I had the opportunity to meet many small business owners in Chicago when I attended the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program. During the introduction portion of orientation there was one common sentiment, “it ain’t easy doing business here.” I have read that the economic landscape in Chicago is not much different than other big cities. A frequent origin story for Chicago entrepreneurs begins with their innovative concept. Then, the birth of their vision, supported with clear execution and a ‘go-getter’ energy. All of this is the foundation of a business that is carved into an up-and-coming neighborhoods. From there, like all businesses – it is the survival game. Remain buoyant, fight the battles you can, make as many friends in your community as possible, give back often and prepare for the arrival of the big developers. The most recognizable part of a Chicago entrepreneur’s success, is how they find ways to thrive when their once modest neighborhood has evolved. No longer are they navigating their growth with a community, but rather enduring Chicago as high rents threaten their comfortable operating budgets and the arrival of corporate competition in the market they helped develop.
The Rise of Small Business Owner, Bernie Lecocq Part 1
We often root for the small business owner- it is somehow comparable to betting on the under-dog. So if that is how you like to cast your bets, let me introduce you to Chicago Entrepreneur Bernie Lecocq, Owner of River North Gym (RNG). I first met Lecocq when we both worked at the infamous Chicago East Bank Club (EBC). You might be surprised to know, but the early 90s was an exciting time to be part of the fitness industry. We both thrived at EBC. We met great people, had access to develop skill sets and absorbed the strong leadership provided.
Like many entrepreneurs, Lecocq identified a couple opportunities in the surrounding area and drafted his first business plan. In 2003, Lecocq opened a personal training studio in The Claridge Hotel in Chicago’s Gold Coast. Although it later became the Indigo Hotel, Lecocq operated his boutique gym for 7 years. His business concept was to provide an amenity to the hotel guests while servicing two other communities: independent personal trainers looking to rent space and customers looking for high quality personal training.
In 2010, Lecocq recognized another opportunity within the Chicago fitness community. The struggling Merchandise Mart wanted to add an amenity for the employees of their 4,200,000 square foot campus. Post recession they were faced with a lot of inventory and recognized they needed to create a community that inspired companies to make the Mart their home. Lecocq’s hotel based gym, defined as boutique in size, produced respectable revenue per square foot. Despite Lecocq’s small footprint inside the Magnificent Mile, his reputation extended to the Chicago river where key players in The Mart knew of his expertise in offering high-quality fitness for the corporate clientele.
The Rise of Small Business Owner,Bernie Lecocq Part 2
The Merchandise Mart approached Lecocq about building a gym. Originally intended to be a 10,000 square foot gym, Lecocq’s vision was slightly bigger. “Once I understood what the Mart was trying to accomplish, essentially building a little town inside where employees never had to leave; I knew they would need a facility larger than 15,000SF, “ explains Lecocq. His new vision was a full-service corporate fitness center inside the largest building in the America.
Since opening in 2011, RNG has grown from a few hundred members to a few thousand. It has expanded more than once and currently offers a 23,000 SF training space with an extensive group training schedule, a full-service gym and a dynamic personal training department.
Lecocq admits, “ I have always had the goal of having more than one facility in the Chicago loop.” After pursuing a few other corporate gym possibilities, Lecocq noticed that The Dave Barton Gym was struggling. Dave Barton Gym founded in 1993, closed its doors abruptly earlier this year. The ‘Look Better When Naked’, concept opened as an upscale, sexy facility with a clubby atmosphere that featured trendy fitness classes. Lecocq, set his sights on the 600 West Chicago gym that shocked its employees and members with an email sent in the middle of night to inform of them of the drastic closure. The Chicago Dave Barton Gym was one of three that filed under Chapter 7. Lecocq immediately pursued an acquisition of the already built-out space with the vision of opening a second River North Gym that sat on the Chicago River.
The Rise of Small Business Owner,Bernie Lecocq Part 3
Lecocq negotiated with Equity Resource, a Sam Zell company for 4 months to open a progressive training facility that offered results-driven fitness focused on customer service, tailored programming and a sustainable group exercise and small group program. Lecocq presented a deal that highlighted his experience and success in operating a mid-size facility that served as an amenity to the largest building in the United States. When I asked Lecocq how he beat out the franchises, he recalled, “I tried hard to present why a budget club concept would not fulfill the expectations of the surrounding River North community, or tenants like Groupon, Uptake Echo Global Logistics and Northwestern Specialists for Women.” Even River North Gym’s General Manager Chad McClearly, who has opened 5 gyms worldwide and assisted Lecocq with the financial due-diligence and cost analysis claims, “Equity Resource was pitting us back and forth against other very successful budget gyms in the Chicago-land area. But we knew at the end of day, a budget gym was not right for the 600 W Chicago building or the neighborhood.”
As the summer began to wind down, negotiations came to a stand-still and both McCleary and Lecocq admit they assumed the Energy Star certified property that once sat as Chicago’s Montgomery Ward building, decided on a $19.99 a month gym concept. Lecocq was ready to walk away, “ I knew it would not be easy to compete against larger corporate franchises in Chicago who have deep pockets. “ It was in the final hour, the day before Lecocq was leaving for a European vacation with his wife that the deal was finalized. So he did what most entrepreneurs would do – he cut his trip short and returned to Chicago to begin remodeling and construction plans for River North Gym, 600 W Chicago.
Lecocq’s track record at the Merchandise Mart includes successful corporate fitness relationships with Motorola and Jim Beam. The building’s population sits around 15,000. River North Gym, which recently completed an expansion, offers Chicago’s friendly charm, consistent customer service and a highly engaged staff. His business model is guided by the belief that,” trainers really shape the culture of a gym … great trainers influence everyone in the gym, not just their clients.” Lecocq plans of mentoring and training great staff to bridge the energy, culture and results River North Gym has created since 2011. Lecocq will be opening later this year with memberships prices around $125.00 a month. They have already launched a mailer campaign to the neighborhood with pre-opening offers. For more information about the gym or even employment info@rivernorthgym.