There’s more than a soupçon of irony in the dilemma facing Massage Envy CEO Beth Stiller as she steers it through the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as Massage Envy’s many members most wanted to visit their local franchise for some personal attention, the wellness centers were forced to close.
But Beth puts a positive spin on the restrictions she and the company faced in this tumultuous time. “Finding ways to make everyone feel together while we are apart is a focus of everyone on the leadership team,” she tells The CEO Magazine.
“I think I speak for the team when I say that we all learned about the importance of connection during this time.” Massage Envy offers much more than its name suggests.
Today, the brand reaches right across the US through its more than 1,150 franchise locations operating in 49 states, with its massage therapists performing about 18 million massages every year, or about 50,000 a day.
Its franchises offer massage, skincare and other programs to create a total wellness package. Massage Envy fitted Beth Stiller’s career plans perfectly when she first joined the company as Chief Commercial Officer in 2016, before taking up the role of CEO at the end of last year.
She has followed a circuitous route in retail and franchising over 25 years, beginning with a stint at Loblaws, then Shoppers Drug Mart, followed by Duane Reade where, she says, she learned the art of redefining a brand and launching award-winning private brands.
After her time at Duane Reade, she filled roles at Walgreens for nearly five years in category strategy, innovation and store planning, and eventually led the US$5 billion private brand and global sourcing business.
“I wanted to continue to work in a wellness business, but one with a proactive and preventative focus,” Beth recalls. “This is a business that truly makes an impact on every guest and member who passes through the doors. Also, I started my career in franchising, so getting back to the franchise environment was a very exciting proposition.”
An overarching impetus in Beth’s enthusiasm for her role is to bring greater recognition to massage therapy. It is gaining in popularity, but she is keen to drive a greater awareness of it as a natural remedy, and would like more professionals recruited to meet that demand.
COVID-19 and personal wellbeing
The pandemic has had serious repercussions for gyms, health camps and other wellbeing businesses such as Massage Envy, which takes a holistic view of health as its central tenet. Beth hasn’t let the pandemic take control of the company’s own wellbeing though, and is grateful that her team has rallied to help their franchisees manage the crisis and remain viable in a very difficult economic climate. “COVID-19 forced our franchisees to shut down their operations for several weeks,” she says. “That down period gave us the opportunity to re-examine the business and what’s most important to the brand’s members and our franchisees, and how to deliver on these in a post-COVID world. Our brand has made significant investments in technology over the past few years, and we quickly had to look for new ways to leverage those investments to help address the realities of operating under a new set of expectations.” Its nationally positioned franchises, says Beth, have pulled together as one and remain focused on the fact that their members and guests need the relief that their teams provide now more than ever.
“I feel passionately about finding ways to bring more exposure to the profession of massage therapy,” Beth says. “The reality is that, across the country, there is unmet demand for massage services, and this continues to grow as massage therapy increasingly becomes recognized as a therapeutic treatment. We need more healers and caregivers to enter the profession so we can keep up with this growing need.”
With unemployment numbers at unprecedented levels and millions of people looking to find a stable new career path after COVID-19’s depredations, Beth suggests that massage therapy should be a consideration for many of them.
Massage Envy uses a membership-based business model with franchisees operating its 1,150 locations to provide total bodycare services to its 1.5 million members. It expanded its offerings by introducing Total Body Stretch in 2017 and Rapid Tension Relief in 2019, and developed and launched more natural and nourishing proprietary massage oils and creams.
The brand also moved to premium skincare brands like PCA Skin, Obagi and Jan Marini Skin Research. If there’s a primary motivator for Beth, it’s the company’s drive to continually evolve its reputation as a pioneer in personal health care and wellness.
Its leadership position is down to its ethos of constant innovation and reinvention to deliver more for its members, she says. “Even with all this success, this brand still continues to innovate and evolve to give customers what they want – more options and more value,” she points out.
“Now the brand is doing for skin care what it did for massage, making taking care of your largest organ – your skin – affordable and accessible. Bringing in professional brands has moved our skin care offering from ‘masstige to prestige’. Whether it’s body care or skin care, I think customers really appreciate the variety and value that our franchisees and their service providers offer.”
Aside from its size and reach, Beth believes that Massage Envy’s franchise and membership business model differentiates it from competitors. The reason is simple enough, she says: franchisees really have bought into the business, and every one of them operates as an owner “with skin in the game”.
“First and foremost, it’s our franchisees who make a difference. They are pioneers. Many of them invested in a brand that was breaking new ground and creating a new category,” Beth states.
“These entrepreneurs are the backbone of the brand, and their passion and commitment to the vision is what has made this brand continue to lead, even as new competitors emerged and tried to follow in our footsteps.”
Beth expands on this point by saying that massage therapy is a people business. The economics and membership model can provide a very lucrative opportunity for those who sign on, but Massage Envy really counts on people who care about wellness and the purpose of the brand.
The culture a franchisee creates in their location and the way they assemble a team of committed service providers is what will be noticed and felt by their membership base, ultimately providing a path to success.
“This is a hands-on business – a business that happens one member at a time, and one conversation at a time,” she says. The same is true of the company’s vendors, who must show the same obligations to best practice. It’s a two-way street, says Beth; only those who accept a long-term view of what it takes to succeed are taken on as suppliers.
“It’s important that our vendors are fully committed to our strategy,” she says. “This helps them to understand that decisions are made to grow the business, and not just their brand or service exclusively. They need to buy in to the philosophy that all ships will rise with the rising tide.
“It’s also just as critical that all of our vendors understand the franchise model. Our brand is only as strong as each of our franchisees, so understanding the level of service required for the entire network is really important.”
This is a business that truly makes an impact on every guest and member who passes through the doors.
That goes for franchisees too, and Beth prefers to remain accessible to all of them to streamline communications in their network of locations. Communication in such a large chain of stores remains critical for ongoing solidarity in what will be a difficult time ahead as COVID-19 maintains its stranglehold on the country.
Keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, providing opportunities for people to work across departments, and ready access to Beth and the rest of the leadership team to share ideas and learn are important considerations in the company’s managerial style.
As CEO, Beth views her position as an outlet for empathy. She modestly suggests she doesn’t subscribe to a specific leadership style, but over the years has found that being authentic, relatable and even a little vulnerable has worked for her.
“I don’t pretend to be the smartest person in the room and I won’t have all the answers, so I surround myself with incredibly bright and talented people, and give them the support and the room they need to be successful,” Beth says of her team.
“We were given two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we speak.” With the brand’s membership base almost three-quarters female, Beth says that it was well past time that a female CEO was appointed.
“I think it was the right time for a female leader to step in. I see this role as offering me an opportunity, and perhaps even an obligation, to inspire women to reach higher and lean in. I have a group of girlfriends who have been there for me through thick and thin over the past 20 years. Each time I’ve faced a new opportunity and have doubts or reservations, I am reminded by them that opportunities don’t come by chance – they are earned. They always come from hard work and personal achievement.”
Hard work is a lesson she learned from her father. “The older I get, the more I realize how much I picked up from him,” Beth says. “Watching his tireless work ethic, his drive for excellence in anything he does and his passion for learning have been a huge inspiration. Probably the most important thing my dad taught me was to be curious. This lesson has served me well in so many settings.”
It’s not all work for Beth, though. She loves to spend time with her husband, Daniel, and teenage boys Holden and Riley. Since moving to Scottsdale in 2016, the family has developed an appreciation for the outdoors.
“Some of the things we love to do are skiing, golfing and hiking,” she says. “I also love to cook and, like so many others during this pandemic, I have learned to bake bread and I can now make a mean focaccia!” Sounds like a recipe for the future.
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