Left behind, Patel sisters now rocking the Planet
Their parents left the Patel sisters in India as children to come to America to get settled. Today they own 20 Planet Fitness franchises in six states. From left: Manisha Heiderscheidt, Kalpana Lubrano, Shilpa McDowell and Neha Shah.
Kalpana, the third youngest of four Patel sisters who are all Planet Fitness franchisees, was super stressed on “expiration date” at her big-box gym in Vancouver, Washington. That’s when you send out mailers with an expiration date, and on that day in particular the gyms have a lot of sign-ups.
“It’s an intense day, and I was so nervous,” she recalls. “I had a few employees that had not showed up for work that day and I was really stressed.”
Then she heard the voice of one of her sisters, Neha, who operated Planet Fitness gyms on the East Coast and was the first in the family to get into the business. “All of a sudden I’m standing there and I’m hearing my sister’s voice. I turned around and there was my sister with her bag, and she flew in from Maryland to surprise me,” and immediately pitched in to help her little sister with all the work.
“We just have that connection, because of my parents,” says Kalpana. “The family dynamic is you help each other no matter what it is.”
Getting here was harrowing—their parents left them for a year as children with an aunt and uncle in India and came to the United States. “He brought us to this country because he had four girls, and if we had stayed we probably would have gotten married at age 17 because that’s the culture. He wanted to educate his girls,” Kalpana said about her father.
“We can vividly remember, our dad and mom, they worked really hard. Dad had two jobs most of our growing up. He would leave the house at 7 in the morning and come home at midnight,” said Kalpana, who was 9 when the sisters emigrated. “But my dad, he never complained.”
Today the four sisters in the Patel family own 20 Planet Fitness gyms in six states and counting. Kalpana Lubrano has five clubs in Washington and Oregon. Manisha Heiderscheidt has five in California. Neha Shah has seven in Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia. And Shilpa McDowell is a partial owner of three clubs in California.
Oldest sister Manisha was the first to get into the business, and also the one responsible for talking everyone else into it. “No matter what franchise you were thinking about, you have to have some personal connection with what you’re about to do,” she said. “You have to be connected with the concept and you have to be willing to take the risk.”
Manisha opened her first franchise in Belmont, New Hampshire, in 2005. In the early days, she said, the gyms were much less expensive to open than today. “Our first gym we put in everything that we had in our savings, maxed out our credit cards,” she said about her and her husband. “That’s the hardest thing getting the first club going, getting some return before you can even think about the second one. It took us three years” before the second one. “From then on we’ve really had a positive experience with lenders.”
“I remember my first conference,” for Planet Fitness, when she was one of three female franchisees and maybe there were another 30 male franchisees. “And now when we go to these conferences, it’s 1,200 people, and it’s very inclusive. It’s changed quite a bit, and it’s grown quite a bit.”
At conferences, Kalpana says with a laugh, few people can tell the sisters apart, so they end up meeting a lot of folks over and over again.
Kalpana says the family lessons continue today, especially those taught by her father. She notes her parents took out a mortgage on their house to fund Manisha’s first Planet Fitness gym, and today that equity stake provides them with a nice retirement income.
“He teaches us to pass it on to each other. I can’t imagine doing what he’s done with $20 that he started his life journey here,” Kalpana said. “As an adult looking back, I feel like if my dad can do what he did, there’s no reason we can’t do anything.