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SoulCycle founders are peddling fun in the gym

SoulCycle founders are peddling fun in the gym
Elizabeth Cutler, 48, left, and Julie Rice, 45, co-founded SoulCycle, a chain of cycling gyms that offers pay-per-class luxury exercise. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The gig: Julie Rice, 45, and Elizabeth Cutler, 48, are co-founders of SoulCycle, a chain of indoor cycling gyms that has pioneered a new generation of pay-per-class luxury studios where the exercise is only part of an experience (think candles and stylish gym wear). The company has 46 locations, including nine in Los Angeles, and employs 1,500 people. SoulCycle's combination of fitness and fun — crammed into 45-minute classes — has gained a devoted following around the country. SoulCycle filed to go public last month. In securities filings, the company reported net income of $26.5 million last year, up 42% from $18.6 million in 2013. Revenue shot up nearly 50% to $112 million in 2014.

First careers: Rice and Cutler had lengthy careers in other fields before venturing into physical fitness. Rice, who dreamed of the stage as a child, became a talent agent in L.A. and New York after studying English and theater at State University of New York in Binghamton. Cutler worked as a New York real estate broker, following in the footsteps of her mother, who also sold real estate. She majored in religious studies at the University of Colorado.

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Fitness fans: Rice's father was a physical education teacher, so fitness was part of her upbringing. One of her favorite aspects about L.A., Rice said, was how people equated exercise with fun. So it was a jarring change when she moved back to the East Coast. "The one thing I really missed about L.A. is the way people embraced exercise. So much of your social life is based on exercise," she said. "When I came back to New York, exercise was more on people's to-do list." After having two children and gaining some weight, Cutler said, she got "anxious and scared" going to the gym and had trouble finding great exercise classes. That's when she got the idea to open a gym that catered to cycling fanatics like her who wanted a workout in an upscale environment.

Blind date: A cycling instructor introduced Cutler to Rice in 2006, and the two hit it off immediately. Both had the same vision of creating a luxurious cycling studio where the exercise was "challenging but joyful," Cutler said. "The environment could be chic and feel more like a luxury." The pair opened their first SoulCycle location just a few months later on the Upper West Side in an old dance studio. They were self-funded; a large chunk came from money Cutler got as part of an investment in Izze Beverage Co., a friend's juice company that was snapped up by PepsiCo. Cutler said the money from Izze allowed them "to make the good decisions and not be beholden to anybody."

Standing out: The two knew they needed to figure out a way to convince customers that they were offering something unique among gyms. So they focused on creating an efficient 45-minute cycling class with weights. They also decided on a pay-per-class model instead of the traditional monthly gym subscription, which would challenge SoulCycle to create a "consistent but new experience" every visit, Rice said. "It was efficient and fun," Cutler said

Expansion: Within six months, the first studio was turning a profit. SoulCycle expanded slowly at first, landing in California in West Hollywood in 2012. SoulCycle has also branched out into merchandise such as workout clothes, with 14 new collections every year. In 2011, the fitness company Equinox Gym bought a controlling stake in SoulCycle, which helped the company grow faster, Rice said.

Splitting duties: Cutler and Rice say they balance each other out. With her background in real estate, Cutler handles property and business development. Rice said she still considers herself a talent scout, only for the gym instead of the screen. SoulCycle auditions 150 aspiring instructors for every 20 hired, and those who make the cut undergo two months of training. Everyone is required to take hospitality classes. Even high-ranking executives do stints at a studio's front desk so they know how they operate. "We train our staff to make sure they treat our riders like family," Rice said. "If you sprain your ankle and are out for two weeks, somebody calls."

Family: Rice's husband, Spencer, recently came aboard as SoulCycle's chief marketing officer. Cutler's husband, Allen, doesn't work for SoulCycle, but he came up with the name. Each couple has two daughters. Cutler likes to ride bikes outside, cook and indulge in frozen yogurt. Rice likes going to the theater and taking trips to the beach.

Twitter: @ByShanLi

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