The truth about family business: How sacrifice, pain and triumph built Massage Heights
Shane Evans co-founded Massage Heights 13 years ago, and now operates it with husband, brothers and mom.
Photos by Jason Risner
Shane Evans got her start in sales early, at age 16, calling around to hotels to sell 200 cheesecakes, say, for a big party, for her parents’ wholesale bakery business. Her parents sold nutritional products for Shaklee, too. “They had meetings all the time,” at their house in San Antonio, Texas, where the franchise she co-founded, Massage Heights, is headquartered today. “We’d be running around getting the house ready after school, washing the windows.” Her father, the late Glenn Franson Sr., was a great salesman, she says. “He just built relationships. He took care of people. He had integrity.” He was “not the kind of sales-y salesperson” that can turn people off.
By age 18, she was working for a national fitness company, selling gym memberships and quickly moving into management, where her staff grew to 30 people and beyond.
She had tried a little bit of college, but it wasn’t for her. “All I knew was that if I wasn’t going to go to college, I knew I had to make money,” and the atmosphere at the fitness chain was intense. “There were high expectations and we had daily calls. They would call every hour and a half and say, ‘What’s the gross? What’s the gross?’ There was a lot of accountability,” she recalls.
Today, at age 47, Evans still believes in accountability, but in a way drastically different from her early years pitching cheesecakes or gym memberships. She is president and chief operating officer of the massage and facial franchise Massage Heights, which she and her husband and co-founder, Wayne Evans, mapped out on a yellow legal pad in 2004 after Shane had a mediocre yet very expensive massage on a vacation.
They wanted to offer massages to the masses for a low monthly membership fee, and they cashed in their 401(k)s to start an enterprise that would ultimately involve Shane’s two brothers, her mother and since last year the founder of The Gents Place, which they acquired. (See story on opposite page.) The company also includes Summit Franchise Supply, which procures and supplies equipment, and last year a new umbrella company, The Elevated Brands, was formed as a platform to seek and acquire more brands to bring into the fold.
“I used to think culture was a fluff thing, but it’s not. It’s everything,” says Shane Evans, president of Massage Heights.
Wayne, a former teacher, is a Crossfit enthusiast who participates in international competitions for the workout that’s so famously intense people brag when they vomit. But Shane’s approach to building the business has taken a 180-degree turn from her days of pounding away on the daily sales numbers—it’s as different as, well, a Crossfit class and a massage studio. Today Massage Heights’ studios have soothing colors and low lighting—Evans calls them “retreats”—and the walls at company headquarters feature large photos of staff and franchisees, each one with a quote about how that person lives the company’s charter values every day. “I used to think culture is a fluff thing, but it’s not. It’s everything,” Evans says, adding her about-face began when she heard the cold, hard truths of what franchisees really think about their franchisors.
It was 2008, and although Massage Heights had been franchising for a couple of years, unit count was not taking off, even while Massage Envy, a brand started by John Leonesio in 2002, had absolutely exploded. “I knew what we were doing wasn’t working,” she says. She attended her first International Franchise Association convention at about that time and recalled sitting in on a panel about franchisee and franchisor relationships. “A franchisee said they did not value the visits by the franchisor. They thought it was an inspection. I thought, ‘Wow, there are two ways to do this,’” like a hard-nosed drill sergeant intent on finding fault, or as a relationship to provide guidance.
“We started to change,” she says, and a mentor “taught me that different way. It is consultative. It’s not about selling anything.”
She embarked on an effort to write the franchise’s charter values, and hired an executive coach that was recommended by one of the franchisees. He facilitated a session in which, over three days, the executive team identified four values: loyal, authentic, passionate and diligent. Then they met with area developers, and the developers defined the values for themselves. Finally, at the annual conference, including franchisees, lead therapists and skin care practitioners, all were asked to define what the values meant to them. “They really helped us define the charter,” Evans says.
Now, every meeting starts with stating the values, and every conflict is another opportunity to put them into action. “Even if you’ve got a franchisee that’s struggling we always go back to the charter” and ask, “am I treating that person with respect.” It’s been three years since writing the values, and she believes “it’s made a big difference.”
“We have a culture of respect. We’re much more collaborative. The relationships are just better,” she says. And yes, that even includes her younger brothers.
"They think I’m pretty bossy, but I’m the boss,” Evans admits with a laugh. She’s the oldest, with brother Glenn Franson in the middle and brother Bret Franson as the baby.
Each has a role to play, with Wayne stepping aside from the day-to- day in recent years while Shane was elevated to president and Glenn was named CEO. What does Wayne Evans think of Massage Heights today? “It’s unbelievable. It’s the most exhilarating thing,” the co-founder says, adding he’s “not really surprised because we worked our tails off to get to this point.” A Massage Heights franchise averages $1.04 million in sales, and costs $450,000 to open.
Glenn is CEO of Elevated Brands and an equity partner with Shane and Wayne Evans. A sharp dresser who prefers flashy suits and meticulous grooming from The Gents Place, Massage Heights’ sibling brand, he got married “for the first time” last fall at age 45, and says he admires the founder of The Gents Place, Ben Davis. “He’s 33. He’s been with his high school sweetheart since they were 16,” Franson says. “He works and works and works, yet he’s with his family,” and Franson wishes to copy that lead.
“I firmly believe with all my heart that what we’re building is a family,” he says, and he of course gives props to his sister for her role. “It’s a different business today than it was five years ago. You have to be willing to adapt and change. Shane has shown me you have to be seeking opportunities.”
Glenn knows family businesses have their ups and downs. “I know working with family has its challenges and you can get under each other’s skin. But one day when we’re retired we’ll say we were able to build a company together with our family and our best friends. How many people can say that?” says Glenn.
If Glenn is the person who can envision the future, youngest brother Bret is the truth teller. “He’s wired differently than Shane and I. He’s highly intelligent and he is not a typical corporate model employee,” Glenn says. “He comes with an unorthodox approach. He will challenge us in different ways.”
That’s obvious when Bret shows up for his interview, especially when asked about his family members and brother-in-law. “Wayne is a great motivator. Glenn is a thinker.
Shane is passionate,” and then he says under his breath, “She has the biggest balls,” which he repeats, but then seems to think he should put that another way. “She’s not afraid to take on challenges.”
Bret is also a Massage Heights franchisee, and he believes his role is to relay the operators’ point of view at corporate headquarters. He’s familiar with “how messages come across. They’ll run things by me and I’ll tell them how the operators will think,” he says. He admires his sister, too. “If my brother and I had founded this place, we would never have gotten to this point.”
Finally, after a long string of interviews with a franchise partner, the founder of The Gents Place, the husband and two brothers, it’s time to meet Shane’s mother, Patricia Franson, a stylishly dressed woman with a get-‘er-done attitude. “I’ve run the legal department for four years now” at Massage Heights, Patricia says. “Seven years ago, I came here for a three-month temporary assignment,” and she has been busy ever since. “I took over as office manager, so if a wall needs to be knocked down, I do it.”
Ashley Schuetz, left, senior marketing manager, chats with Shane Evans in Massage Heights’ new prototype studio in San Antonio.
Today she is building the firm’s family foundation, the Massage Heights Family Fund, setting it up from scratch. “It’s meant to supplement the care of other team members,” she says. “We’re there to have a rainy day fund.” Patricia cared for her husband for 15 years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 37. “He worked until he was 47 and died at 68,” in 2014, so he didn’t get involved in the Massage Heights business. Before his illness, the two were business partners, building companies on their own and providing those early sales lessons to daughter Shane and her brothers.
How did so many in the family become entrepreneurs? “Probably we’re a little hard to manage,” Patricia says with a laugh. “We don’t like to watch other people make mistakes. We have our own ideas and think they’re really good.” Then she turns more reflective, and somber. “We don’t do well when we are working for people who don’t treat people well,” she says.
David Humphrey is chairman of the board for Elevated Brands, and was the CEO of Massage Envy from 2008 to 2011, the leader by far in the massage franchise space. He believes Shane & Co.’s insistence on keeping the company family-owned is a positive.. “Family ownership doesn’t guarantee that a franchise will have genuine caring and concern for its franchisees, but it increases the odds,” he said. “You look at the Evanses, and Shane in particular, they have genuine caring for their franchisees. They’re going to sell more units because of that. It’s amazing how many franchisors don’t get that.”
Patricia Franson, the family matriarch, knows the success was built on hard work. “When I think of my kids, all I know is there’s been a lot of sacrifice. There’s been a lot of costs to the family,” she says. “We’ve worked too hard and get too busy and what—to gloat? To be gratified? I remember when I got here” when joining the business on that initial assignment, “I was impressed, but now all I think is this is a sacrifice for the family. It’s a way of life more than an accomplishment, so there’s always more to do.”
To Shane Evans and the rest of the Elevated Brands crew, that sentiment might as well be the family motto.