first-hand). Yes, as a leader you must keep challenging your team mentally. But there’s a line where such challenge can turn into physical and mental exhaustion - and then chaos. And that’s something that must be avoided at all costs.
Second mistake is not being agile enough. If you’re not careful, your company can get bloated really easily. At California Fitness we removed all the bureaucracy leaving a hybrid organizational structure that’s pretty flat yet with an element of traditional hierarchy to it. This allows us to stay agile. To give you an example, when covid struck, instead of waiting for the data to come in, we shelved whatever plans we had for the year and the team just had to be agile and incredibly responsive to the changes to the environment.
And finally, the third pitfall to avoid is complacency. When organizations feel they are on top, they stop pushing themselves into uncomfortable situations where growth happens and that's when they stop to innovate. We have 60% of the market share (the closest competitor has 10%) so you’d think I could just sit back and twiddle my thumbs, yet not a day goes by when I don't wake up in the middle of the night worrying about new members choosing to join a different gym over us. How did we miss them? What value do they offer that we don’t?
There might be international players coming in at any time and I don't want to be caught off guard. The idea is to disrupt ourselves before someone else does.
You’ve recently unveiled plans for the first ever National Movement Day and the creation of California’s Dream Squad – how do these initiatives support the company’s vision?
Every single one of us at California Fitness is on the Dream Squad. We have our day jobs as the CEO or a yoga instructor, but first and foremost we are all dream makers. We launched the Cali Dream website where anyone in Vietnam can log in what they want to achieve in terms of health and fitness. We then pick ten wishes per week and make it happen for you, whether you are a member or not.
And we get all sorts of wishes, from someone who wants to improve their cardiovascular health to a confidence-boosting lingerie photo shoot following a month-long fitness program with a personal trainer.
The campaign feeds into another initiative of ours, the National Movement Day that is tentatively scheduled for December. The plan is to break a Guinness World Record for a group class.
How would you describe corporate culture at California Fitness & Yoga?
We are all about empowerment. If you look at our Dreammakers program where we give our family members full decision-making powers to make these dreams come true, what makes this initiative possible is having a team who are very comfortable making these calls. The secret to living is giving and being able to change someone’s life gives an incredible sense of fulfillment. I want my team to experience it.
When gyms were ordered to close at the onset of covid, our marketing team built a TV studio inside an aerobics room and started live streaming fitness classes. A quarter of a million people in lockdown tuned in. What is most striking is that the decision was made by our marketing team without running it by anyone at the top. To me, this shows passion to help people and empowerment.
Lastly, when hiring for California Fitness, we look for someone obsessed with execution. Ideas are a dime a dozen but the ability to see them through is priceless.
The group aims to double its membership base in the next three years. How will this be accomplished?
In the past years, Vietnam’s life expectancy surged to 75 years, but obesity remains a concern, especially among the young, so moving forward our focus will remain on producing educational content and working with the government and universities to raise health awareness.
And when you look at the dramatic increase in post-covid check-ins at our gyms, you realize that the pandemic made people reprioritize their health. People want to feel that they have control over how they feel today. Whether it’s through exercise, an IV drip or a facial, our customers are taking control of their wellbeing. And with covid providing the rocket fuel, California Fitness & Yoga will serve as a major engine driving Vietnam’s wellness revolution.