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Jennifer Maanavi didn’t set out to pioneer the boutique fitness industry, but as the co-founder and CEO of barre studio and global fitness brand Physique 57, she did just that. The idea for Physique 57 was born out of her love for dance and her drive to help others lead healthier lives.
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In 2006, Maanavi was working in financial services and had earned her M.B.A. when she recognized a need in the fitness industry. She noticed that there weren’t many popular modalities that were effective and challenging, yet at the same time graceful, fun, feminine and safe for preventing injuries. She knew that with her business expertise and deep passion for fitness, she could be the one to create something new and fill that void.
Maanavi teamed up with Tanya Becker, who she met through The Lotte Berk Method, a dance-inspired fitness technique and studio on the Upper East Side.
“I had been doing the method for years and Tanya was the lead instructor,” Maanavi says. “With my business background and Tanya’s teaching skills, it was the perfect partnership.”
When The Lotte Berk Method closed in 2005, the two of them took it as an opportunity to update the method and make it their own. They modernized the programming to make it more strength and cardio-based and then recruited a whole new group of instructors to teach their method. They opened their first studio on the eighth floor of an art gallery building in the heart of midtown Manhattan on 57th Street. The classes were also 57 minutes, which inspired the name Physique 57.
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At the time — before the boom of the boutique fitness industry — Physique 57 was the first studio to offer only group classes with just one modality, barre. They were also one of the first studios to operate with a pay-by-class model. In a landscape filled with big-box gyms, this was revolutionary.
Their one-of-a-kind method, boutique offerings and genuine passion for their clients and instructors struck a chord with consumers and clients poured in.
“With a mix of good luck and a good idea, our waitlists had waitlists,” Maanavi says.
Through the years, the business took some wild turns as Physique 57 adapted to the ever-changing landscape of the fitness industry. Maanavi led her team, many of whom have been with the company since its inception, to consistently generate ideas, innovate, seek opportunities and scale the business globally.
“Given the competitive nature of the fitness industry and its rapid growth, my team and I needed to have a vision for where we could shine in the global landscape,” Maanavi says.
That vision led the company to create an on-demand offering with more than 300 videos, opening 14 studios in five countries and launching a franchise business in 2019.
Navigating a decade and a half of peaks and valleys in the fitness industry also meant that Maanavi and her team were prepared to adapt in challenging times. The pandemic brought their biggest test yet.
On March 17, 2020, the Mayor of NYC mandated all gyms and fitness studios close until further notice. Physique 57 lost 90 percent of its revenue in one day. At the time, Maanavi assumed they would be closed until at least June 30, 2020 — they didn’t reopen until April 5, 2021.
While this was a huge setback, Maanavi took the pandemic as an opportunity to shift her mindset and once again revolutionize the business.
“My mindset immediately was ‘don’t let a good crisis go to waste,’” she says. The Physique 57 leadership team considered everything about the business that they wanted to cut ties with — people, processes, vendors, and even real estate. She adds, “If you’re going to execute change, execute with rigor and vigor.”
They moved quickly to make their staff lean. They terminated 85 percent of the staff in one day to not only cut payroll but also allow their employees to be the first on the unemployment line and receive assistance faster.
Then Maanavi and the team had to quickly pivot their strategy and adopt a poker mentality — with immense uncertainty in the fitness industry, they took big bets on new ventures and new talent. They shifted their focus to the on-demand platform and created more digital products for their broad and diverse client communities. They now have four digital offerings in the U.S. and programs in Thailand and India, where studios are still closed. The brand is now more global than ever with subscribers in 120 countries. They also formed video content partnerships across Asia, Europe and North America and launched their first virtual barre certification program (with 80 hours of lessons versus the 20-hour industry standard).
With all of these shifts, Maanavi trusted her instincts and leaned into listening to others, but then taking decisive action.
“Real listening is listening with a willingness to change your mind,” she says. “Once you have made the decision though, make your move and hit your target. No looking back.”
The pandemic also spurred Maanavi to embrace what she calls “mad thinking” in how she approaches the business.
“While Physique 57 needed to simply survive the pandemic, we also had the grand opportunity to think about the biggest version of our current ambition. We permanently closed many studios and our franchise openings were stalled, leaving us with a much smaller physical footprint. We needed to leverage our best remaining assets to keep the brand prevalent and relevant.” she says. “This type of thinking is especially helpful during challenging times because we really can underestimate ourselves. At this point in the fitness industry, we could have either disappeared or made really big things happen. So we asked ourselves, ‘If we couldn’t fail at all, what would we do?’”
Maanavi aims to continue to bring this innovative mindset and her core values of connection, impact, community and leadership into everything she does. These values will drive the next iteration of Physique 57 as they continue to evolve, expand and revolutionize the fitness industry.
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