How does former pro athlete Peter Taunton keep winning big as an entrepreneur?
By making things personal.
“I’m living proof that the American dream is alive and well.” People make such statements so often, you may just do a mental shrug. But when Peter Taunton says it, you’re immediately convinced—not only because of his enthusiastic, infectious personality but also because of his story.
Taunton grew up humbly in rural Willmar, Minnesota, the youngest of seven siblings, including his identical twin. The town was so small, his education happened in a two-room schoolhouse. But what he may have lacked in space was made up for by expanding into the work world as a youngster. “My father put me to work at around age eight,” he shares. “I sold popcorn in front of his grocery store. I learned valuable life lessons from that, such as the value of work ethic, not being beneath any type of work, and immersing yourself in your community, that are still relevant today.”
He would be soon putting such life lessons to the test during his first entrepreneurial venture.
Serving up a Minnesota Miracle
As a teenager, Taunton was introduced to racquetball and quickly found that he excelled at it—so much so that he dropped out of college to become a professional player. Being on tour for several years gave him access to health clubs all over the country.
One day while home from the tour, opportunity knocked. “I got a call from friends who wanted me to turn around their failing club,” he recalls. “I played every day there, so I got to see firsthand what the management was doing. I was moving to Orlando with my brother, and, before I left, I had breakfast with the five owners and straight-out told them the club would never succeed with the current manager. The guy didn’t engage the members or know them by name, and he didn’t go around the club making them feel special.” A confident young man, Taunton left them with an offer: “If you ever want to turn this thing around, give me a call.”
Eighteen months later, they did, giving him a meager $16,000 salary but an enticing caveat: if he turned the business around, he could buy it. “That was my big break,” Taunton reveals.
In only his second day in charge, Taunton was faced with his first leadership challenge when he asked his team to help him clean the building. “Once I started assigning tasks, a woman named Barb stepped forward and said, ‘Peter, we don’t clean,’” he shares. “I just turned to her and said, ‘Barb, you also don’t have a job’ and pointed to the door. That was a shot across the bow. You could hear a pin drop. Everybody knew I wasn’t there to play, including Barb, who stayed. I told them, ‘This is our last day of being average, and I’ll lead by example.’” True to his word, he even cleaned the toilets.
With no budget, Taunton had to be smart and hustle to save his club—which was losing $200,000 a year before he took the reins. He bartered for everything, trading memberships for renovation materials. He also taught his team about customer engagement: greeting people when they came in and interacting with them. “That’s really why the community got behind me and how I grew that club,” he says. And his persistence paid off. Within five years, it was making $250,000 a year.
The owners kept their promise, and Taunton bought the business. By age forty, he had seven clubs, called America’s Fitness Centers, which he then sold before eyeing his next challenge.
Of course, Taunton thought of customers first. He wondered whether fitness centers needed things like swimming pools and racquetball courts and started plucking those amenities from his soon-to-be business. “Before I knew it, I had a club with only around 4,000 square feet but a lot of diversity in cardio and strength-training equipment—everything you’d need to get fit,” he says. To make it even more customer-friendly, he’d keep it open 24/7 and members would have access to any club. With two more final touches, his masterpiece was done. “My coup d’état was launching it with no member contracts because every other club was doing contracts,” he adds. “I also had a $35 membership, so if you wanted to get in, get out, and get on with your life, I had your answer. When I went to market, I wanted it to be different and resonate with people.”
And resonate it did. His new health club, Snap Fitness, was an instant success—so much so that the first club sold enough memberships in ninety days to cash-flow it for the entire year. With fewer employees and less overhead, Taunton took that formula from his city-based club and tested it with a mid-sized market and then in a town of 3,500 people. The model worked at all three locations, and he was ready to franchise. “Every time I started a Snap Fitness franchise, I didn’t cut corners. We always provided the best equipment and experience. I’ve always been a grandiose thinker with the mindset of ‘think small, be small’ while being humble about it and letting my performance speak for itself,” he shares. In Snap Fitness’s first year, he opened twelve clubs; in year two, he had sixty, and by year three there were two hundred clubs. Five years later, it was averaging more than one opening a day. Today, Snap Fitness has grown to 2,500 locations in twenty-six countries, and its parent company, Lift Brands, is the largest wellness franchise in the world, with over 6,000 locations.
His Secrets to Success
Every entrepreneur has a playbook for success, and Taunton is no different. In fact, he often compares himself to the head coach of a football team. Even though he stepped down as CEO of Lift Brands in 2019, he enjoys sharing his formula for a winning team.
“First and foremost, I surround myself with great people,” he says. “My team members are loyal, coachable, and stay in their lane. I always say that anyone can be an all-star if you set the bar at your ankles. I like people who set the bar high.”
For that loyalty, Taunton reciprocates in several ways. “I keep it real. You want everyone on your team to feel informed. They don’t want to hear company news at the water cooler,” he warns. “And when people screw up, and they will, don’t berate them. Instead, give them a chance to work on solutions.”
He continues: “Every entrepreneur who’s done great things has led with authority and passion. They have compassion and respect for the people around them and foster a team atmosphere. They empower and mentor people along the way and make them great. I’ve had many people who started at entry-level jobs and stayed with me ten to twelve years, and they loved the experience they had. They would go to war for me, and I love them and respect them and became friends with a lot of them, even cosigning for a few homes and cars. I like to say they had a front-row seat to the American dream.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Peter Taunton continues to lead by example. In addition to helping others succeed through consulting and public speaking, he lends time to causes close to him. As part of his effort to help military families, he works with singer Tim McGraw to hold an annual private concert, Liberty at the Lake, in Minnesota to benefit fallen soldiers. He owns a five-star resort on 30,000 acres in the Serengeti, where he helps anti-poaching efforts. And, in his latest venture to help people be healthier, Taunton is the co-owner of Nautical Bowls, a franchise of superfood-based stores.
As Taunton discusses how far he’s come, he’s both reflective and somewhat awestruck. “Running a company is a huge commitment and a huge sacrifice,” he admits. “If you’re like me and you don’t mind putting everybody on your shoulders, you own everything, including the livelihoods of those families working for you. I’ve come so far from that two-room schoolhouse to get here, so I’m truly blessed to be able to impact people’s lives like that.”