From parking lot to 200 units: Burn Boot Camp is ‘family he never had’
Devan and Morgan Kline are co-founders of Burn Boot Camp.
The parking lot is seared in Devan Kline’s memory, blazing hot in the North Carolina sun but the only thing he could afford to lease, in this case during the off hours at a gymnastics school. He and his wife, Morgan, would run around town in Charlotte, putting up flyers at the grocery store, the day care center, the church, inviting people to come to their 45-minute boot camp workout on the asphalt.
“I ended up getting a select group of people for the parking lot days. There were actually 21 ladies that started with me,” recalls Devan, at what would become Burn Boot Camp, a women-focused workout franchise that has grown beyond 200 units in four years. “And now to have 70,000 clients.”
The franchise’s story is notable, but so, too, is the tale of Devan and Morgan, two kids growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, but in different circumstances. “I grew up in low-income housing, my father and mother both addicted to drugs and alcohol, my dad in jail,” Devan recalls. “I met Morgan when I was 12 years old,” and they’ve been “in love” ever since.
Morgan came from a tight-knit and loving family, made more so when Morgan’s father died when she was 5. “From that I got very close to my family, my mom and my sister. I really grew up with unconditional support, and when Devan met my family was the first time” he experienced it. His hard times, she believes, created his intensity to succeed. “Since Devan and I built Burn Boot Camp, it was the family he never had. Devan chose the path to build the life he wanted, versus do the same things he was exposed to when he grew up,” she said.
“Burn is so much more than a place to work out. It’s a community, a sisterhood, a brotherhood, of people that care about you inside and outside the gym,” she said.
“We want to provide a community, a family, things for our children that Devan never had.”
Today the pair, both 32, are married, have two children and are 100 percent owners of a franchise that stands out even in the red-hot fitness space. As of mid-August, they had 218 stores open with an additional 188 awarded, and a goal to have roughly 270 open by the end of 2019.
And that parking lot? The Klines ended up leasing space in three more parking lots, then flipped them and sold the locations to trainers. Those sales in turn provided the cash to add a handful of corporate gyms and fuel the launch of the franchise program, while the couple retains 100 percent ownership of the franchise at least for now.
Private equity firms are calling, Devan concedes, and they’re “open-minded” but not looking to sell. “Being in an opportunity where private equity are really looking at you as a viable option, gives us confidence we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Burn Boot Camp was a contestant at the NextGen competition sponsored by the International Franchise Association two years ago, and onstage, Devan Kline seethed with intensity as he described his rough background and his desire to will his business to success.
Along with finding Morgan, he said at NextGen, “I also found the baseball field. I have a strong work ethic and that’s because of the lack of talent that I had. I worked hard and escaped my home life on the field.”
Morgan majored in food marketing in college and worked a corporate job with Kellogg, eventually moving to Charlotte with Devan where they didn’t know anybody. Devan meanwhile had signed with the San Francisco Giants and spent two years in the minor leagues before being released.
At the time of the competition, in 2017, the system generated $35 million in sales, but it was unclear exactly how the concept would differentiate itself from others. Dave Mortensen, NextGen judge and the co-founder of Anytime Fitness and Self Esteem Brands, questioned whether the founder’s intense personality could be harnessed as the franchise grew, although Mortensen also said at the time he admired Devan’s passion.
Despite its progress, Burn Boot Camp has a long way to go before joining the heavyweights on the Franchise Times Top 200+; in fact, our research team doesn’t even include it in the fitness industry breakout because its small relative size would skew the percentage increase numbers too much.
Club Pilates ranks No. 1 in top growers last year, with $148 million in systemwide sales, a 150 percent increase from the year before. Orangetheory Fitness is second, just passing $1 billion and still generating a 43 percent sales increase. Planet Fitness, posting $2.8 billion in systemwide sales, is up 21 percent; Orangetheory’s and Planet Fitness’s gains, in particular, are remarkable given the sheer size of their systems.
The hallmark of the franchise is a super-tough, 45-minute workout.
Devan counters that his and Morgan’s passion goes beyond building a gym. “Our objective is to create an impact in this world and a much larger impact than a little dent,” he said, to help people get healthier. He is aware of but not concerned about the Orangetheorys and Planet Fitnesses of the world.
“The No. 1 way to stand out from your competition is not looking at them too hard, not looking at them too often, because then you end up looking like them,” Devan says. “We’re aware, but our philosophy is that competition exists to make us better.”
Morgan adds they regularly visit locations, plus host podcasts about “adding value” in all aspects of life. Their background doing all the jobs at the gym makes a difference, too, she believes.
“Devan and I were trainers, we were operations managers, we were janitors, we were franchisors, we were sales people. We’ve played a lot of different roles from the ground up,” she said. “And then as you grow you can recruit and bring people that know more than you do. We want to bring someone on that can teach us stuff.”
Corporate staff at Burn Boot Camp now numbers more than 50, which the Klines say is adequate to support future growth as well. Morgan says they’ve made plenty of missteps but nothing they can’t recover from. “We partnered with the wrong vendors that made our supplements before, we opened a location in the wrong spot, not marketed properly. Most of our failures have been financially, losing money on things that didn’t go well. Again, you don’t know what you don’t know. Sometimes you fail and you have to learn from it,” she said.
But the core is still the same, and that is a community, in Burn Boot Camp’s case made up mostly of women. They appreciate the foam floating floor in all Burn Boot Camp gyms, like the floor inside the gymnastics studio where they first set up in the parking lot. It costs about $8,500 but is easier on customers’ knees and hips, she said.
Burn offers free child care with no worries about signing up in advance, another nod to its female clientele. Equipment is minimal and inexpensive, like dumbbells and medicine balls, not treadmills and rowers. Men are welcome only at certain classes at certain times, but not at women-only classes “because women want their safe environment,” Morgan said. Customers can get a complimentary 14-day trial and then join as a member from $119 to $189 a month, depending on the location.
Morgan’s lesson learned so far in her young franchise’s life is pragmatic: “One of the biggest lessons I learned is to be very concrete and set on your goals and your outcomes but be flexible how to get there,” she said. “Early on I wanted to reach a goal but I wanted to do it my way, and then if it didn’t go that way, I was disappointed. Especially as you bring on other people, you have to be flexible.”
Devan closes with a much more personal lesson, suitable to a student in the school of hard knocks. “The most important message to everybody is work harder on yourself than anything else.”