A few years ago Bedriye Hülya set out to create the business of her life while empowering women in Turkey: These days her B-fit fitness chain has some 20,000 members and 60 franchises in places where previously women didn’t have much access to building strength or self-esteem.
She recently turned away a competent franchisee applicant Ğ being male, he was automatically disqualified. "I said, ’If you like you can bring your daughter, your lover, your wife and then we can talk business." B-fit is women-only, from its members and employees to the franchisees and investors.
Bored after her first-year university midterms at the age of 18, she began working for a man in her hometown of İzmir who showed her the nuts and bolts of running a business. She later earned a masters in international relations at Istanbul University and in 2004 a masters in psychology at Columbia University before returning to İzmir, where she taught psychology at the city’s major universities. With her taste for entrepreneurship uninterrupted, the successful hotelier and caterer was Turkey manager of a British travel agency before opening boutique hotel Mavi Suite in Bodrum Türkbükü, now in its 10th year.
Today Hülya’s latest venture B-fit fitness chain is flourishing, with projections showing only growth on the horizon. Her capacity for hard work plays a big role in her good fortune. "I think in my genetic makeup there’s a donkey somewhere," she said. All the women in her family have worked, including her mom who was an engineer and raised three children. "I would see them and think it was normal," she said.
In 2005 she decided to come up with something that would be "the business of my life." The most important factor was choosing whom to work with, she said. "I chose my closest girlfriends, and asked simply, ’Are you in?’" Without knowing what she was proposing, they all said ’yes’ right away. The four factors she and her five partners discussed at the outset continue to guide the business. First, they aimed to work with women who previously didn’t have resources for sport, "so we made it affordable." Second, these are women without much spare time, "so we make it a 30-minute workout." Third, most of these women think fitness centers are for the fit and wealthy, "so we made it a warm environment." And lastly, the men in their lives often object to women exercising in co-ed clubs, "so we’ve made them completely female."
Apart from being run by and for females B-fit is also distinct because each one functions as a social club for women of the middle and lower classes, groups that Hülya says typically don’t value women’s self-esteem as a priority. "We want to increase the quality of life for these women," Hülya said. "And we’re using sport to do it."
Altogether B-fit’s 20,000 members have lost 10 tons. But Hülya was more excited about the members who say their lives are changing for the better.
Revenge on life
Losing nearly 17 kilos after exercising for the first time in her life, Ayşe Yasakcı said "B-fit was a milestone in my life." Yeşim Arikan, 40, said the positive changes in her life that come from her time at B-fit "are affecting my surroundings and family. The most important change is that I love and honor myself."Returning from her 40th high school reunion in high spirits after joining B-fit, Dr. Meltem Duzbastlılar recently decided to make the fitness center part of her life. "I realized that I had never done anything for myself before. My priorities had been my work, my husband and my children," she said. "Now, the beautiful time I spend in B-fit is my revenge on life."
In September 2006 B-fit opened in İzmir with the company’s first two franchises. Since then they have flourished in İzmir with 20 franchises and 40 more around the country, including in Istanbul, Tunceli and Kırşehir in middle Anatolia and Gaziantep in the Southeast.
The center distinguishes itself as a social club by offering seminars, independent-style franchising and, the latest objective, community projects. Most of these women had never been to a seminar before B-fit, Hülya said. Now they are attending talks about cancer, nutrition, neurolinguistics and menopause. Two weeks ago in Bodrum, Hülya and her staff of 10 held their annual meeting with the advisory council of six franchisees. "When we want to make a change or start a campaign, they decide on it with us." In a departure from franchise culture, the company lets the 60 franchise owners decorate their own interiors and add independent profit-making ventures, such as yoga and art classes, "things that add quality for womenÉ Some make really good money, more than their husbands," Hülya added. "Women are so creative."
On the personal side, two franchisees have had marriages that suffered. "They stay late and it alters the dynamic at home"Éwork means having to abandon women’s other jobs of taking care of the sick, the children and the elderly, she said. Men get angry because society says they can; women cannot, she added.
"We Turkish women believe in kismet so the locus of control is external, as if we don’t have a say in it," Hülya said. "Now by doing exercise, they have a say in their lives and their future." The first major change Hülya sees is an extreme increase in self-esteem.