Interview with Pete Dupuis
Pete Dupuis is the co-owner of Cressey Sports Performance, and the gentleman who I think in many cases probably plays some of the behind-the-scenes role in helping to craft that business into one of the premier gyms in the country, but Pete also has started to go out and share some of his business expertise through his blog, through some consulting, through some incredible Facebook Lives as well.
I’ll go way far back because I think that what people tend to be fascinated in, or intrigued by is how Eric Cressey and I established a relationship in the first place. That goes back to the fall of my senior year of high school where I was tackling the college selection process, and I had what I’d call a “faulty approach” to it because I was so concerned with the Princeton reviews, and the school rankings, and some sort of value that is attached to these schools purely based on the book that I’d picked up, and read about the quality of life on campus, or what their alums supposedly earned coming out of school.
Granted this was before we all lived on the internet as well. I looked at a number of schools that were favorably reviewed, but they didn’t really fall in line with any specific goals for me other than to be able to say to my friends, “I’m going to a great college.” My dad told me that he would pay for my undergraduate college experience assuming I stuck with it and got it done in four years, which seems to be increasingly rare these days with people finishing a four-year program in five and six years, and so on.
My dad said, “I’ll pay for it under one circumstance, and that is that you take a look at Babson College and Bentley College,” which are business specific schools just outside of the Boston area, and he had told me a number of times leading up to that that if he could do it all again he would go to a school like those two and get a business degree because he felt like it was the most functional degree you could walk away with, and it would be the most efficient opportunity to learn the art of networking, and align yourself with some impressive and productive people.
I relented because at the time $120,000 to $130,000 of tuition was a beautiful thing to have your parents cover, and I said, “Let’s go look at Babson and Bentley,” and I had a number of liberal arts schools from the New England area that were very favorably reviewed that I wanted to look at as well, but ultimately I fell in love with Babson College. Ranging from the campus to the curriculum, with a big emphasis on entrepreneurial studies, and I just fell for it the moment we set foot on campus.
From there I applied. I got into the school, into the program, and like everybody else I got a mailer that summer immediately before starting school introducing me to my randomly selected roommates, one of which was a gentleman named Eric Cressey. I get that would be an interesting way to answer, “How do you find a business partner like Eric or like Pete?” The answer can’t really be, “Well, hope that you get randomly selected to live with them when you head off to college,” but that’s how it happened for me.
Eric and I were paired up along with another gentleman from the United Arab Emirates and a guy named Jean-Pierre from Dubai. The three of us lived in a forced triple for our first year of college. If you can function in a forced triple at 18 years old in your first experience living away from home with somebody, then you can be fairly confident that you can function in a professional setting with them 10 years later when you’re more mature and more prepared to take on those tasks, and that’s the start of my roots.
I’d say from there we’ll fast forward a little because most of you probably know that Eric Cressey didn’t graduate from business school. He got an Exercise Science degree, and graduate degree in Kinesiology from UConn. What happened was after our sophomore year he discovered that passion for exercise and fitness in general, and he transferred out of the program, and I stayed the course, but we stayed in touch.
We’d get together for the occasional Red Sox game, or we’d talk sports on AOL instant messenger, which was relevant at the time, and we just kind of continued to be within each other’s network, seeing each other a couple of times a year, and just staying in touch, for lack of a better term.
A couple of years down the road as he was finishing graduate school I was actually pursuing an MBA, once again at Babson College. I was doing the one-year program, and Eric was relocating up to the Boston area because he took a job as an independent contractor at a fitness facility in Waltham, Massachusetts just outside of the city, and he shot me an email, and he said, “I’m going to be in town. I know I asked you every day in college to go to the gym with me and you said no every time, but I’m going to ask you again. Why don’t you come on over, and get a lift in? We’ve got a pretty cool setup here.”
It was at the halfway point in my commute to Babson each day as I was an off-campus graduate student, and I think I may have surprised him, but I decided to go for it, and I pulled the trigger, and headed on in. Got to training with him. Fell in love with strength training almost instantaneously, which was something I was really intimidated by because I was a scrawny little soccer player who was threatened by the gym and the guys in it.
“We all found our role, and stayed the course, and I think it helped us scale it a lot quicker than others because there wasn’t any convoluted nature to the way that we interacted. We stayed in our lane.”
I decided that I needed to get over that at the age of 24 or 25 years old. I did and my passion for strength training that happened pretty quickly there also aligned with the fact that Eric and I are both business minded. Our experience in that space allowed us to formulate some opinions if we were to do this what would our business model look like? If you’re ever to open a gym what would you do? What would you replicate what you like from this facility? What might you modify? How would we attack it differently?
Our training sessions kind of became strategic discussions where we casually got into the idea of opening our own space. I had not graduated from my MBA program and was considering other professional opportunities, so it was a pipe dream of sorts. Things fell into place, and suddenly I got a phone call from Eric one day saying that he was going to do it, and he wasn’t just doing it quickly. He was going to turn it around in like 72 hours, and he wanted to know if I wanted to be the business guy, and I bit on it before consulting my parents, my girlfriend at the time and the people who had job offers on the table for me. I just said, “Eric, I’m in,” and then I called everybody else, and said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” or, “This is the way I’m going.”
That was almost 10 years ago. We’re going to hit 10 years old as a business this coming July, and it feels like the blink of an eye.
The Early Stage of Cressey Performance
I didn’t have any fitness industry experience. I had about six months in the gym training on the floor, getting lifts in during the staff lift with Eric, and Tony Gentilcore, and a couple other fitness professionals, and so I didn’t come in pretending to know everything about everything, but what I did come in with was a pretty solid understanding of accounting, and marketing, and operational strategy coming out of school. So I was able to look at the operation from a different perspective than I think 99% of the other gym owners who get into it do because to me it was almost like a school project.
How would I systemize this place? How am I going to modify the way we approach our sales strategy? How am I going to standardize the client training experience across the board? I think that was immensely beneficial to the way that the business grew quickly and professionally because we had a fitness industry outsider strategically modifying the approach, and it’s pretty rare. So those early days I didn’t worry about having any type of an opinion on our training philosophy, or our assessment strategy, or we’ll say the ideal client to coach ratio, or any of that stuff.
I purely focused on selling Eric and Tony, and learning the art of giving the pitch, and understanding the keywords that I was going to use when interacting with parents or potential athletes to effectively position ourselves as the best option since there’s so many training options in our area, and I was solely focused on that for months if not years, and it was good because we all knew our role.
Eric didn’t want to be concerned with giving the sales pitch over and over again, or outlining our websites, or worrying about responding to all the emails that come in, or processing payments, invoicing, all that stuff. We all found our role, and stayed the course, and I think it helped us scale it a lot quicker than others because there wasn’t any convoluted nature to the way that we interacted. We stayed in our lane.
A Look at the Early Days
The facility was 200 square feet of space that we carved out of the corner of a pitching and hitting instruction facility that was dark, and dusty, and cages, and buckets of baseballs all over the place, and we cleaned it up, and we made it our own, but it was hardly what somebody would describe as a showcase facility.
However, I quickly came to learn that clients aren’t all that attached to the idea of having a showcase facility, and by that I mean when we did pull the trigger on moving into a different space, and upgrading dramatically on the look and feel of not just the immediate training space, but the amenities associated with the building, the restrooms, the café, the ample parking, all that stuff, I had a number of regulars who pushed back, and they pushed back hard, and it totally blindsided me because I thought they were all going to be so ecstatic about us spending money to make money, and investing in the look and feel of the place, but it turned out that they were terrified that we were going to give up the community nature and the really close engagement and interaction that they had with our staff, and they thought we were going to scale it big and just become corporate in some nature.
It took some work reassuring them that our values and our objectives were still what they were a week or two months, or whatever it was ago. We had to do a lot of convincing, and that really caught me by surprise. We were not even eight months in our grungy dungeon gym space before we outgrew it, and moved into a much more professional setting.
That was when it was Cressey Performance, before the days of Cressey Sports Performance. It all happened so fast. I mean it ramped up very quickly, and I’d say 2007 to 2010 or 2011 were a blur of six and a half to seven-day work weeks, and late nights, and early mornings. Honestly it was the best years of my life. I mean, it was so much fun.
Really leaning heavily on the brand (Eric Cressey) and the online presence. I think people feel like they’ve been slammed in the face with this you have to have a niche argument, but I couldn’t tell you that the niche wasn’t the differentiator for us. I mean grabbing that baseball piece early, and deciding that we were going to be the go-to guys for baseball specific strength and conditioning was a game changer.
“Among the first handful that ever declared themselves a baseball gym, and to me that was the biggest reason for our scaling, our rapid growth, that we were solely focused on one target market.”
We were able to solely focus on helping that population in the gym, publishing material that speaks to that population outside of the gym, and just plain learning about that community of individuals and their unique set of needs, and by the time that other people, other gym owners caught on, and thought, “Wow. We should emulate that, or try and recreate that,” we were so far ahead that this first mover advantage made it very easy for us to populate the gym on a daily basis.
To this day I think we’re still enjoying the perks of being the first ones to segment that. I’m not trying to pretend that we’re the first people who ever trained baseball players, but we were among the first handful that ever declared themselves a baseball gym, and to me that was the biggest reason for our scaling, our rapid growth, that we were solely focused on one target market.
Reaching a National Audience
I think I would want to build a little bit off of that mentality with the internet development piece because I don’t want to paint this picture that Eric and Tony and I sat down and said, “All right. How are we going to be a national brand?” Because that was not what we did. We wanted to put as many bodies in the gym as we could who had expendable income, and were ready to pay us for our training services first and foremost.
What happened was since we were employing a business director, myself, who didn’t entirely understand fitness what would frequently happen was I’d say, “Hey Eric. I’m hitting this stumbling block. I’m having a hard time explaining how our training philosophy aligns with the goals when a parent says, ‘I want you to make my kid faster,'” and I’d say, “Would you mind publishing some content on that, so I can start directing people back to it?” This established a little bit of credibility in that context, and then when a parent says, ‘How are you going to make my kid faster?'” I’d say, “You know, why don’t I get your email. I’m going to send you an article that Eric published a little while back that outlines our training philosophy, and explains to you why we’re not going to put ladders down, and have you do fast footwork drills,” and they’d say, “Fantastic. Send it as soon as you can.”
That material kind of took on a life of its own. It turned out that it wasn’t just relevant to the geographically convenient population that we work with. It spoke to people all over the country. So we had this side benefit of it scaling nationally on the internet, and it helped as we built the business bigger and the identity of the brand bigger, but the origins of the intent of some of these kind of frequently asked questions blogs that Eric writes were because I was ill equipped to give the pitch and explain it. So rather than have Eric sit me down and say, “Here’s how you’re going to answer this,” you know the genius that is Eric Cressey said, “Well how can I scale the effectiveness of me answering this question? I’m going to put it in electronic format, and let a lot of people learn from it,” and that’s how it all got rolling and snowballing forward I think.
Stage 2 Evolution of the Business
On the backend of phase one we’re still kind of finding our identity as a business. We were trying to populate a gym that’s a little bigger than what we need, but we knew that projections of our performance metrics shake out that that isn’t going to be a problem, so we weren’t particularly stressed about it, but we were building an internship program. We were trying to create fitness professionals that someday we could employ that understood our culture and our training model in this unique setting. That was allowing us to entertain more athletes, and build this business bigger, and bigger.
I think that the moment that we hit stage two, if you were to think of this maybe like a two or three stage business, was the moment that we hit a point, a tipping point, where as I was sitting at the front desk, being both the business director and the office manager, kind of dabbling in both admin, and creative thinker, we got to a point where my responsibilities of swiping credit cards, answering phones, and making small talk with parents was hindering my ability to work on the business instead of in it. So early in 2012 we hired our first office manager, and got me away from the front-end of the business, and it was tough.
I mean, I shouldn’t say it was tough performance-wise. It was tough for me kind of mentally and emotionally to give up the reins, micromanaging being the face of the client experience because it involved me disappearing into the back room, and spending more time thinking about our training strategy, our social media strategy, and brand management. What was scary initially, turned into like the best move we’ve ever made.
We almost doubled our revenues in that first year just by allowing a more business focus for me, and more time for Eric and I to close the door in the office, and say, “What are our short and long-term objectives here?” By adding a manageably, or I’ll say affordable hourly-wage employee to do the busywork, it allowed me to free up some time to be a lot more effective at employing this skillset that I spent so much money on when I went back to get my MBA, and that my dad spent so much money on for my undergrad, and start really putting that to work.
That was as stage two kind of blossoms, becoming more of a national brand, and more of an educator, introducing mentorships, and annual recurring seminars, and so on. I think that’s kind of the moment that stage two really took shape.
The New Space
In August of 2012 we went from 7,600 square feet of space to just a shade over 15,000, and that was in the same building. We bid on a property that our landlord had been pushing on us for almost two full years. We’d been waiting for the timing to be right, and our numbers to be where they needed to be to justify it, and we made another jump. I think we went from a nice looking, respectable facility to more of a showcase facility setup of a visually appealing place where hopefully when people come into the gym they think like, “Wow. This is nice looking.” That wasn’t necessarily the objective in the first couple of spaces.
Today running the business is a lot more complex than it used to be. I say that because on top of the 15,000 square foot space that we’re functioning in, we have a second facility in Jupiter, Florida, which is about 7,5000 square feet, and in some ways a duplicate of this space minus the indoor throwing setup, and not quite as much office space, but it’s very similar, and that means that Eric and I as business partners are functioning in two different parts of the country for at least half of the year, and so we’re managing the direction that we’re going via text messages, and phone calls, and that type of engagement.
I think it speaks a lot to the trust that we have between the two of us that honestly there aren’t that many text messages, or phone calls. There might be conversation a week, and they’re not particularly in-depth. I think we’ve done a nice job of systemizing things where we got a lot of things happening on autopilot, and we’ve got a lot of really fantastic employees who are very effective at doing their own job.
Today, Massachusetts just about double the space, and double the foot traffic of Florida, but they’re mirror images of each other as far as training environment, and training philosophy, and programing strategy go.
As far as the staff goes, it’s pretty similarly reflected. Space to staff sizes is close, so I have eight full-time employees here in Massachusetts, which includes an office manager. That includes a strength camp coordinator in the mornings, so like boot camp setting, and then six coaches who are honestly now positioned as the face of our business because Eric’s not getting as many hours in on the training floor in Massachusetts coaching as he was in the past. I’ve never coached any of our athletes, so I really count on people like Chris Howard, and Greg Robbins, and Tony B., and Nancy, and this collection of great coaches to be the personality of the brand, and they’re doing a really good job with it. I don’t intend to change a thing in that context.
We don’t really need any single rock star coach. We’ve got a lot of very good personalities driving it on the training floor every day, and in some ways I let them dictate the direction we’re going to go with environment, and culture, and as assuming it looks and feels right, I’m the one who kind of captures that content, and makes it visible to the fitness community on the internet.
Tips to Build Your Ideal Team
As you build your team, and as you expand your roster of coaches, you need to focus on hiring for fit. We do have a certain level of expectation from skillset, but the reality is we’re more concerned with hiring personalities than we are with hiring resume, and so we know that there are holes to fill when it comes time to hire, and we’re not trying to hire Eric Cressey clones.
I don’t need another Eric from his style, bedside manner standpoint, as far as how he communicates to athletes, right on to how he assesses athletes. They’re all going to get there eventually because our team spends so much time together on the gym floor, in staff meetings, and in services. I know they’re all going to end up in the same place as far as philosophy goes. We need to plug personality gaps in because as much as we are positioning ourselves as the baseball guys we have a ton of athletes from a variety of different sports and athletic backgrounds, to general fitness population. They’re all different people with different learning styles, and different needs in the gym, so it’s important that I have a charismatic female coach like Nancy, or have a really thoughtful and slow-paced, introspective, deep-thinking coach like Miguel.
“It just changes the way that we run our business when we’re at peace with what’s going on outside of the facility.”
I need to have a lot of different styles of coaches on my team to make sure that we can effectively service a really broad range of client types. When an assessment gets into our schedule, and my office manager Stacy says, “Who do we want to align this client up with?” I’ll say, “Based on the phone conversation I had I think Greg Robbins is the perfect fit,” and we might adjust on the fly. If Greg is working with that athlete, and he thinks, “You know, this is really a better fit for Tony B. Let’s slide him into the mix during the screening process, and go from there.” I like to know that we have a lot of tools in the toolbox as far as coaching options go, and that all just circles back to hiring for fit. Hire the right personalities, and let the skill set play itself out during a learning process.
Lately, I find myself telling, consulting clients that they need to make more time for family. They need to carve out some time in their schedule to spend an hour each morning with their kid, or go for a walk at the end of their day with their wife. Whatever it may be because at some point recently it became this universal standard to grind, or hustle, just work your face off, and I’m cognizant of burnout. I find that the majority of the people that I work with in an ongoing consulting basis need to be told sometimes, “I want you to wake up, and spend an hour talking to your son, or daughter.” It just changes the way that we run our business when we’re at peace with what’s going on outside of the facility.
That might be my single best piece of advice. Beyond that, I think that there’s a major problem with the “me too” type business owners—having such a lack of authenticity, that they never really find their voice. They’re just kind of this merging of a lot of different approaches, and styles, and it never comes across as authentic. That’s the biggest shortcoming in the way that their brand develops. That it never really establishes a unique identity.