By Andrzej Zwaniecki
Andrzej Zwaniecki is a staff writer with the State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs.
Gigliola Aycardi became an entrepreneur because she “did not want to work for someone else” and have a set schedule. “How naive I was,” Aycardi sighs. As vice president of Bodytech, a Colombia-based fitness center chain she started with her partner Nicolás Loaiza, she worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. And loved every minute.
SHOW ME YOUR WARES
Aycardi and Loaiza graduated from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá with master of business administration (MBA) degrees in 1997 at the time of a severe economic crisis in Colombia. After a few failed attempts to get decent jobs, Aycardi and Loaiza dusted off a gym-marketing plan they wrote together as their MBA thesis and decided to start a gym.
They found a high-traffic location on a main avenue in an upper-class neighborhood of Bogotá, but the only capital they had were loans from family and friends. Banks refused to lend them money. With no funds for promotion, they installed floor-to-ceiling windows in their gym to show exercising patrons to drivers of cars passing by. “We wanted the windows to be our banner, our ad,” Aycardi said.
Aycardi and Loaiza opened their first gym in January 2008. Just one month later — she remembers the exact date, February 28 — came a sweet moment of satisfaction when they learned that Bodytech registered 1,800 members in one month, almost doubling their most optimistic projection for six months. “It was like ecstasy,” Aycardi said. Then things started to accelerate as the two entrepreneurs began increasingly focusing on middle-class and lower-income customers.
GROWING EVER FASTER
At one point, Aycardi and Loaiza were opening an average of one fitness center a month while planning their next moves — entering into merger and acquisition agreements, adding new franchised locations and institutional clients, and creating a fitness training institute. The rapid growth was possible due to capital injections by various private investors, and a larger stake taken by a private equity fund.
Aycardi said Bodytech succeeded because she and her partner jumped on the wave of the healthy-lifestyle trend hitting Colombia’s shores in the late 1990s. At that time demand for gym services in Bogotá was high while supply was meager, she said. “It was the right moment to start something like this.”
That “something” became more than a simple gym. The two entrepreneurs have hired sports medicine doctors, physical therapists and nutritionists in addition to gym trainers, who together design customized exercise programs and help members achieve their personal health goals. “We are really different,” Aycardi said, comparing Bodytech to its competitors. This new approach changed the entire fitness industry in Colombia, according to Endeavor, a U.S. nonprofit group that supports high-potential businesses in emerging markets.
WELLNESS IS A BALANCE
In 2007, Aycardi was recognized by Endeavor as a high-impact entrepreneur. This earned Bodytech access to the Boston Consulting Group, which helped it design an international expansion strategy.
Today, with 45 branches in Colombia, Chile and Peru, more than 70,000 members, and almost 1,300 employees, Bodytech is the largest fitness center chain in Latin America, and it is still growing.
But Aycardi had an epiphany three years ago: She felt a desire for a more balanced life. Following her heart, as she put it, Aycardi got married and had a daughter, Antonia, who is now 3 years old. “Having Antonia was a miracle,” she said. “Now we have a higher purpose in life.”