Weathering Sickness and Staff Issues While Building a Thriving Pilates Venture

Entrepreneurial zeal put Absolute Pilates owner Allison Zang in the hospital. Here’s how she worked past illness and infighting to build a solo venture into a five-studio business.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Entrepreneur Allison Zang has created an relaxing, empowering space for others -- women in particular. (Credit: Absolute Pilates)

Entrepreneur Allison Zang has created an relaxing, empowering space for others — women in particular. (Credit: Absolute Pilates)

Absolute Pilates owner Allison Zang learned the hard way that balance is vital to her wellness business.

Her Mechanicsburg, Penn., company is a local institution with five thriving locations in the area, and scores of clients who rave about their results. But finding harmony along the way — for her students, her employees and herself — has been one of the biggest obstacles Zang has had to overcome.

In fact, she landed in the hospital in March 2015 when the demands of her professional and personal lives — or, as she puts it, the “over-stressed insanity of not doing what I should for myself” — became too extreme. Overwhelmed by stress, “I was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and lost use of my legs for 4 days,” she says. That wasn’t Zang’s only obstacle, either. Running a school full of disparate personality types — something she considered a benefit for clients with varying tastes — led to conflicts that also tested her as a manager.

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“When you’re in it, you think ‘this isn’t so bad,’” she says of her journey. “But then you tell people the story of growing and realize, ‘this is completely insane.’” The struggles ultimately taught her to delegate and communicate, she says, so she could create the relaxing, uplifting space for others — women in particular — that she envisioned when she started up years ago.

A Roller-Coaster Ride

After earning a bachelor’s in business administration in 2005 and a master’s in exercise physiology in 2007 from the University of Pittsburgh, Zang took on what she called “an ‘eh’ job” that hardly stimulated her but paid her bills. For fulfillment, she taught Pilates on nights and weekends at studios throughout the city.

She says it was a balm. “I love teaching Pilates, I love doing Pilates, and I love introducing people to Pilates.”

But when she moved to the Harrisburg area to care for her aging mother, she found a dearth of Pilates studios in the area. That gap in the market looked to her like a business opportunity to serve local women. “I started teaching out of what would become our home office,” she says. When the work environment at her day job became unstable, she quit and committed fully to growing her studio.

Zang officially opened Absolute Pilates in 2009 in her basement and, at first, loved the autonomy that came with being her own boss. Her instincts had also been correct; demand for her Pilates and barre classes was solid. But when the “honeymoon period” ended, she realized that “I was chained to it.” Back then, Zang did it all — teaching, accounting, bookkeeping and cleaning. So she began hiring teachers and assistants “so that clients could be happy, but I could take a weekend off or eat dinner before 8 p.m.”

Yet balance still eluded her. Though she brought on dozens of employees, stress triggered the crippling neurological condition that put her in the hospital in 2015. Once she returned home to recover, she decided to cede more control by hiring additional managers and teachers for each of her Absolute Pilates locations. She would oversee their work, rather than manage every location and employee herself.

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Having additional, reliable help eased her stress, and the company continued to grow. Today, she has 30 teachers on staff and five locations in Mechanicsburg, Lemoyne, Enola and Harrisburg — none of them in her home. Zang declined to disclose annual revenue figures, citing the pending sale of one Absolute Pilates location to a former teacher, but says that last year the operation offered roughly 650 private and group classes per month. Zang also has an active paid teacher-training program, and offers several scholarships to people who need financial assistance.

Hiring — and trusting — helpers has been tough, but Zang is proud of the opportunities Absolute Pilates creates. “We have had multiple people enter the workforce for the first time this way,” she says. “They were able to get out of bad working conditions at previous jobs and make an impact for their own family.”

Growing Pains

As Zang delegated certain responsibilities, she took up the task of tightening up her operation. For starters, Absolute Pilates began as a sole member LLC, but today operates as an S corporation. This means her business must file taxes and comply with other government-mandated guidelines.

“I realized it was very important in my business and life,” she says of the switch, calling it “the key piece to bring stability to my business and personal finances.” Running an S corp meant being far more strict in managing her books, and far more regimented about paying herself. “Not taking a paycheck is so easy to do as the business owner,” she says. “Now, you have to make that happen for yourself.”

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Getting her teachers to work together also required a firmer hand. For some time, staffers divided themselves by age and teaching philosophies — and egos got in the way, she says. Infighting and poor manners began to poison class environments.

It took awhile for her to become aware of what was happening. “Everyone’s nice to me, so I didn’t realize what was going on,” she says. But after a few staffers approached her privately, she knew she had to take action to maintain a welcoming space.

Absolute Pilates owner Allison Zang, with her daughter. (Credit: Absolute Pilates)

Absolute Pilates owner Allison Zang, with her daughter. (Credit: Absolute Pilates)

Her first step was to accept and internalize that workers “are not necessarily my friends,” she says. “I’m the boss. It’s my business.” With that in mind, she sat down with each teacher individually. But rather than issuing ultimatums or establishing more rigid rules, Zang sought to turn conflicts into opportunities for teachers to more constructively voice their needs. “The biggest light bulb for me was taking a stance of: ‘We will all get along and figure this out. You need to tell me what’s wrong, but propose a solution.’”

That approach, combined with encouraging teachers to maintain their individuality, wound up being a winning recipe. She says teachers are now much better at celebrating their respective strengths. And Zang has learned how to more effectively schedule and place her teachers across her studios.

Empowerment for Everyone

Zang, now 35, has found healthier ways to manage being an entrepreneur, wife and mom. And she’s looking to grow Absolute Pilates even larger.

She plans to expand by working with her husband, a physical therapist, to create holistic wellness centers that also offer personal training, massage therapy and nutrition services. She is also solidifying a partnership with a nearby oncology practice to offer weekly Pilates classes to its patients.

Zang wants to reach the next generation of health-conscious people, too. She is an active member of the Harrisburg Junior League, and wants to educate teens living below the poverty line about career opportunities teaching Pilates. She also recently hosted an event at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Harrisburg, where she discussed entrepreneurship as a career path and spoke with girls about the importance of self-confidence, healthy living and fitness.

By putting trust in her team and knowing how to more effectively communicate with them, Zang is confident her dreams will come true. “I know I can’t do it all,” she says. “But I think with the right people, and the right support systems, everybody can find happiness.”

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Posted: August 21, 2018

Candice Helfand-RogersWeathering Sickness and Staff Issues While Building a Thriving Pilates Venture