In just a few days, fitness industry trailblazer Jim Bottin will be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame, joining a list of fewer than 80 lifetime influencers from across the state.
Bottin’s long, successful career didn’t begin inside the classroom of a business school. The Mississippi native was drafted into the military during the Vietnam War. After serving the U.S. Air Force stateside for two years, he was sent overseas to Taiwan. It was there that he fell in love with taekwondo, earning his first-degree black belt in 1974.
He brought what he learned with him to Arkansas. While stationed at the Jacksonville Air Force Base, Bottin began teaching taekwondo two nights a week at a local self-defense center. With $1,200 he borrowed from his parents, he became part owner of the center. After deciding not to re-enlist with the Air Force, Bottin bought out his partner and became the sole owner of his first business.
Bottin credits some of his success on great timing. In the late 1970s, he says, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and kung fu movies had become very popular, driving up interest in his martial arts business. Fitness, too, was gaining in popularity, leading Bottin to add workout equipment to the mix.
“I put some fitness equipment in one of my martial arts studios and it seemed to really take off,” says Bottin. “There was a lot of participation. I put some more machines in and it did even better. So, I decided to expand into the fitness industry.”
He had created a system, and that system worked. Soon, Bottin had several fitness centers across multiple states.
“I started to sell fitness memberships,” he says. “I replaced martial arts with aerobics. I took over some clubs, bought some struggling gyms, and put my system into place. I was full force fitness, with 13 clubs across Arkansas and Texas.”
For a growing business, challenges are inevitable. But the way a business leader addresses those challenges separates the good from the great. Bottin faced his challenges head on, setting his young company on a whole new path to success.
Bottin found that collecting dues from his gym members was a difficult and time-consuming task. With more than a dozen fitness centers spread across multiple states, it was nearly impossible to keep up with all of the reoccurring charges.
“We had issues collecting money from all these members,” says Bottin. “We’d sell hundreds of memberships, and trying to collect money at the club and the companies out there doing that just weren’t adequate… In 1981, I started a new company, the American Billing Company. It’s only job was to serve as receivables management for my health clubs. It would send out the statements and coupons, make the phone calls to members about their dues.”
This new company, which would turn into ABC Financial, stood separate from the gyms it served. No longer would gym managers be forced to deal with delinquent members or cash handling; it would all be taken care of by a complete staff located in a central office in Sherwood.
“In the fitness business, you’re going to have thousands of members,” says Bottin. “All those reoccurring monthly dues, they’re a lot of work to keep up with. Gym managers don’t want to do that. They want to spend their time teaching and servicing their members. They don’t want to be the person calling people to tell them to get their payments in.”
This new system freed up gym employees to focus on what they knew best: fitness. And it allowed for greater efficiency in handling the gyms’ finances. Others in the industry took notice and wanted in.
“We actually started collecting a lot more money from our members,” says Bottin. “I started talking to some other gym owners, and I had a lot of people ask if we could take care of their billing. They didn’t want to have to deal with that, either. I talked to more and more club owners, and they all had the same problem.”
Before long, ABC Financial developed its own software, too, allowing fitness centers to better track their sales and memberships.
“This would not only bill the members, we had the software to keep up with the usage,” says Bottin. “It had a point-of-sale and inventory system, to keep up with all their enrollment fees and clubhouse sales.”
Bottin says his company was so successful in helping fitness centers because he understood their needs like no one else. Having been a gym owner himself, Bottin crafted a product that would best help other gym owners succeed.
“The day-to-day experience I had in owning a club helped me build my product because I had gotten to feel it, to experience it,” he says. “I knew what the gyms really wanted. As a gym owner, I knew that they don’t have the time to be collecting money from members. They don’t want to be the ones having to call to get a payment in. We want to be the good guys, the ones showing them how to work out and be positive. Nobody wants to be the bill collector.”
Today, ABC Financial services approximately 6,900 across the United States, Canada, Mexico and more. Bottin expects the company to grow even more under new ownership.
Earlier this month, Thoma Bravo, a San Francisco private equity firm, officially purchased ABC Financial from Bottin. The company will remain in Sherwood, and will continue to be managed by the team Bottin put in place. He believes the company is ready to embark on a new chapter of growth and success.
“I decided it was time for me to move on,” says Bottin. “We’d been talking to private equity companies for years. I found a company that I knew would really be an asset to ABC Financial, and that was Thoma Bravo… Our company has become a lot more than a payment-processing company; it’s a software company. It develops software that will interact with members on their workouts, schedule workouts, all kinds of apps that can be tied in to that. With their resources, they can really help with our development. They’re really a good match for ABC.
“They saw my company, and they saw how great it’s doing with some of our big clients – Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, Gold’s Gym, World Gym,” he adds. “They saw the growth and they wanted to be a part of it. We worked an arrangement where they would acquire ABC Financial, with my whole management team, and they can move it to the next level.”
According to Bottin, Thoma Bravo signed a seven-year lease to keep ABC Financial in its Sherwood location. The company employs approximately 600 people in Arkansas and roughly 300 in other states.
Bottin was given the option to remain with ABC Financial after the acquisition as a partial or majority owner. He declined.
“It’s time,” he says of his retirement. “At my age, I probably needed to step aside. I know they can take it and run with it. They’re ready to spend money, merge companies and get going… You have to move forward or you’ll go backwards.
“My time here is in the last quarter,” he adds. “I want this company to continue the way it was meant to – don’t stop, go forward. I’m excited for the new ABC Financial.”
Bottin isn’t revealing how much the company sold for. But as the nation’s leading software and billing provider for the health and wellness industry, it likely didn’t come at a bargain.
“I can’t tell you that,” Bottin says with a laugh. “But it was good.”
Nowadays, Bottin calls Florida home. But on Feb. 9, he will be back in the state where he built his empire, receiving what he calls his greatest honor yet.
“I’ve been in business for 40 years, ever since I got out of the military. It feels like it’s my report card on how I did in Arkansas,” Bottin says of his induction. “I’ve had a great life, and a great company. To wrap it up, to be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame is my best award ever. It shows that I’ve made a difference. I’m really honored to be inducted because I never even thought that I’d ever be considered… An old boy, moved to Arkansas from Gulfport, Mississippi, they’re putting me in the same hall as the Waltons, the Tysons, the Fletchers, all the people who’ve done well in business.
“Now, I’m inducted,” he adds. “And I’m so proud. What a way to retire.”
The 2018 Arkansas Business Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be held on Friday, Feb. 9, at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock. The event will begin with a reception, beginning at 5:30 p.m., followed by a dinner and the induction program at 6:30 p.m. For questions, or to purchase tickets to the black-tie optional event, contact [email protected] or call 479-575-6146.