ANN ARBOR - Michael Stack is the founder and CEO of Applied Fitness Solutions. What started as a small business in Ann Arbor has since grown to three area locations with more than 4,000 clients.
What makes AFS stand out is its counter-gym culture approach. We sat down with the University of Michigan grad to learn more about how AFS came to be, the impact he's witnessed it make and his plans for the future.
Parts of this interview were edited and condensed.
How did you get into fitness?
I was an overweight kid growing up. When I graduated high school I weighed 275 pounds, which is approximately 110 pounds more than what I weigh now. I was "the fat kid." I got into lifting because I thought I was going to play professional basketball, which is really funny given the fact that I was 5 feet 8 inches in 8th grade and I’m 5 feet 8 inches now!
My mom took me all over the place to find gyms. And I remember vividly the day that I found the gym that I wanted to work out in. None of the gyms in 1994 allowed high school kids. We went into a YMCA in Westland -- which isn’t even there anymore -- and they said, "Yeah, he can work out here, but he has to work out with somebody." Immediately I felt deflated because both my parents work.
We were getting ready to leave and this guy who was walking by the front desk was like, 'He can work out with me.' So I went back and he started showing me the ropes. I’ll never forget it, his name was Al and he didn’t take money from me or anything. He kind of became my first mentor.
What Al did for me was give me access to an environment that I spent three to four hours in after school. I was there every day. It wasn’t because I wanted to get big and buff. I was there because being in the gym with Al was the first place I felt like I belonged. High school is tough for the fat kid and for those few hours I didn’t get picked on. The gym was the first place I ever felt safe.
What happened after that?
I got to college (where) I found out you can major in kinesiology, or exercise science. I didn’t even know that existed. I started at 18 years old working as a trainer for Bally Total Fitness while I was in college. I worked full time and went to school full time. Bally’s made a lot of mistakes as a company. That, in part, is what drove the formation of AFS -- it’s my passion for a safe environment where people can feel comfortable.
As a trainer, I got really frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t work with people for a long enough period of time. It was common for me to work with someone for 6-12 months and they’d pay me $1,000 per month. They’d do really well, they’d get in great shape and they’d say, "Mike, this is awesome, you’ve been great, but I can’t afford you anymore."
Slowly, you’d see these people come to the gym a little less and every time they’d go, you’d see them in slightly worse shape-likely from falling behind on the nutritional habits we were working to instill. Seeing my clients go backwards, I almost got out of fitness entirely because I felt like I was selling false hope to these people.
I thought, "How worth-while was that last 6-12 months if my client didn’t maintain the results we worked so hard for?" Even at 22, I realized that maintenance was my metric of success, not achievement. When it hit me, I realized what the problem was: I was trying to undo 30 to 40 years of bad behaviors in less than one year.
And so at the point I said, "I have to figure out a way to take this money that people are going to spend, that’s maybe $12,000 over a course of a lifetime. And instead of spending it in 12 months, get them to spread that out over the course of 10 years."
That’s the model that AFS is based off of, it’s to provide evidence-based, individualized fitness coaching and make it affordable for people so they’re able to do it over a long period of time.
My analogy for AFS is we're sort of like the Southwest (Airlines) of fitness. We don’t want to charge more money just because we can. We’re not a profit-driven company, we’re a mission-driven company. We’re very counter-culture from standard fitness and I think a lot of it comes from our perspective.
So when did you start AFS?
I started AFS in 2005. I was still working for Bally’s at the time, running AFS in a back office while still doing personal training there. I started doing corporate stuff for University of Michigan originally, and then in 2007 we opened up our Ann Arbor facility.
It was one employee: Me. (I had) thirty clients or so which were basically contacts I had from Bally’s. And then we had 1,400 square feet in Ann Arbor, same spot we are now, but we now have 10,000 square feet (and) close to 2,000 clients.
Companywide, we’ve got three facilities, the Ann Arbor facility is about to be relocated down the road to a site we’re going to build, which is super exciting, Plymouth, which is 20,000 square feet, Rochester, which is 20,000 square feet. Combined between all three facilities, we’ve got a little over 4,000 clients and we’ve got 80 some-odd employees. It blows my mind all the time.
If someone wants to join, what are their options in terms of a membership? Is there just one membership?
Everyone gets a fitness coach. That’s the base of what everyone does. Your membership is your coach. We call our coaches fitness practitioners.
Your practitioner does everything you would expect a coach to do: They are responsible for initial intake, they do body composition assessments, they do nutritional counseling, they do health behavior change, they do exercise prescription. They call you when you’re not coming in. We have a mobile app that we’ve developed that is a messaging system between client and practitioner.
Some of the big box gyms will sign you up and hope that you will never come back. We will sign you up and kind of respectfully bug the crap out of you to make sure you get in here!
The membership fee for the coach is $35 per month. And if people want to do classes on top of that, circuit training or weight training, then they pay additionally for the classes. Most places start with the exercise and they’re like, "Hey, if you want this fitness coach then you have to pay extra." We start with you by starting with a coach and then the exercise. Because for most people starting out, access to equipment is worthless unless it’s paired with guidance, instruction and accountability.
How are you placed with a coach?
Currently our intake managers spend a lot of time developing relationships with the practitioners and there are certain questions that they’re asking the clients to see who’s personality fits with a certain practitioner type. It works very well. It’s rare that somebody has to transfer from one coach to another.
We're working with a psychology metrics firm right now that has developed a behavior styles profile that better quantifies someone’s personality type. We’re figuring out a way to see if we can make that metric more integrated into the system so we can actually use some data to be able to pair coach and client.
The system we have now works fine because we’re a small enough company but eventually it’s going to have to be much more systematic, much more structured, so I think that’s the direction where we’re going.
Why do you think people come back?
Because they have a genuine, caring experience with us.
I often say AFS is about two things: It’s about great science but we’re also about great caring. We provide the unique combination of both. I would be remiss if I said for a second it would be more to do about the science than about the caring.
Asking why people come back to AFS is like asking, "Why do people keep coming back to Disney?" If you really think about it, Disney sucks! It’s hot, there’s lots of lines but people love it because of the memorable experience. This is exercise. Exercise sucks sometimes too. It’s hot, sweaty, you're working hard, but there's something that drives people back. If you ask me, it’s the quality and depth of interactions they have when they’re here.
We serve in a way that creates this loyalty with our clients. I hesitate to even call them "clients" or "the consumer." We’re like family. The environment that was first created by the staff has been nurtured by the clients -- it is an amazing thing that you almost have to experience for yourself.
What personally drives you and how do you continue to feel running this business year after year?
When this started it was about the client. Now for me, it sort of evolved to I'm more of a mentor in the business. I am no longer directly responsible for the customer. I am directly responsible for the safety and growth and development of my employees and if I can do that for them, they can do that for our customer.
Looking ahead, where do you see AFS going?
Given our current state of health care, the only way we’re going to get out from the hole we’re in is to focus more on prevention and eventually what AFS will become. Our long-term expansion plan is to become a referral source for primary care physicians.
There’s no referral avenue for primary care physicians for people to coach them on how to deal with chronic disease (or injury).
We have some physician groups that are ready to pilot with us. We’re currently in the process now of interfacing our software with electronic medical records.
My longer-term vision is to move out of the fitness space and into the health care space because that’s where fitness is going. We have the technical expertise and infrastructure to be able to actually do it. And so that’s twofold. I believe that we can be on the forefront of a significant movement from an allied health perspective, but I’m also driven because I want to be able to create for my employees the same thing I was able to create for myself.
Tell me about your employees. It sounds like a lot is demanded of them. It sounds like the work is really integrated into their lives. So how do you choose employees and what’s the process of integrating them into AFS?
The thing I get asked the most is: How do I find such great people? Like it’s some sort of magical formula. And I tell people the same thing all the time: We do not hire for technical skill.
We go through this series of processes that really evolve around: Are you aligned with our values and do you fit into our culture? So are you the right kind of person? And if you’re the right kind of person, then we can teach you anything you need to know.
Our core values are humility, empathy, empowerment, growth, teamwork and joy.
What the fitness industry has missed for a long time, is that you have a bunch of young adults trying to "adult" older adults. That’s what fitness coaching is. And so there’s this gap that exists between this 25-year-old that values fitness, loves exercise, can’t imagine life without it and the 55-year-old who hates exercise, can’t imagine life with it and you’re never going to get them to have the same life experience -- that shouldn’t be the goal.
But if you find the right kind of people who have the right emotional skills, you close off that gap and you actually can create an effective coaching relationship between two people who are literally two ships passing in the night.
As the CEO, are you at all the locations?
When you’re the chief-everything-officer when the business starts, you’re mopping the floors and you’re doing the books. It’s now to the point where it’s like, "OK, I’m doing the stuff that connects my passion and my purpose with what I’m doing every day," and that’s a super neat place to be.
I miss personal training, but the reality is, I’m the old man around here now. I’m 37, which doesn’t seem old, but for fitness it’s old. I’ve been doing this since I was 18. So my team is much better suited to be doing this stuff on the front lines than I am.
I have no problem admitting that anymore and I marvel now at their abilities on the work out floor because they are better at this point in their career than I was at that point in my career and I’m actually really proud of that because that means we’ve done a good job developing them.
What else would you like people to know?
When I hear people say "Fitness isn’t for me. It just doesn’t work for me," it’s not that it can’t or it won’t, it’s just that you haven’t had someone help you realize the potential that you have. And I think that’s the foundation of our coaching. We start with the premise that everyone can be successful at this, everyone has the skills inside of them, it’s just our job to create that relationship to bring those things to the surface.
Applied Fitness Solutions is a partner of All About Ann Arbor working to cultivate our Fit page. Stack and other local fitness experts regularly contribute articles on best fitness practices.
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