Diane Mastrull: A Pilates business pregnant with possibility

Posted: June 19, 2012

Already in a position that seemed far too much to ask of a woman six months' pregnant, Liz Cahill maneuvered from her upside down "V" pose to another ridiculously tough configuration known as an extended fire hydrant.

While still face down and gripping a bar in front of her, Cahill turned her belly to the right and thrust her right leg up and out to resemble a dog doing its business. A very pregnant dog.

Perhaps crazier still, Cahill, 30, and her also-pregnant sister, Carrie Rorer, 34, who was similarly contorted alongside her, were each paying for this hour of sweating, panting and manipulation — $400 for a 10-session package.

That doesn't surprise Kelly McBride. She was confident a niche market existed when she formed Belly Pilates in Bryn Mawr in 2006. Then again, she was working off what she considered solid research: three pregnancies of her own.

Not that running a business focused on pre- and postnatal mothers' fitness was her original career plan.

"This is Kelly 3.0," McBride, who lives in Wayne, joked last week.

The Brookhaven native had been an advertising major at Temple University. With training in computer graphic arts, she wound up teaching multimedia presentation at Moore College of Art and Design in the early 1990s. She also went into business preparing multimedia presentations for corporate clients, which lasted about five years.

"Then I entered into my second career: mommy," McBride said.

After her first two children were born, in 1997 and 2000, "I realized I needed to prioritize, and my children were my first priority," she said. She also realized something generations before her had already discovered: "Motherhood could be very challenging."

That got McBride thinking about how it could be made easier with fitness.

To get her body in shape for the childbearing experience, McBride had started doing Pilates in the late 1990s, before becoming pregnant with her first child. In 2003, she was enrolled in a training program to become a Pilates instructor when it happened again — pregnancy, that is.

"I was really surprised to discover that the Pilates instructors, even as smart and intuitive as they were, really did not have the knowledge to modify the exercises to meet the needs of my changing body," she said. "It astounded me, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is information that really needs to be out there.'?"

Career No. 3 was born — before Baby No. 3.

McBride would establish a business plan built on exhaustive consultations with Pilates instructors, physical therapists, anatomy and movement experts, physicians, and a whole other endurance species — doulas, or labor coaches. She gave birth in 2004 and, in short order, not only completed Pilates-instructor certification but trained to become a doula for both birthing and postpartum mothers, to know what emotional support to offer once she opened Belly Pilates.

"Motherhood is both a physical and emotional journey," McBride explained.

So, too, is owning a small business, she added.

"I'm not even sure you can prepare yourself as a small-business owner," McBride said, unwilling to disclose her financials but describing her revenue growth since opening Belly Pilates as "a constant ebb and flow."

The still-struggling economy's squeeze on discretionary spending has prompted more interest in classes, as opposed to more-expensive private lessons, said McBride, who is Belly Pilates' only employee. Any profits have been cycled back into the company, to pay for her ongoing training and the educational workshops she also offers.

Like most small business, Belly Pilates lacks a hefty marketing budget, so "my challenge is getting my word out," McBride said. Add to that the complexities of reaching the postnatal mother — a consumer who is overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and energy-sapped. Never mind squeezing in an hour of physical exertion once a week, let alone squeezing into a pair of workout tights.

Yet on a rainy afternoon last week ideal for napping, new mothers Ana van Bosse and Angelika Magner, both of Wynnewood, were inhaling and exhaling their way through routines on a reformer, a contraption resembling a rowing machine that does much more.

Four months ago, van Bosse gave birth via Caesarean section to son Townsend. On Tuesday, the baby sucked on a pacifier and cooed in his carrier while his mother heeded McBride's gentle-yet-firm directives to "use those belly muscles" and "squeeze the butt." Classmate Magner came without her 6-month-old twin boys, born also through C-section.

In interviews after their workout, each woman raved about the benefits of their increased postpartum strength.

"It's confidence-building for me … especially at 45," said van Bosse, part of the over-40 age group that makes up 25 percent of Belly Pilates' clients.

It's a birthing sector that has doubled in the last 25 years, according to McBride. That helps feed her optimism about her business prospects.

"The potential for growth is practically unlimited because there's always pregnant ladies," she said.

What she would like more of are referring physicians.

"I can make their jobs easier" by helping their expectant patients stretch, lift and breathe their way to a firmer abdominal core and more-fit body, McBride said.

She plans to hire a second instructor in the fall, which will enable Belly Pilates to offer something it doesn't now — weekend classes. "And then I'll be able to have the income I deserve," she said, chuckling, before returning to the topic she doesn't like to talk about.

"I don't view profit margins and revenue as a defining factor of how successful I am as a small-business owner," she said. "Like most mompreneurs I know, my goal is to be able to keep my business up and running so when my kids are grown, I will have a solid, well-established business."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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