Working Out

Posted: April 08, 2014

Gray Saucony sneakers with neon-orange laces have replaced the fashion pumps that served as Hilary Ryan's power shoes on Wall Street.

Gone, too, is the six-figure salary she collected at asset manager AllianceBernstein L.P. as a senior marketing coordinator.

Instead, she has anxiety-provoking expenses: about $90,000 in equipment purchases; more than $100,000 in renovations; a $65,000 licensing fee; and a monthly lease of $8,000.

The outlay is for Plank Studio, a business debuting this week on the outskirts of Wayne, its success premised on the appeal of a fitness contraption - the Megaformer, "a Pilates machine on steroids" that has never before been available in Pennsylvania. None are in South Jersey (though there are three in North Jersey studios).

Despite the uncertainty, the investment, and the debt, last week Ryan was confident - and clearly under the influence of an entrepreneurial endorphins rush.

How else to explain this:

"I'd rather be happy than make six figures every year."

Not that she doesn't expect to get back to her Wall Street earning heft. Based on the Megaformer's appeal in other U.S. cities and abroad, Ryan is already planning a Center City site within a year.

"I would never have put in all the time and money and effort if I didn't think it would work out," said the 31-year-old Gwynedd Valley native, back in the area since May after seven years in New York. She returned as a licensed Pilates instructor, having tried out Megaformers in New York studios.

Ten feet long, 250 pounds, and equipped with a variety of springs, straps, and handles, the Megaformer is former French bodybuilder Sebastien Lagree's redesign of the traditional Pilates reformer of the 1970s.

It is constructed to deliver a full-body, low-impact, cardio-strength/resistance-training experience that builds muscle while burning 600 calories in 50 minutes.

Lagree, 40, developed the first machine in 2005 to help his Pilates clients achieve more effective results at his studio in West Hollywood, he said.

To maximize earnings, in part to pay for more product development, Lagree started selling licensing agreements, required of anyone buying Megaformers.

The first license, in 2005, went to a London fitness studio. Boston was the first East Coast city with Megaformers, around 2010. They're hot in Washington, reportedly used by Michelle Obama.

The machines are now in more than 200 studios worldwide, with the total expected to double by 2015, Lagree said.

"Whether you're in Hong Kong, Sydney, or Russia, people love the workout," he said. "People in Philadelphia are going to love the workout just as much."

He said he has advised Ryan to be prepared to add more classes than the 10 per day she plans to start with, at $30 each. Packages are also available.

According to the Fitness Industry Dealers Association, working out is delivering positive business results. Aerobic-exercise participants increased 6.8 percent, to 44.8 million, in 2012, the latest data available. Consumer-reported purchases of jogging/running shoes were up 23 percent, to $3 billion.

At Plank, Ryan said, she sold five private classes in one day, which "reaffirms I've made the right decision."

The 6,300-square-foot studio is above a mattress store at 532 W. Lancaster Ave., positioned close to the Tredyffrin Township border rather than in downtown Wayne, to avoid the hassle of parking meters, she said.

A graduate of Gettysburg College, where she majored in management, Ryan served as her own general contractor to save money.

She got legal help for the licensing agreement with Lagree Fitness and the $1,000 monthly payment for Megaformer exclusivity in five Main Line zip codes (19041, 19087, 19085, 19010, and 19333) from Haverford to Devon.

"My No. 1 recommendation being a small-business owner is get a good lawyer," she said.

Making the venture possible is an inheritance from her mother, Bonnie, who died of ovarian cancer when Ryan was 18. Bonnie Ryan encouraged her children to be physically fit, and had no tolerance for tears even when the going got tough on or off the playing field, her daughter said.

So far, Hilary Ryan, the small-business owner, is obliging:

"There hasn't been any crying in Plank yet. I don't think I've been happier."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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