Candace Cordelia is a Pennsylvania-based journalist and on-camera broadcaster/host, with…
Did you know the President of STRIDE Fitness, Jeff Stokes, created the first professional secret shopper service for the health & fitness industry? That’s just one of many awe-inspiring things Athletech News uncovered about the business leader for this installment of CEO Corner.
The ambition of STRIDE Fitness President Jeff Stokes has led the entrepreneur to many fruitful business opportunities. Starting from a job as a Membership Advisor with Bally’s Total Fitness (then known as Bally’s Total Health & Fitness) after college, the Maryland native found his sweet spot as a figurehead in the health and fitness world. “I’ve been very fortunate to be on the early end of several expansions,” Stokes told Athletech News while recalling previous roles with other organizations including Life Time Fitness and Anytime Fitness.
It didn’t take long for Stokes to fall “in love” with the fitness industry and throughout his 25-plus years in the business, he’s learned how to adapt, utilizing his passion for fitness and his optimistic nature. He explained, “You have to learn how to work with people of all different types of backgrounds and personalities. I’m pretty quick at identifying that.” This strength, in part, has helped Stokes to go from building one STRIDE Fitness location to an expansion of nearly 25 by the end of this year, within the course of two years during a global health pandemic. For an outsider looking in, this remarkable achievement may appear daunting, but for Stokes it’s another marker for an already well-established career with no end in sight. Keep reading to find out more on how the STRIDE Fitness president constructed the HIIT interval training concept brand, how his colleagues & co-founders would describe his managerial skills, and his first job for our CEO Corner series.
Athletech News (ATN): Tell us about your background
Jeff Stokes: I am originally from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I grew up in a very, very small town called Chestertown, Maryland. After college, I went to Salisbury University down on the coast by Ocean City, Maryland. I played baseball — that was kind of the common denominator for me to venture into the fitness space, post-college. I wasn’t good enough, or fast enough, to play professionally. So, the next best thing was to move into the fitness industry. I’ve always enjoyed healthy living, working out, exercise, and the benefits. I’ve lived that life now over the last 30+ years in my professional life.
I moved to the Midwest for a few years and worked with Life Time Fitness, helping them develop at an early stage, and then moved out to Phoenix with Life Time Fitness to open up the West Coast of their expansion in 2005-2006. I continue to enjoy the [West Coast] weather and now live in Southern California and [am] obviously the President of STRIDE Fitness.
ATN: Please tell us about your current company and how either your role or the company (if you are a founder) came to fruition
Jeff Stokes: I have admired what Xponential Fitness had been doing over the last 4-5 years. I was fortunate to get a call back in 2019 as they were looking for someone to fill the President role of STRIDE, the newest brand that they had just purchased. (Everyone knows Xponential owns several brands in the boutique fitness space — Club Pilates, CycleBar, Pure Barre, to name a few.) It was just the right fit, right time in my career. [I] came onboard in 2019. We quickly built the leadership team and got ready to franchise.
We were off to a really, really good start in Q4 of 2019 [and] Q1 of 2020. We all know what happened in March/April of 2020. So, that slowed us down just a bit. But, at the end of the day, it was a blessing in disguise, and here we are now getting ready to open up 20 locations starting with one in the year of COVID.
ATN: What was your journey like to get to this point?
Jeff Stokes: I’ve been very lucky because I found something very early in my career, right out of college, that I fell in love with and I’ve never left. You hear those stories every once in a while [from] someone that’s been in the same industry for 25+ years, and I’m one of them. It’s just been a blessing.
I played baseball in college and afterward I had a business degree and wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with that. Washington, D.C. was kind of the big city to move to after college and I fell into what, at that time, was the number one fitness company in the country called Bally’s. Good, bad, or indifferent, they didn’t have a long-term great journey. But for those years, for me coming out of college was a great experience because they had great training. There was [an] upward opportunity for those that really wanted to work hard. I learned the sales side of the business early on. My first five years were just fun working in a profession I had no idea would last 25+ years. Since [then] I’ve worked up into executive management. I’ve done multi-unit ownership as a franchisee. I’ve been a consultant in the industry. I was a director of a public company, Life Time Fitness when we went public in the mid-2000s. So I’ve just had a really great experience with some great brands.
ATN: What is your greatest strength?
Jeff Stokes: Good or bad, I am the ultimate optimist. It’s just part of my DNA. If you were to ask my parents, my wife, my friends, it’s just who I am. I’ve always been able to see the glass half-full. I think the last two years have really put this strength to a test. But it’s gotten me, and STRIDE, and my family through some very challenging times.
When you’re part of a start-up or an emerging brand you know you’re going to have some bumps in the road. You know you’re going to have some challenges. I think my optimistic personality is really the right fit for those types of roles.
ATN: What is your greatest accomplishment?
Jeff Stokes: Personally, I’m always going to go to the kids, the family. I have three wonderful kids and my number one title in life is Dad.
Professionally, a lot of people don’t know that I actually accomplished something very early in my career that I’m very proud of. I look back and I think maybe that’s something that I should have extended a little bit longer. I found a really cool niche and created the first professional secret shopper service for the [health & fitness] industry. It was called Club Services. The fitness industry did not have this in the 90s. To this day I can go to IHRSA or some of the other conferences in the industry and people will still identify me as the “Mystery Shopper Guy.” It was a really cool time in my career and really put my name on the map in that consultant role. Then I sold it.
ATN: How would your colleagues, your co-founders, describe your strengths as a manager?
Jeff Stokes: Number one, [I’m] a very calm personality. [I] don’t really get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. I’ve experienced enough over the years now to know you’re going to have some good days, you’re going to have some great days, you’re going to have some bad days, challenging days. But again [that] probably comes back to my optimistic personality. I think what I bring to any team that I’ve led is just that even keel, that ability to be calm through the storm.
I’ve always been fair [and] try to see things from all perspectives. I try to see from my employee and team members’ perspectives. I try to see from my employer‘s perspective. I really like to hire smart and motivated people smarter than me and let them do their thing.
ATN: What was your first job?
Jeff Stokes: Growing up in a small town I did some crazy jobs. I had a lot of farmland around me, so I worked on farms and baled hay, and did landscaping. I did a lot of manual labor jobs to make some money in the summers and even part-time during the school year. Nothing in the fitness space was really available at that time. I worked in parks and recreation as well.
My first official job out of college was with Bally’s Total Health and Fitness.
ATN: What motivates you?
Jeff Stokes: At this stage in my career, and I have worn a lot of different hats, I realize I love building businesses. A lot of people don’t know when Xponential bought STRIDE; there wasn’t a cluster of locations; there was just one out here in Southern California. They were highly successful and it was all pre-COVID. It was the right acquisition, but it has taken us a couple of years now to get to where we wanted to be back in 2020. We’ll be at 20, 25 locations by the end of this year. So to go from one to 25 during the last two years that we’ve all experienced has been a huge accomplishment. That motivates me.
The other part – I just love being the best husband, dad, leader I can be for my family and my team, and healthy living. That’s another piece that has kept me in this industry for 25+ years.
Candace Cordelia is a Pennsylvania-based journalist and on-camera broadcaster/host, with a reporting background in wrestling, entertainment, and lifestyle. Her reporting work has been featured on websites and in publications such as Bustle, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, New York Daily News, am New York, ABC News, Yahoo!, Good Morning America, Madame Noire, Sister 2 Sister, etonline.com, Diva Dirt and The Everyday Fan. Her favorite workout influencers include Chloe Ting, Cassey Ho, Pamela Reif and Mary Braun. She still can’t stand burpees and Rebbl Dark Chocolate Immunity Elixir is one of her favorite post-workout protein sips. You can follow Candace on Twitter @CandaceCordelia and on Instagram @thatgirlcandace16.