Pete is the Vice President and Co-Founder of Cressey Sports Performance and has served as business director of CSP since it was established in 2007. After graduating with an MBA from Babson College in the spring of 2007, Pete immediately started applying his entrepreneurial skills to helping build CSP into the prominent strength and conditioning facility that it is today.
Note from Matt: This interview was recorded from a phone call and then transcribed by me. Some parts may be edited slightly for an easier read.
Matt: Thanks for doing this Pete! For those who haven’t come across your work before could you tell me a bit about how you got involved in the strength world and how you met Eric Cressey?
Pete: Sure thing. I’ll start with the second part of the question first. Eric and I both went to Babson College in Massachusetts and were lucky enough to be randomly assigned as roommates. Eric’s original intention was to pursue a degree in accounting. He came from a family of Certified Public Accountants and felt like that was his calling. He made it through two academic calandar years before discovering his interest in exercise science which led to him transferring out. I stayed at Babson to earn my business degree and we stayed in touch primarily because of our mutual appreciation for the local pro sports teams. We would meet up maybe twice a year to go to a Red Sox game or talk about the Patriots. We would send emails and instant messages back and forth to stay on each others radar. Fast forward to the Fall of 2006 and the Spring of 2007, Eric had finished his undergrad at the University of New England and transitioned to UCONN for his graduate degree. He had started to establish a little bit of a footprint in the fitness world online and coaching athletes in-person. He had just taken a job as a strength and conditioning coach up in Boston while I was pursuing my MBA at Babson. Eric got in touch to tell me to stop on by to meet everyone and get a lift in at their gym. So, I made a trip and did some training with Eric, Tony, and the rest of the team there. I caught the bug and realized how addicting strength training could be. Around that time Eric and I observed a lot about the model that he was working in and thought that we could make improvements. We opened up the lines of communication to try to buy a controlling stake in that business. That didn’t end up playing itself out in the way that we thought so we eventually decided to go off and create this vision in the form of Cressey Sports Performance. We opened CSP on the 13th of July in 2007 and are quickly approaching eight years of operation. Honestly I had no exposure to the fitness world prior to my first training experience with Eric at the old facility and transitioning to ownership at that time.
Matt: Historically this has been a rough industry to get into for full-time careers. Could you talk about the early days with Cressey Sports Performance and what you did to ensure that you would successfully grow past the startup phase?
Pete: I think that we were leaning on, maybe unknowingly, that the two of us had pretty serious entrepreneurial tendencies. We also had, what I would like to call, an ability to apply common sense. We weren’t going to outspend what we were capable of learning and started small with intent. We had about a 2200 square foot space in Hudson Massachusetts to start and it was definitely a dungeon, for lack of a better term. Eric and I had no aspirations of opening the doors with a beautifully equipped and stunning facility. We knew that we had to first generate the demand for such a space, be able to justify the expense, and prove that we could get the foot traffic necessary to do that with existing clientele. We didn’t necessarily say that our end goal was to train professional baseball players and have thousands of baseball players coming through our doors. We honestly opened up with the intention of doing what we loved in the sense that we wanted to be self-employed and were interested in fitness. We wanted to find anyone and everyone who was willing to pay for our services. Eric and I were not above targeting soccer Moms, tennis players, or golfers. Cressey Sports Performance stumbled its way into baseball because of a couple of unique circumstances and we decided to run with it.
Matt: Can you explain a little further how CSP decided to focus on baseball as it’s niche within the strength and conditioning world?
Pete: It was logical that we ended pursuing baseball for several reasons. The first being that our initial space was subletted space inside of a pitching and batting facility. Obviously we had foot traffic from baseball players because of this. You had to pass about a dozen batting cages just to get into our gym (laughing). Beyond that Eric had a working knowledge of the shoulder and a history of shoulder injuries himself. This overhead throwing population was a natural target. It was during the Fall of our first year of operation that were starting to realize that we were becoming a little pigeonholed as the baseball guys with our local market. It was limiting our ability to entice football players and other athletes. It’s not that we weren’t seeing other athletes but we struggled when working with high schools where we were already pulling in a good amount of considerable portion of their baseball athletes. We came to realize that maybe at some level the baseball guys were polarizing the students in their classes. The lacrosse guys, for example, just didn’t want to go to the gym with the baseball trainers. So Eric, Tony, and I had an emergency staff meeting of sorts and discussed how we could fix this. I’m sure it was Eric who said this but we realized that no one was really pursuing the baseball angle in the strength and conditioning field. We figured that we could be the first movers into the space and really own it. It was absolutely the best decision we ever made in the history of this business and continues to be to this day. So, after the meeting Eric started to focus on baseball more from the writing front and we started to work on demonstrating a presence at the local baseball scene. We would go to games, talk to parents, and get in front of the right audience with coaches. We really chased this thing. It snowballed and one success story became two which became ten and so on. Now we have two facilities, hundreds of MLB affiliated guys have been through our doors, and a few dozen guys in the big leagues right now. It’s been quite a ride. I think it’s easier said than done when talking about focusing on capturing one segment but our long term vision is being followed through.
Matt: So obviously Cressey Sports Performance has reached an amazing level of success in the strength and conditioning world, but can you tell me about some of the growing pains that your gym and brand experienced?
Pete: The thing that is important to note that when Eric, Tony, and I started the business we didn’t have this long-term vision of having a dozen plus employees or achieving seven figure revenues. There are tons of growing pains with failing to anticipate issues with bringing new people on staff, dealing with payroll, dealing with benefits, negotiating long-term leases when you’re expanding your facility, and so on. Honestly, there are headaches everywhere. For us, some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned have been in managing people. It’s very easy to think that initially you want a bunch of people who are just going to toe the line and should try to emulate what you’re doing. Instead Eric has a firm policy that he is looking for staff members who can complement him instead of duplicate him. It’s important to have a population of strength coach, or staff members, with a broad array of backgrounds and interests. This has proven to be really valuable to us. We’re able to not only serve the baseball population but also bring in athletes from all walks of life now that maybe we weren’t able to bring in before. Beyond that I think there are definitely not enough resources for new facilities or business owners to understand the process of identifying favorable locations, negotiating long-term leases, what the right questions are to ask landlords, and so on. That’s been an ongoing learning process that we are constantly experimenting with. It’s tough to nail that question down to any one or two answers. There are still growing pains every day of the week for us when it comes growing and improving what we do here at Cressey Sports Performance.
Matt: Your latest blog post talked about creating a third place at Cressey Sports Performance, well known through #CSPFamily, for your clients and athletes. This is a concept that StrengthPortal advisors David Dellanave and Coach Stevo introduced me to and I think is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle to growing a successful, long-term gym business. Gyms are clearly perfectly positioned to a third place for so many individuals instead of other locations that held this position for years and years, like local bar for example. Can you tell me a bit more about what CSP did to create the strong community you have today?
Pete: Absolutely. I hope that the message from my blog post wasn’t that Eric, Tony, and I had this long-term dream that we were going to recreate the baseball clubhouse right from the start. The personality and identify of our business as a whole is completely a product of the collection of personalities that are under our roof. We go to great lengths to speak the language of a baseball player, for lack of a better term, whether it’s over Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. What we decided early on was that we were going to not only going to tolerate players hanging out around the gym but embrace it as an opportunity to learn how their minds work. It’s immensely valuable to us to be able to see them in their element and we figured that if we could recreate their element it would be even better. We let the players bring their meals in to hang out, tell their stories about the trials and tribulations of the minor league lifestyle, and so on. We’ve seen that there isn’t a social divide between the big leaguers and the minor leaguers at all. They all interact smoothly and are part of one big family, this Cressey Sports Performance Family. We let them dictate where they go with it. In the blog post I mentioned that Oliver Drake, who pitches with the Baltimore Orioles, is the one who coined that hashtag. Originally it was #CPFamily instead of #CSPFamily before we repositioned as Cressey Sports Performance. It was his brainchild. Now it’s decor in our facility and language that the players use to communicate across the world through social networks. I think that CSP being a third place might not be limited to the tangible footprint of the facility. You could make the argument that in some form or electronic format we have a third place for the players as well. It’s a combination of a lot of factors but I would go as far as to say that our biggest asset isn’t the assessment strategies or unique programming. It’s the culture and concept of a family that help us fill the gym and create a community. From a business standpoint the concept of a lifetime client is a beautiful thing and we will try to keep our family members here as long as possible.
Matt: So I was really excited to see that you’ve started to put yourself out there as the business guy behind Cressey Sports Performance. The industry is filled with business gurus who sit on top of fake empires but I’ve always been interested in hearing from individuals with their boots on the ground such as yourself. Right now fitness is at a really interesting point from a business perspective because gyms, and personal trainers, are really figuring out how to structure their services and marketing to reach more people than ever before. Can you talk about what you think will happen over the next few years from the professional side of the industry?
Pete: Sure. So what I see right now for myself is an opportunity to speak to the logistics of operating a facility and creating a unique culture. To me that’s where the real value and unique value proposition for small to medium sized gym businesses is. We can go with the old business cliche here and say that it’s cheaper to retain current clientele than find new ones. What I see with most fitness business gurus is that they selling a dream that is entirely focused on lead generation. I obviously see value in lead generation. Of course we need to bring new athletes through the doors and expose them to our model. However, we won’t do that at the expense of the people of have already come through the door and are looking for a quality experience. You rarely, if ever, hear anyone talk about keeping the regulars happy. They are so hell-bent on generating as much recognition for their model as possible instead of spending time on the ones who have said, “Hey, I’m ready to buy into this.” I see value, and opportunity, in creating a service experience that is just unparalleled. When it comes down to it, as much as our audience appreciates the science behind what we’re presenting from a training standpoint I’d contend that they are more concerned with the feeling of the experience and the feeling of family that they are exposed to. They don’t have to spend their dollars with us and they don’t have to spend their “inbetween time” at our space. American lives are designed to just sleep, eat, work, and only leave tiny little windows carved out for ourselves. If one of our athletes is going to spend that window with us then we want them to have the best experience possible. There’s a lot of time and energy required to ensure they love every minute of it. If we’re concerned with just cramming as many people in the door as we can then we’re just going to see more turnover and aren’t going to be able to retain clients like we probably should. That’s kind of my take on the real opportunity within the industry right now. Beyond that I’m a proponent of identifying a niche, exploiting it, and really targeting a specific population. I don’t need to be everything to everyone. I’d rather be fantastic at building a training environment for baseball players and talking to anyone who wants to discuss this family concept.
Matt: When you’re doing consulting for other fitness facilities where do you see problem areas that pop up over and over?
Pete: I think one of the most common problems I see is that people go into owning a fitness facility with the wrong expectations. It’s rare that you hear about an individual with an MBA starting a gym alongside a strength coach. It’s much more common to hear about a strength coach who’s working for someone else and is excited to go out on their own. They completely overlook the fact that someone has to pay the bills, deal with the landlord, keep the lights on, clean the gym, etc. There are all these non-sexy parts to being an entrepreneur. What’s happening is that these fitness facility entrepreneurs are disenfranchised at the fact that they are getting really tied up in the logistics of running a space and not living that dream of training athletes who light up the numbers at combines due to them. I’m interacting with a lot of business owners who are, in their words, trying to breakthrough or make the jump. They are all enticing the idea of adding an office manager or an admin of some sort because their thought process is that it will let them focus on what they love. The issue is that it’s often not the most practical move financially at the time. Sometimes you have to come to terms with the fact that you have to grind. You have to be concerned with being business-minded instead of only training-minded. You have to embrace the attention to detail regarding the dollars and cents of your organization. It’s a little discouraging for facility owners to hear me say this and that they shouldn’t add staff. Often it’s much better to figure out how to be more efficient with your own hours in the day. So, I’m spending more time telling them to improve their model instead of overhauling their model, if that makes sense. I also tell a lot of these owners that there’s not a Pete Dupuis or CSP model that they could replicate either. If you try to replicate our model you’ll just never get there. The systems are easy to replicate but the personalities are impossible to recreate. That’s going to be the biggest differentiator for us forever.
Matt: Last two questions for you. What is Cressey Sports Performance working on improving and where is the #CSPFamily headed over the next few years?
Pete: We are fearlessly protecting our possession of the baseball market segment. We’re constantly focused on being the leaders in this space and being ahead of the curve as it relates to our business. Eric and myself are very focused on cultivating people and managing a team that’s growing. We really want to assist in the personal development of our team members. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this while watching our brand, but Greg Robins is a great example. We’re encouraging the growth of personal brands under our umbrella because it makes for more well-rounded strength coaches. It makes my job easier because now I can sell a staff member by talking about how they are published every month for large publications like Men’s Health. It adds a ton of credibility with clients. Along with that we are always working through growth pains with now having two facilities, one in Jupiter, Florida and the other in Massachusetts. Our primary focus is that the training experience for clients translates into an identical one no matter which facility you step into. The assessment and programming process needs to be consistent from one location to the next and that’s a big challenge as we try to blend the minds, and attitudes, of fifteen staff members. Sharing the insight and lessons learned with each other from 1400 miles apart is a new challenge we’re excited to go through.
Matt: Thank you so much for sharing your time and story with StrengthPortal coaches around the world Pete! We can’t wait to see where the #CSPFamily goes from here.
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