Business, Press

Big business for Iron Tribe Fitness equals big opportunities for Birmingham

By Kathryn Jacoby | kjacoby@al.com
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on September 16, 2014 at 6:00 AM, updated September 16, 2014 at 2:37 PM
Forrest Walden and Jim Cavale

Iron Tribe’s CEO Forrest Walden and COO Jim Cavale

Even though Iron Tribe Fitness is one of the fastest-growing companies in America with franchise locations in Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas, the company hasn’t forgotten its Birmingham roots.

The six-year-old company, which brought in $4 million revenues in 2013,  is on track to have 38 locations across the country by the end of the year, and 100 locations by the end of 2017.  This year, Iron Tribe came in at #602 on the Inc. 5,000 list of fastest-growing companies in America. Interestingly, 90% of all the company’s franchise locations are owned by Alabama natives, and executives say that ties to the Birmingham community are strong.

Occasionally, people find it more than a little surprising that a successful fitness empire was born out of Birmingham, explains Iron Tribe’s CEO Forrest Walden.

“Alabama always ranks so poorly in nationwide studies on health. You’d think this kind of business wouldn’t do so well here, but people have completely embraced it. They see they can get to a better place in their lives and meet other likeminded people. I can’t think of a better place to have done that than Birmingham.”

No matter where one of Iron Tribe’s franchises opens, the operator and the trainers at the facility all come to Birmingham to learn how to do things “the Iron Tribe Way,” explains COO Jim Cavale. The training period, which lasts for a full month, teaches the best ways to train clients, inspire clients and keep the business side of things running smoothly.

“A lot of franchises around the country have a 2-day training course or a quick certification online, but ours is an immersive experience that allows people to really see what we are about and spend some time in the city,” Cavale says.

It’s no secret that the southern hospitality found in Birmingham is part of the heartbeat of Iron Tribe. Walden says that part of the reason the training is held here is so that people can “feel” what Iron Tribe is all about.

“Southern hospitality is in the DNA of our culture. You can’t teach that through an owner’s manual,” he says. “What we do can be intimidating, but when you greet people with a smile and everyone is encouraging, it turns it into something fun. We support one another completely, but we’re also extremely honest. People need that friendly environment but they also need to be called out if they’re not doing their diet and showing up to class.”

During the training sessions, Cavale and Walden and are constantly watching to see how trainers and operators work together. Occasionally, they’ve had to make some tough hiring recommendations.

“We’ve had to pull the red flag on a few employees, although that’s very rare,” Cavale says. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, you might want to reconsider on this hire.’ And they listen to us.”

So far, more than 100 people have been through the four-week training program and another 23 are training in Birmingham now. Trainees typically stay at the Westin or the Sheraton in Birmingham’s Uptown district and are given welcome packets when they arrive that tells them about the Civil Rights Museum, Vulcan, Railroad Park and more.

“We want them to really enjoy their stay and so we make recommendations for things to see and places where they can eat the way we eat,” Cavale says. All Iron Tribe Fitness members are encouraged to eat the Paleo Diet, which consists of non-processed whole foods.

Although many of Iron Tribe’s out-of-state franchise owners are Birmingham residents, the franchises themselves are run by operators and trainers who are based near the business.

“Out of the 70 franchises we have sold, more than 60 of the owners are Birmingham residents who were a member of one of our first five facilities. They’re people who said, ‘Hey, I love this and I want to invest in this and take Iron Tribe to Miami or Denver.’ It’s a really cool thing,” Cavale says.

Typically, the franchise owner maintains a presence in the city where the business is located, and Cavale says the more presence they maintain, the more successful the franchise.

“They’re still present in those markets in a semi-offsite way,” he says. “Our Nashville group is very successful, and they visit frequently.”

The company’s annual conference for franchise owners, TribeCon, also comes to Birmingham. The 2014 conference, the second in the conference’s history, is expected to bring in a crowd of around 120 franchise owners and their guests.

The conference will be held again this year at the Westin, November 2-4.

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