Farm hand, railman, bankrupt—and then Findley bet on Curves
“Working on the railroad made me a better CEO.”— Gary Findley, former Curves president, now Bluefrog and Restoration 1
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in a little small town in Texas. I had 23 people in my graduating class, and I married one of them. I worked for a custom farmer for years, driving combines and building fence. We learned, I think, a very, very strong work ethic. In football, we had to play offense, defense, kicking team, punting team and I’m not making this up, we had guys who took their shoulder pads off at half-time and marched in the band. You had to make things happen. If I was running a combine, and I was 16 years old, and if something broke I couldn’t YouTube it. When I graduated high school, most of my friends I went to school with, their goal was to go to college, mine was to make money.
You wrote a piece about working on the railroad.
There was a rail gang, and we were laying rail from Waco to about 40 miles up the road. My job was at the lowest of lows. I was literally in 100 degree weather, bent over, pushing a pushcart, pulling up spikes. I realized, this is the worst job on the railroad, where is the best job?
The best job is running the equipment. He’s out front, he’s getting paid more money, and I thought I’ve got to figure this out. At the end of the day he’d need to drive to the next location, and nobody would volunteer because they wanted to go home. I volunteered, and I would ask, how does this work? He’d let me drive. So one day we all come to work, and the boss says, so and so didn’t show up for work, does anybody know how to drive this thing? I said, I do. It really doesn’t matter where you start, if you have that drive you can get there. We had 100 people on our rail gang, and I had bosses who treated people with respect. I learned enjoy what you do and take care of the people around you.
Early leadership lessons?
I got married early. We graduated high school in ‘80, in ‘82 married, and had kids in ‘84, ‘86, ‘88. Even years were good to me, but I think the odd years I went bankrupt. I owned a health club, it was located on Baylor campus. Then Baylor built a multi-million-dollar facility and no longer were parents going to pay for their students’ memberships. In the mid-‘80s, our building was repossessed and some guy from the Middle East bought it. I had this club taking care of my family, and in one day it was all gone. I got a call from the CEO of the Dwyer Group, and he said come back to work as the VP of franchising. And then my buddy Gary Heavin said, I have an idea ...
You mean Gary Heavin, the co-founder of what would become the fitness chain Curves.
I am bankrupt. I don’t have two nickels to rub together. I get a job, a VP position, a paycheck every week. And I go home and tell my wife, ‘Hey listen, I’ve got a buddy who has an idea. He can’t pay me anything.’ She did not agree to it. I just did it, and fortunately we’re still married 37 years later. I stepped out on faith, and eight years later, it was 8,000 units when I left. My wife, Kim, she still tells people about it today. I think it was one of those times she thought about shooting me in my sleep.
What are your values as a leader?
My style of management is relational. So if you work for me, I know you. I know your husband, I know your kids, I may show up at their baseball games. My style of leadership is the same way when it comes to franchisees. If you asked me, give me what you consider to be your greatest claim to fame, I would not say going from two to 8,000 units with Curves in eight years. I would say, under my leadership, no lawsuits. And that is because I cut off any problems.
You talk about management style from the country and it’s probably a little bit of that. You’re a bit of a scrapper. You attack things straight on. I get on the phone with them and I go see them. Let’s resolve it.
What are you looking for when you hire?
It’s all about the team. So you start finding, who is the best of the best in this area and this area and this area? And that’s my greatest skill, people want to work for me. I am the least micro-managing person you will ever meet in your life. I hire people that get it done, and I leave them alone.
What’s your best advice about leadership?
I’m working on a book called “The Redneck CEO.” Success looks a lot different for a redneck. We don’t necessarily put our success in, I have a big F250 truck. The biggest priority is it’s not just storing up stuff, it’s about relationships. I’ve had that success, now I want to see everybody else get it.