Entrepreneurship Conversation 4: The Fitness Warehouse's Wes Kochheiser - Smart Money Seed


Entrepreneurship Conversation 4: The Fitness Warehouse's Wes Kochheiser

Wes has a team of superstar trainers at TFW he couldn't be more appreciative of.

What makes you tick? What drives you to get out of bed every day and give your all for this life you're so blessed to have? For Wes Kochheiser, the answer is simple. Wes eats, sleeps, and breathes fitness, the impact fitness has on people's lives, and the camaraderie with clients, members, and trainers that comes along with owning a gym.

From Gearhead to Fitness Fanatic

Fitness has always played an enormous role in Wes Kochheiser's life. From being a standout swimmer in high school and time with the U.S. Masters, to working as a personal trainer, and to opening his own gym, fitness has been at the center of nearly everything Wes has done in his entire life.

Wes's inspiration for working in the fitness space isn't just a desire to look like Larry the Lobster to my Spongebob (although I talk a big game, Wes could whoop my ass in a second). When asked about his inspiration for pursuing this career, Wes is quick to explain his passion lies "definitely in making an impact in other people's lives. That's what drove it through the roof. . . It's not work. You're helping someone."

Wes initially had a passion to work in powersports which stemmed from his time spent at car shows as a child, saying it's "in my blood. My dad's a gearhead." He studied in the Power Equipment Mechanics program at Pioneer under Rick Harvey in high school and went on to the Power Sport Institute in Cleveland to make his dream of working in the field a reality.

During his time studying powersports, Wes discovered his love for fitness and weightlifting. So he did what every college-aged person should do with their time and interests, and he tested the waters. But Wes isn't the type of person to dip his toe in the water -- he did a 360 double gainer into the deep end.

"I worked at Flex Fitness in Bucyrus for quite some time. I worked at YMCAs throughout the years. And it dawned on me one day, you know, I was like 'I want to do this for myself.' I want to make an impact, and I want to make a place for people how I want it. How I see it."

Even as Wes began to dabble in the fitness space and pursued his powersports education, he ran a shop -- you know, in all of his free time. "I did rebuilds, brake jobs, oil changes, whatever. I did that going to school Monday through Thursday, come home and wrench on the weekends. . . I was hungry, man. I wanted to do anything to make a buck. . . It was going well, but I wanted something more. . . I wasn't satisfied."

Wes's original shop
A saturated mechanic market ultimately provided difficult conditions for a new mechanic in the area. Instead, Wes had his head on a swivel and always looked for opportunities to turbocharge his success. "I saw an opportunity with fitness while I was running that shop. The Fitness Warehouse used to be my bike shop."

Wes graduated from Power Sport Institute in 2009 and became a certified personal trainer in November that same year. He then started working with Flex Fitness. But Wes pursued one last hurrah in his ultra successful swimming career. "In 2012, I went into U.S. Masters. I made it to the U.S. Nationals. . . I was kind of starstruck, man, I made it into the top heat. And I was swimming against guys I'd read about my whole life. All of a sudden, you look over and there they are 4 lanes down. Ended up finishing 8th at the nationals, and then kind of settled down."

Diving Into Business

After his swimming stint, Wes dialed in and became completely focused on starting The Fitness Warehouse. Although he had some experience running his shop, Wes doesn't consider that to have factored into his entrepreneurial success, stating, "I was clueless."

But similar to many entrepreneurship success stories, Wes had a little luck on his side -- although his version of luck may be a bit extreme. "I ended up with my grandmother, my father, and my mother at the casino in Columbus. So we're hanging out and having fun. And I jump on this video poker machine. And I hit max bet. . . the hell with it, it's $5. And I hit the progressive, man, I won like $4,300!"

I don't know about you, but I have a long list of irresponsible decisions I would make if $4,300 fell into my lap today. Although not necessarily an irresponsible decision, Wes's mind initially went to "thinking about all these car parts I'm going to buy."

And again, as we see with many entrepreneurial success stories, a little mentorship went a long way. "My mom and dad looked at me and said, 'You know, you need to do something smart with that money. Don't just blow it.' And they're right, okay? They were right, I'll say it. They were right." Although he may not have admitted as such at the time (who would?), Wes is extremely grateful for his parents' shrewd advice in that moment.

"So I started thinking, and I was like you know, this is my chance. It literally is my only chance to go for it. And I loved my job at Flex. . . This was an opportunity to make my own place -- what I wanted to do. And I didn't want to own a gym. I wanted a bike shop. Hell, at one point I even wanted to be a chef. I loved cooking. So, I was going to go for it. Whatever. I had nothing to lose except for the money that fell in my lap. And if I lost it, you know what? Hell, I tried." 

Wes laid the groundwork for The Fitness Warehouse by purchasing 2 treadmills and 2 ellipticals with his $4,300. He scratched and clawed for every penny he could find for the rest of his equipment, and his early workouts were mainly focused on body weight rather than all the fancy equipment you'll see in The Fitness Warehouse walking in the doors today.

So in April of 2013, Wes went all in. "I ended up leaving Flex. I came home, and I was shocked, man. I'd never quit anything in my life. I really enjoyed that place. I enjoyed working with those people. . . But I had to do this. I had to go for it."

Wes credits his brother for setting him straight during this difficult and pivotal transition period. Wes called his brother after leaving Flex, "And he told me 'Get up and start working the next day. Go right at it.'" And that's exactly what Wes did.

The Fitness Warehouse's humble beginnings

The Entrepreneurial Life

Wes started scheduling clients and quickly built his clientele to 30 people he was training in his garage. Despite some concern from the neighbors that the traffic in and out of the garage every day was from people wanting to do more harm to their bodies than good, Wes had laid the foundation of a highly successful fitness business.

Although Wes faced some logistical obstacles running a gym out of his garage, he was growing so fast that he needed to expand within 3 months. But Wes wasn't completely convinced that this venture would prove to be successful. "I'd definitely have to say I was doubting. But it's win or learn at the end of the day. You don't lose if you learn something. So I kept working with what I had. So, yeah, I definitely doubted it. But at the same time, if we're going to do this, we're swinging for the fence."

Once he convinced his father to allow him to fun the gym out of his warehouse, the operation was, Wes describes, "all hands on deck." Once funding was secured, the renovation and preparations were completed in about a month and a half. "It wasn't easy. But it was fun though. It was a lot of fun."

The Fitness Warehouse's early marketing strategy relied heavily on word of mouth. They did secure a billboard and occasionally advertise on Facebook, but Wes credits his passionate and loyal early clients for helping to build The Fitness Warehouse into what it is today.

Creating a welcoming, comfortable environment to encourage client retention is a major focus and passion of Wes's. "We try to make an impact in everybody's life. We know your name. When you come in, we say hello. And it's not just in passing. If we ask, 'How's your day?' we actually mean how was your day."

Creating this culture is not a solo job. Wes is extremely appreciative and complimentary of each and every one of the trainers currently training at The Fitness Warehouse. "All the guys are good. We're all genuine people. I can't say anything bad about our trainers. They are 110% genuine people."

But the journey hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows. The first trainer Wes allowed in his doors accepted money from people and didn't show up to provide the services they had rightfully paid for. A mistake like this can be devastating to a new business especially in a small community. But Wes built up a little sweat equity to make up for this wrongdoing.

"I was getting phone calls from all of his clients. Every one of them. All throughout the day. This looked horrible on me. Fresh out of the gate, and all of a sudden, we're taking money and not giving a product? We're flying the plane into the ground right now. So I worked those hours and let him go. That was rough."

This experience did make it difficult for Wes to trust another trainer for a little while. Ultimately, he's extremely happy with the trainers who have walked in the door ever since. "Through the years we've accumulated some people, and everybody's awesome. . . There's a lot of energy here."

Wes ultimately decided to take the leap of faith to hire another trainer based on a recommendation from his girlfriend, Emily. Wes has since built up to 5 trainers at The Fitness Warehouse including Patrick Kirk, Adam Hartz, Jonny Martinez, Emily Keller, and Tom Garverick (Wes's business partner) with 1 possible addition.

Wes values his trainers and leverages his experience in and knowledge of the industry to ensure they have a positive and fruitful working environment. "I will tell you right now, you will not find a better gym to work for in Crawford County. . . Working those long hours taught me a lot. . . It makes me respect my trainers and their time. They're people. They don't work for me -- they work with me."

Wes intentionally cultivates the positive culture among The Fitness Warehouse's trainers and members by being completely authentic. "Just walking around, knowing people's names, talking people. Making sure that you don't take any one for granted. . . We're all here to be healthy. These aren't numbers. These are people walking around. These are my friends."

The 24/7 nature of his business is at times admittedly taxing for Wes, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "People call me at 10, 11 o'clock. I'm trying to sit down and hang out with my dogs and just be me for a minute. And I've got somebody wanting to sign up. Which is great. It's a great problem to have. And I don't mind getting up and going."

A major obstacle Wes had to overcome in his early days was banking. As Wes puts it, "They want your firstborn. They want everything." Wes ultimately found his banking home with FC Bank (which just so happens to be the same bank I use for my personal banking -- I wouldn't mind a few extra bucks in interest this month, FC).

The Fitness Warehouse's success has lead to a couple of expansion efforts thus far. When Wes notices a consistently crowded gym and expects an upcoming surge of motivated new members, he knows it's time to reinvest in his business through expansion efforts. When weighing options and decisions to expand and reinvest, Wes states, "It's a balance game. If you don't reinvest in yourself or your business, you're not going to go anywhere. No one's going to hand it to you."

The Future Of The Fitness Warehouse

Although money and profitability isn't a main focus of his, Wes expects his business to profit in the next 3-5 years. Wes's priorities shine through when asked about his path to profitability, stating, "Honestly, we need to keep building, keep packing the house, and keep listening to people. That's the bottom line."

In the next 3-5 years, Wes wants to complete his vision for The Fitness Warehouse to be the premier gym in the area. He expects to complete his building renovation within that timeframe and has plans to build a deck out back to encourage further development of community among his members.

Wes sees himself as being on the path to that vision of success which in my opinion is evidently true based on the success The Fitness Warehouse has enjoyed thus far. In 20 years, Wes is leaving his options open. He's considered franchising as a long-term growth option, but he's not ready to turn his focus beyond what's currently in front of him and what he's currently focused on achieving. "I just need to finish what I started, and then go from there."

When asked to reflect on his success thus far, Wes is encouraged by his progress in a humble manner. "I'd say it has made it, yes. But that can be taken away any day. You have to really be cautious with what you do. . . It's made a huge impact on my life, I'm self-employed, I help people every day, and I love it. I love what I do. I take care of my guys. I make sure that they have the tools that they need to help more people. So we work together as a team, so yeah. I'd say as a whole, we have made it."

TFW is an impressive, well-kept facility with every piece of lifting and cardio equipment you could ever need. 

Transition & Reflection

Since recently completing his latest expansion, Wes has been transitioning from being focused on training to stepping back and running the business which can be an extremely difficult transition for entrepreneurs. Wes describes that transition as "Bittersweet. It's very bittersweet. I love training. I love the people. I love coming in and starting my day with a bunch of energy. I had a lot of great clients, everyone worked hard. I really hate that I'm not training, but at the same time I needed to slow down because I had too many irons in the fire."

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Wes is extremely grateful for his villagers who have guided and molded him to become the successful entrepreneur he is today.Wes credits his parents for instilling good morals and work ethic in him as well as providing sound financial advice. Mike Holtzapfel, Wes's high school swim coach was a "rock" and a "mentor" in Wes's life. Wes's neighbor, Jeff Walker, a fellow business owner, has provided solid entrepreneurial advice along the way. Finally, Wes's friend Tyler, The Fitness Warehouse's honorary idea consultant, has "been in the trenches" with Wes from day 1.

Wes is also extremely grateful for the contributions from his business partner, Tom. Tom has stepped up in a big way over the years both through hard work and financial contributions. Wes credits Tom for keeping the business afloat over this past winter which allowed Wes and his dad to focus on their renovation project to add a new section to the building.

Wes also mentioned Katie Suter-Kruse, owner of Salon Ooh La-La in Bucyrus, as being one of his most important and helpful influences from a business perspective. Katie "Helped me out of the gate on a business plan. Not knowing where to turn or how to construct a formal business plan, she guided me in the right direction on getting everything on paper." Katie has supported Wes's businesses from the very beginning of his journey.

Last but not least, Wes is extremely appreciative of the contributions and support provided by his girlfriend, Emily. Emily has "seen this place go from a 5 star notebook to reality. We've been through the good, the bad, and the ugly that comes with building a business. I'm very thankful to have her in my life."

Wes credits "making yourself available" for contributing to his success more than anything else along his journey. In today's day and age, being present and available is a disappearing art, and attention is hard to come by. The people like Wes who are willing to put in the time and effort to give attention are the people who are going to achieve wild levels of success.

Wes would recommend someone interested in following in his footsteps to educate herself or himself and "Do it. Go after your dream." For someone who has started on her or his journey, Wes recommends to block out the negativity. A couple of close friends discouraged Wes from even attempting to open The Fitness Warehouse before he even got started. Despite the early criticism, Wes marched on.

Oh, and it doesn't hurt to drop $5 on some video poker to seed the startup fund.

Keep Up With Wes!

We sincerely appreciate Wes's willingness to share his story with us! We encourage you to keep up with Wes and The Fitness Warehouse on Facebook. If you're familiar with the business, leave them a review (they currently have 84 reviews at 4.7 stars), or if you're not, shoot them a post or a message and introduce yourself!


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