In The Trenches catches up with Jeremy Thiel,owner of CrossFit Central,to discuss leadership, principles, values, planning,staff development, and a “before, during, and after” look at “readiness and resiliency” through this crisis
“When I get down on myself, I shift from worrying about me to worrying about my members.”
Jeremy Thiel is the owner of CrossFit Central in Austin, Texas. In this episode Eric sits down with Jeremy to discuss leadership, principles, values, planning, staff development, and a “before, during, and after” look at “readiness and resiliency” through this crisis.
Eric LeClair [0:04]
Welcome to In The Trenches a weekly podcast series dedicated to entrepreneurial leadership, the principles and values that define and develop it, as well as actionable steps that you can take to immediately lead your team to victory.
Good afternoon guys. This is Eric LeClaire with PushPress and we are continuing our series In The Trenches, discussing all things leadership, and around the development of leadership and staff members at facilities. Today, I’m super excited to be joined by my friend Joe, and I think for those readers or those individuals that might be watching and may not know much about Joe, his history or his background and his contributions so far to our community. Joe, if you would feel free introduce yourself to those that are watching today.
Joe Cebulski [0:55]
Yes, sir. I’m Joe Cebulski. I own 8th Day Gym here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. 10 years in business, so that was quite an accomplishment actually. 10 years, the month we shut down. So a fantastic way to celebrate our 10 year anniversary.
Eric LeClair [1:10]
I love it. I still love it. Now give us a little background on maybe how you got into it 10 years ago.
Joe Cebulski [1:17]
Yeah. So I was actually a U.S. Decathlete. So I did the decathlon at the Olympic level for the US for about 10 years after college which is five events per day, 10 events total it’s running, jumping and throwing of track and field. So in a lot of ways, the cousin to CrossFit, this the sport of being good athletically at everything, where CrossFit takes it to the fitness level. So I retired in 2008 after the 2008 Olympic trials, so two time Olympic qualifier top 20 world ranking over the 10 years, retired in 2008 moved back from California to Grand Rapids, Michigan where my family is from and found myself in a recession after retiring and I could either teach at the high school level, go back to med school, I was a biology major, pre med plus education major in college, and neither of those things seemed good. I had one child at the time. Going back to med school didn’t seem good. So I did odd jobs, construction work, all kinds of different things for about a year and a half after I retired. And finally, what I would actually describe as a low moment, began personal training and a little small family owned gym, in my home area, hometown of Grand Rapids, and I started personal training people and after about three to six months of doing that, and 12 clients, I was gonna shoot myself in the head because I wasn’t wired for it. And I had kind of a, I followed CrossFit since 2006. So about two years before I retired, I started following CrossFit and being interested in it, I thought the game’s competitive side of it was fascinating. So I wrote a letter to all 12 of my clients and said, Hey, starting Monday we’re going to do I’m going to teach you how to move your body. I’m gonna teach how to move it athletically and we’re going to create fitness from those good movements and two people showed up on Monday. So start a gym with two people Ben and Shelly and we’re off and running in 2010 so yeah that and from there boy what a battle what it what a time took about three to four years to really get it off the ground I was called crazy by people the neighbors thought I was nuts needed to get a real job and so I’ve been through the trenches going back that far. So in some ways this feels like, like familiar territory.
Eric LeClair [3:28]
I would agree. I mean, it’s it was kind of uncharted territory for affiliates that sprung up around that time whether we’re talking before the affiliate landscape was even real It was kind of just friends of CrossFit and then it was this affiliate thing and really what nice and you kind of had the opportunity to get in and do what you wanted from the beginning really I mean, how book it billet design it, you know, branded record, you know, share the vision. What then, if at all, were you able to take from your lessons learned whether it be individual or from a team aspect and apply it to the business. Did you pull any of those principles or values from your days as decathlete into your business?
Joe Cebulski [4:13]
Oh, yeah, sure. Absolutely. I mean, I think from pulling the decathlon into the business was pretty simple. Because I frickin love movement. I love if my body’s in motion, I’m happy. And if I was exploring progress, like, decathlon is almost like extreme golf. You’re never going to have the perfect decathlon, you’re never going to master all 10 events. So the decathlon, you, you will end your career feeling that there’s still something left have been achieved, right? That learning process of making progress every day is exactly what I brought into the gym setting. Look, we’re going to make progress every day. If you’re going to try to get your first ever handstand on the wall. Maybe the guy next to you is trying to get 50 handstands in a row doesn’t matter. You’re both pursuing the same thing. And so we kind of called it an Olympic Training Center for regular people. And I had been in business for two years, and I had a member come up to me and said, Hey, I heard about this thing called CrossFit. You should you should look into it, it looks kind of interesting. Have you ever heard of it and I was just laughing. You know, like I’ve been business two years. You’re just now hearing about this CrossFit thing. So we ran a business, outside of kind of the CrossFit name for quite some time before it even really caught in my Midwestern town of Grand Rapids.
Eric LeClair [5:22]
So what were their struggles early on that you thought, Hey, this is not going the right direction as the affiliate. Did you ever did you ever sit back and think this was a poor decision?
Joe Cebulski [5:33]
A year in business and I had 36 members. We had to move out of the little facility we were in after a year and so I started looking around and I wanted to be downtown in a downtown setting. I kind of diverge from the norm way back then when people were trying to get cheap rent in a warehouse, you know, and they were calling CrossFit a destination location. I completely went against that I wanted to be downtown in the heart of things. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t drive up and find a “For Rent” sign on a building that was on the edge of the ghetto totally in downtown but just like a giant concrete building, and I rented one room out of that building and I look back on it think that was nuts that I thought with 36 members that I could pull off what we pulled off but yeah, there was like I said I came home from work one day and a neighbor greeted me after I left my car with a glass of wine in her hands and said, You need to get a real job and you need to stop this ridiculous dream and you need to let go of the decathalon and do something real and I was like thank you appreciate that. And to her credit a year and a half later she said How the hell did you know this was gonna you know the world was gonna love CrossFit.
Eric LeClair [6:43]
Right place, right time and you had the you know, the right the foresight to say this is where I want to go.
Joe Cebulski [6:49]
Oh man, entrepreneurship and business. I get so sick and tired of entrepreneurs that they have a successful business and then in hindsight, they basically claimed to have known it at all and seen it all and they knew exactly what they’re doing. That’s such bullshit. I, you know, half of its luck, like I was lucky I retired at a time when CrossFit was in the upswing luck, I found a building that was for rent at the exact moment that I needed it downtown. And it’s one of the finest facilities in all of America I’ll bet against I’ll bet anybody that can’t find a facility better than ours. We got lucky. Did I execute on the luck? Absolutely. But there’s no way I can claim to have been responsible for this building coming up for lease or for CrossFit having a good, a good upswing while I was starting my business. So I think luck is all luck and fortune are part of it. But executing on those opportunities is the key.
Eric LeClair [7:40]
Agreed. I mean, I can agree. And we’ve seen so many folks that either had opportunities presented to them or in their grasp, and they just failed to execute and it’s just like sand filter. Oh, yeah. So then how was that for you in changing the role of going from athlete now to owner coach. I mean, were there coaches, you looked up to high school years, college years, you know, Olympic Trials years, like, obviously you were under maybe the tutelage of many different quality and competent coaches. But now it was your turn to be a coach. It was your turn to be the leader and put your pursuit aside. How did that change?
Joe Cebulski [8:21]
Absolutely, I was I call myself a fortunate fool. I was able to stumble. I didn’t even do track and field. I was a junior in college, so I was very late to the game. I played every sport other than track and field at high school, so baseball, basketball, soccer golf, cross country and then went to high school on a baseball scholarship, jumped the fence and join the track team. Long story there but got sick of sitting on the bench and joined the track team. And just was lucky as heck to have good coach after good coach ended up training with some of the best track and field athletes in US history. And sat at the feet of some of the greats had opportunities to work with some of the greatest coaches in US history and just learned a lot about what that looks like. So without a doubt, I’m a reflection of all of the great leaders that have been a part of my life. And I’ve been fortunate to have some great ones. And one of the things I discovered very quickly is they did not lead by pulling anyone. They did not lead by pushing anyone, the great coaches and great leaders made you feel like you are discovering these things on your own, like they would, you know, maybe set you up and help guide you. But it wasn’t an egoistic look at what I’m going to show you or lead you to it was presenting information, data and learning opportunities in a way that I could I could take ownership of that progress that I was making as an athlete.
Eric LeClair [9:44]
That seems to be an impeccable way to allow others to shine. So were you able to in the moment notice that or have you looked back on that now and said, Ah, that’s what they were doing and then have you taken that and applied it now in your business?
Joe Cebulski [10:01]
That’s a good question, I would say that I was always a better learner and a better dork than I was an athlete. God got distracted when he made me, I was supposed to be an MIT studying quartz or higgs boson particles and, and somehow he got distracted and drew me into the wrong body. Because I’ve always been a dork and a learner and somebody who perceived knowledge as being important. So even as an athlete, I was always in awe of the great teachers and the great coaches and I was taking notes and I coached seven years division one track and field. So I did that myself. I turned down a head track and field coaching position to move to California to finish up my career at a amazing training facility with 25 Olympic level athletes and the best coach in the United States. So yeah, I had opportunities to put some of those things into into motion action, but also to be learning while I was competing, so yes, but I think that I’ve tried to apply that as a business owner and as a leader, other coaches, but it’s been trial and error. I mean, there have been times where I suck at being a gym owner and had to really kind of call myself on it.
Eric LeClair [11:04]
Yeah, I can, I can guarantee you, if you’ve met an owner, you met a coach or you met a program director that can’t say that, they’re either lying or they don’t understand self reflection. We’ve all stumbled and fallen down on it. To bring it forward to today. What does your staff look like? And are you responsible for their development both academically and or professionally? In the gym setting?
Joe Cebulski [11:31]
Yeah, I always wanted to have a staff that was full time. I started my business as a business. I never ran it as a hobby. I know people hate that term. I never ran it as something to do alongside another occupation. I wanted this to be my sole occupation. So I knew that I wanted to progress from part time coaches to full time coaches, and that journey was the hardest for sure. Transitioning from part time to full time because you’ve treated your part time coaches a certain way and as you begin to take on full time coaches, those part time coaches begin feeling neglected. Your full time coaches you’re trying to take care of gosh you’re walking a razor edge line of being able to afford to pay them what they need pay yourself something keeps a gym up and running. But 10 years in, we’ve had a good rhythm. My part time coaches are fantastic. They love to have it be something they do in addition to their work and they are aware of the opportunity they have to give and so they’ve, they’ve really hit a stride of being givers. And then my they recognize my full time coaches as being what I’m pouring myself into and they’re great with that. My full time coach, I’ve got three I’ve had four. But right now I have three full time coaches that that this is all they do for work. I’ve had over the years five to seven total over the years full time coaches that I’ve kind of have either moved on to some other occupation cuz you gotta admit, it’s hard to have a full time coach in CrossFit who’s gonna do it till they’re 60 years old, right? Like, right now, yeah, their age, their age is gonna be, you know, 20 to 30 ish years old. Your full time coaches, they’re not they’re not doing this till they’re 60. Heck, I don’t know if I’m going to do this top 60.
Eric LeClair [13:23]
The evolution, they’ve got to go somewhere, whether it be like, part time intern full time, general manager, something like, what is that growth curve for them?
Joe Cebulski [13:35]
Yeah, I don’t believe that $30-$35,000 is enough to live on until you’re 60 years old. So we worked hard to increase their salaries and make sure that it’s something that is livable and makes sense to keep doing. But my point is, is we’ve had, you know, some that move on to a job, some that I have removed from their position, which were some of the harder times of actually letting someone go to get to a point where we’ve reached our stride. We’ve got a great staff Tthere’s a great energy circle, right? Whenever you’ve got a leadership position, and whenever you’ve got those under a coach and athlete, whatever that is, you’ve got an energy circle that that leader or coach is going to give energy to the athlete or you know, coach under them. And that that athlete needs to give energy back to the coach and vice versa. If you get a good energy cycle going, then it’s a perpetual motion machine. And otherwise, it can be tough. We have that perpetual motion machine going right now. So we’ve done well.
Eric LeClair [14:26]
So I mean, that that’s a perfect segue into and I know this is kind of the obscure portion of our dialogue. You’ve taken so much time to pour into the development of staff to care for the coaching staff as well as care for the clientele in your community. So the culture is rich, and then we’re hit with the Coronavirus. So like, and I know we only have like maybe eight or so minutes left but by all means, how did you recognize it was a real threat. How did you pivot? And what like, how did you get message out to the clientele so fast?
Joe Cebulski [15:02]
Sure. I’m an information guy. I love reading, I devote tons of information. So I was reading all the time, hundreds of hundreds of pages at the source, you know, every page of the CDC who document doctor reports, like everything. And so I was trying to stay ahead of it myself, because I felt the big responsibility for the decisions that were going to come. I feel responsible for these coaches, I feel responsible for their incomes. And so we started a stages of shutting things down and slowing down before we were even shut down fully.
Eric LeClair [15:32]
That you did that. There’s like your governance had a date, but you guys already prior to executing different phases.
Joe Cebulski [15:38]
Yeah, we did not know that we were going to be on lockdown. But we were starting to implement some of the things we were going to do here to create social listing to create an environment that would be safer. We started limiting class sizes and limiting how we had access to the gym and then we were shut down within a week of that happening. So we were already pondering and thinking about it. But, I mean, the truth is, is nobody’s ever done like, World War Two was last time anybody can remember not having championships in sports or not having kids in school. So, you know, it’s been a while since anybody’s approached this and we’ve been kind of figuring out as we go, one of the things that I was fortunate to have is a gym that was thriving, healthy, cash flowing with a staff that I could afford to keep paying. And that’s why I told him, I will pay you guys first, my bill second, myself third. In that order, I communicated that to the members, I let the members know that we weren’t not going to go bankrupt that we were not going to go out of business. That no matter how hard it was going to be, I’d prepared for this. And I wasn’t going to pretend like I was a nonprofit when I’ve been running like a business for 10 years. We’re a business that prepared for it. And we’re fortunate enough to now, if you went and did not save money and didn’t prepare for shit hit the fan then you weren’t a smart business owner. There’s no way around that. We’re we’re lucky enough to have the income and fortune enough for me to have have the foresight to put away four to six months worth of running operations. So I knew we were fine.
Eric LeClair [17:06]
What I can say is you are absolutely in the minority when it comes to that, and I wish we had even more time and this is a massive concept to touch on that there are so many affiliate owners or in the micro gym owner space that they might have half a month in operating expenses put away, like I wish we could just hammer on that.
Joe Cebulski [17:30]
For some of them, that’s because they made mistakes or for some of them, that’s just where they’re at. And that’s okay, it can can frickin suck right now and you don’t have to have all the answers yet and you don’t have to feel like you need to scramble and panic. Like it’s okay for a second to sit there and just simply say, this sucks. And there might not be an upside to this yet. Like I’m, I’m tired of pretending that everything’s gonna be okay all the time. Sometimes it’s not. And that’s not that’s a possibility. To the possibility your gym won’t make it through this. But you know what? That’s not the end of the world either you’re not going to die. You’re not going to go hungry. I’m sure people have a house you can crash at like, our worst case scenarios in America are not that frickin bad. So, like, get yourself to see what the rock bottom isn’t a it’s not the end of the world, then then come back and fight like hell to save what you got. But don’t just pretend like it’s gonna be okay no matter what because it might not be.
Eric LeClair [18:27]
Right. I mean, that’s so we’re at a spot now where all I would say, if not all most gyms are in this pivot to digital pivot to one on one or pivot to distance learning. And the rest of it is ambiguous. The rest of it is who knows or when. So have you sat down with your coaches and have you done any planning out the next 15 days, 30 days since you’ve had phases working into this are you guys looking at phase Is to unroll or offload when this thing turns around.
Joe Cebulski [19:05]
Yeah, absolutely right. And then, like, what is leadership, I mean, at its core leadership is identifying a problem, addressing it coming up with a solution, communicating that solution to the people who it matters to, and then executing on the plan. Right? And how well you do that determines how well people will follow your leadership. If you suck at identifying problems and solving them, you’re not going to be a good leader, no matter how you do it. If you can solve problems really well and you suck at communicating with people going to be harder to be a good leader. So the final ingredient to all that is empathy, compassion, and the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Because a lot of the decisions that I would make about this mess of COVID for me, if I can only think about me, I’m not going to lend out a single piece of equipment. Okay, if I’m only thinking about me, I’m not going to pay my coaches I’m going to pay me but if I can put myself in their position as members or if I can put myself In my coaches’ shoes, then that informs my decision making process and also how I communicate. And so I have worked my tail off to try to see the world from my members eyes and to see if my coaches eyes and that’s why I lent out 28,000 pounds of equipment or at $130,000 worth of equipment that’s out in Grand Rapids being used by members because I don’t care about the equipment. I care about my members, right? They have received that with power and with energy and invigoration. How long will that last? I don’t know. I don’t know how long that pattern will be enough. We have blown up our Facebook we have more engagement online than we’ve ever had in our history. We are pivoting we’ve become a media production company, right. Like as soon as I get done here, we’ve got an hour and a half of shooting to do and tomorrow we’ve got another four hours of shooting that we’re going to do to prepare for the next week. So we produce content for our members. They love it. We’re finding humor, this ridiculous stache that I’ve got going is part of our infinity underground series that we do where I escaped the lockdown and holed up in the building. And it’s all this documentary footage of me surviving the building alone.
Eric LeClair [21:15]
I love it, though, you’re creating and this is a great opportunity to explore and to create that it’s an engaging, authentic representation. I love it.
Joe Cebulski [21:25]
Creativity to me is the core of my business. That is everything that I do is based on creativity and I have created an ethos in the gym that is based on being creative, artwork throughout the building, touches here and there that show the creativity our programming is based on being creative. The programming we put out, since the COVID crisis, has our members being creative, you know, doing obstacle courses, creating their own workouts, like creativity is the core of who our business model is. And that allowed us to be a little more, to be strong through the COVID crisis because we already have that baseline ethos built in our company.
Eric LeClair [22:03]
I love it talk about a strong differentiator in the market. I mean you’re light years beyond the classic general group exercise where it’s the same thing all the time like I dig it, man. In our final two minutes if you could deliver a message strong or succint to struggling gym owners, is there anything you would love to tell them?
Joe Cebulski [22:26]
Yeah, I guess I would start from the interpersonal thought of even just thinking about coming in this program. I was very hesitant to do it because I don’t freaking know the answers. And I hate people who pretend like they know what, what to do all the time because we don’t in the situation. So I guess if you’re an owner and you really feel like you don’t quite know what to do yet. Me too. Like totally 10 year business, super successful, cash flowing and safe. I still don’t know what the hell to do tomorrow sometimes. And that’s okay. I would also say, I remember some of the chatter on the owners forum in the previous months, a lot of it was saying things like, stop talking about your community, it’s not what differentiates you. You’re no different than orangetheory, no different than Barry’s boot camp. That’s fine. I don’t mind those kind of thought processes. But I have seen in the COVID crisis, that is not true. Our community is different. And what we do in a CrossFit box is a little bit tighter. My friend owns two orangetheories. And they don’t have any payment coming in. And I told him that I’m at 95% of my income for the next month, I’ll drop down next month for sure. But I’m at 90-95% of my income, he flipped his shit. He couldn’t believe that was even possible. He’s like, you can’t do that. And I’m like, No, no, that’s voluntary. Right? Oh my god. So being bold and that we do have something different, our community, we have created something that people see as part of their life triangle in a different way than just something they’re going to check out of so it’s gonna hurt. This is gonna be hard I, when we when we shut down the business and gave out all of our equipment, I walked through my building and realized I had exactly the amount of equipment left in my building that I purchased when I started my business, and that encouraged me because I was like, “f it” like we’ll be fine, because I’ve done this before. Right? All right. You’re gonna come back, they’re gonna be back. So you know what I’ve also done, I’ve shifted from worrying about me to worry about all the members. So when I get down on myself, Oh, I’m losing money. No, actually, how do we take this community and help people they’re going to be hurting themselves. And so we’ve got a fund that we’ve raised in the gym for people that are in trouble. I’ve got at least 12-15 people who are going to fund people’s memberships for the month following the COVID crisis and we’re back up and running that need a membership it can’t afford it. So looking internally, how do we take care of our medical staff that works in the hospitals in the area so for me, drifting outside of myself into our community has been an important part of staying alive for us. But that’s a little easier to say when we’re successful and okay.
Eric LeClair [25:07]
I mean, that’s fantastic. That’s that gives a creative opportunity for other gym owners to think not just about themselves in their business, but how to reach out and care for those that are going to be struggling in the coming 30, 60, 90 days. Correct. Joe, I love it. Thank you. I sincerely appreciate not only your wisdom and creativity, but also the time I know you are hard pressed to nail down and steal 30 minutes of your time, but man, thank you. I’m very impressed. And I will continue to watch and see what you guys are up to.
Joe Cebulski [25:36]
Awesome, Eric. Thanks for having me, man. Appreciate it.
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