About 25 percent of America's approximately three million small businesses -- firms with less than nine employees -- are franchises. These locally-owned businesses are under contract to sell the goods and services of a larger, parent company -- and the fastest-growing franchise company in U.S. history is a health club named Curves.
The first Curves health club opened in Waco, Texas in 1992. Gary Heavin and his wife Diane invested about $10,000 of their savings in the business -- relatively modest considering their current annual revenue.
"In ten years, we turned $10,000 into a $2 billion-a-year revenue company," says Heavin.
Today, there are 9,500 Curves franchises in 37 countries. And, Heavin says, the Curves brand name is now synonymous with business savvy and success -- a lot like a well-known fast-food franchise. "Today, there's one Curves for every 1.5 McDonald's [fast food restaurants]. We have become the McDonald's of fitness in America, and now we plan to do that around the world."
What's made Curves one of the world's largest franchise companies? Recognizing an untapped market.
Most American health clubs cater to young, single men and women -- a lot of them already in good shape, and looking to meet others in the same condition. Curves founder Gary Heavin says he specifically designed his clubs for middle-aged and elderly women who are out-of-shape and definitely need the exercise.
One franchise owner, Elvi Moore of Washington, D.C., says the Curves approach works. "We have found a niche -- where women who would not necessarily go to a regular gym, feel comfortable here," Moore says. "Nobody has to dress up -- as you see sometimes in the regular gyms -- to appeal to men, and they don't have to here. It's a very comfortable easy, friendly, supportive atmosphere."
A Curves club is basically a large room -- usually located in a shopping center -- filled with about ten pieces of weightlifting equipment. A recorded voice and a pulsing disco music lead patrons through their workout.
Thirty seconds working with the equipment at each station alternates with 30 seconds of running in place. The women keep going for 30 minutes and most come to Curves about three times a week.
Sylvia Bertran, 80, exercises at a Curves in Washington, D.C. "I needed to lose some weight," she says. "My doctor says I'm doing very well for my age, and I just feel great."
So does her pocketbook. The monthly membership fee is as basic as the workout, between $40 and $50, quite a bargain compared to most health clubs.
Franchise owners like Elvi Moore rave about the Curves approach to business, which is also no-frills. There's no need to pay a fitness instructor; the recorded voice and upbeat music keep everyone moving. The few staff members who monitor the patrons work part-time. Curves corporate headquarters provides training, advertising and rights to the brand name.
"You could actually make probably anywhere from $5,000 to $8,000 a month," says Moore. "I know there are a great many Curves owners who make more than that."
For Curves founder Gary Heavin, satisfaction comes from more than making money. He was inspired to start the business because his mother died at an early age due to health problems related to a lack of exercise. Today, he says, he and his wife receive letters daily from women all over the world -- owners grateful for a business opportunity, and members happy to be fit and energetic.