Fitness is the mission of Denise Chakoian-Olney’s two Core studios in Providence. Fitness is also the guiding principle of her business plan – lean, consistent and responsive to the intricate and vital movements of her financial muscles.
“Business plan?” mused the 40-year-old Chakoian-Olney, who launched her Core: Center of Real Energy fitness studio on Angell Street in Wayland Square six years ago. “I went online and printed out a document on how to make a business plan. Then I sat down and decided what I wanted to do.”
Her success belies the generally tough economic times in Rhode Island. The thriving business led her to open a second location, the Core: Mind/Body Pilates Studio on Governor Street in January.
“We don’t have memberships,” said Chakoian-Olney. “Anyone can drop in for one class for $12 or get a Core card for classes that’s good for a year. Or they can buy a package for small group classes or private training. Everything is good for a year.”
No membership fee at the Core studios means unpredictable income for the business. That differs from the way many gyms assure a more regular financial outlook through monthly dues.
“It’s a very big risk on my part,” Chakoian-Olney admitted. “I’m on the East Side and I could raise my prices. But I won’t do that. When I opened my studio, I promised myself I would not make someone sign a contract, that there’d be no membership. And I’m keeping my word.”
Chakoian-Olney and her staff, now up to 17 full- and part-time employees, have obviously satisfied their clients, who keep coming back for more classes and training. And the word has spread to keep the business expanding.
Core has high school students who come to improve specific skills for sports such as lacrosse and field hockey. Many clients are men and women in their 30s, 40s and 50s. And there is a substantial contingent of people in their 60s and 70s who come to improve flexibility, stamina and overall health. Core also gets referrals from physical therapists for clients in rehabilitation programs.
It’s a success story that grew, like many small-business stories, from a personal passion. Chakoian-Olney started tap and ballet when she was 5 years old at Cheryl’s School of Dance in North Providence. She taught dance and when she was 19, found a new path in gyms and group fitness.
She also moved into the corporate world and spent 14 years commuting from Providence to JP Morgan Chase in Boston, working as an office and facilities manager. All those years, her passion for health and fitness never faltered.
She taught a 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. fitness class in Providence, then showered, dressed and got on the road to Boston by 7:30 a.m., usually arriving at her office by 9 a.m. A couple of evenings a week, she taught fitness classes in Boston.
Eventually, her expanding interest in fitness training and her entrepreneurial spirit took over. Her vision was to offer leading-edge training, at an affordable price in a personalized atmosphere, with the emphasis on privacy.
“It’s not like a gym with one big floor. No one is staring at you here,” assured Chakoian-Olney. “The small, group classes are five people max and many people are alone in a studio with a trainer. This is how I’ve run it from the get-go.”
She walks through the five studios, pointing out the extensive collection of fitness equipment – new bikes, Pilates equipment and rowers that use water for resistance, designed by a rower who attended Brown University.
One thing about the equipment stands out – she owns it and it’s all paid for. She says that’s different from most gyms, where they usually rent equipment and can add or subtract it, depending on membership. Chakoian-Olney invested in new Pilates equipment for her second studio, keeping to a basic requirement of her business plan.
“I have no debt,” she said. “I’ve never had a bank loan.”
For startup capital, she sold her condo in the Elmhurst section of Providence. She does all her own bookkeeping.
Chakoian-Olney is certified in an extensive range of fitness-training programs. As her business has expanded, she and her staff have become more specialized. She has one trainer overseeing Pilates, another managing small, group classes. She teaches the more intensive training programs.
Chakoian-Olney is used to being flexible, physically and business-wise, and making decisions based on thorough planning, spiked with instinct, as circumstances change.
She originally had a business partner, but that fell through at the last minute. When she went in to sign the lease on her planned 900-square-foot studio and 250-square-foot office, she found more space had opened up in her second-floor location.
“I just decided to take the additional space, so I started with about 2,000 square feet,” she said.
As she’s expanded to two locations with a total of about 5,500 square feet, Chakoian-Olney has resisted studying the competition. She doesn’t go to gyms or size up classes or review training offered by other fitness studios.
“I don’t want to get distracted,” she explained. “I just keep focused on what we offer and what I want to do.”
From 6 a.m. to late in the evening, Chakoian-Olney keeps the business pushing forward, in terms of vision and energy. The reason is simple: “I love it,” she said. “I work a lot of hours, because I just love it.” •
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