Face of the franchise
Local owner thrives by taking her personal biz to a larger customer base via franchising
By BRANDON JOHANSSON
The Aurora Sentinel
Published: Saturday, April 17, 2010 6:14 AM MDT
FACE OF THE FRANCHISE Michele Merhib, owner and founder of Elements Therapeutic Massage, poses April 12 at a location near East Iliff Avenue and South Chambers Road in Aurora. (Heather A. Longway/The Aurora Sentinel)
AURORA | Michele Merhib’s first massage studio wasn’t much of a studio at all; it was a small room tucked between the men’s and women’s locker rooms at an Aurora country club.
“For male clients I would open one door and for the women I would open another,” she said.
It didn’t take long for Merhib to outgrow that facility. After two years at the country club she opened her first studio at East Iliff Avenue and South Peoria Street in 2002.
Merhib, who took up massage therapy at 35 after she tired of the corporate grind, wanted to open a studio that emphasized massage as a form of therapy, be it from pain or stress or a specific injury. She named her studio Aurora Therapeutic Massage.
It wasn’t long before her idea caught on.
Today, four years after she sold her concept to Fitness Together Franchise Holdings and renamed it Elements Therapeutic Massage, there are 78 Elements studios in 22 states, all based on the concept Merhib started in her first Aurora studio.
This month, Franchise Times magazine ranked Elements No. 7 on its annual “Fast 55” list of the fastest-growing franchises in the country.
For Merhib, who watched the growth every step of the way, the process is a bit hard to grasp.
“It’s a bit surreal,” she said.
Bob Haimes, chief growth officer and executive vice president of Elements at the company’s corporate headquarters in Highlands Ranch, said the fact the company has grown steadily despite a slow economy is something to be proud of.
“Growing a business can be tough, but growing a business in today’s economy is monumental,” he said in a statement announcing the company’s ranking. “This ranking is a huge honor, and our numbers continue to surpass our expectations and challenge us to do more.”
Haimes pointed to the business model that Merhib designed as a big reason for the company’s growth and said the company expects to add more franchises in the coming months and years.
“We want to share our success and help more people who want to own their own business, join a growing industry and take control of their careers,” Haimes said. “We also want to reach more consumers who are seeking therapeutic massage as a means to reduce stress and provide pain relief.”
Today, Merhib owns and operates an Elements location at Iliff and South Chambers Road and another at East Orchard Road and Parker Road with her business partner, Shannon Barker.
She also acts as a consultant to Elements, working closely with franchisees as they work to start-up their own studios.
Also — and for Merhib, most importantly — she still works as a massage therapist, giving massages one day a week. Doing that, she said, is therapeutic for her and keeps her grounded, but it has also proven to be good for business.
Merhib said that since she went back to working as a massage therapist about six months ago, after a few years spent away from the massage table, she has a better understanding of what her customers want and what is good for her employees.
For the franchisees, the fact that the company was started by a massage therapists and not just a business person is important.
Cliff Latham, who owns two Elements locations in College Station, Texas, said when he started his first studio two years ago, he was attracted to the idea because Merhib had a background in massage.
“We saw it was going to be led by someone who really had an absolute passion for massage,” he said. “I wanted someone who wasn’t just a corporate financial person, that was more hands on and could teach us about the massage industry.”
Colleen O’Connor, owner of Elements in Louisville, Ky., said she, too, was drawn to the company because of Merhib and the business plan Merhib started in Aurora.
Like Merhib, O’Connor is a massage therapist herself and about two years ago decided she wanted her own studio.
She said she researched the industry and ended up coming to Colorado to visit Merhib’s shop.
“Her vision was exactly what I would do if I had the time and the knowledge and the money to make mistakes before I got to where I am,” she said.
O’Connor said she isn’t surprised that the company has grown as rapidly as it has.
“That’s not a surprise to me because I bought in to the vision,” she said. “I kind of drank the Kool-aid.”