Today, Orangetheory Fitness is the fastest-growing women-owned company in the U.S., an exercise phenomenon with 750 studios and half a million members. But it started much more humbly, when Ellen Latham began offering Pilates classes in a spare room at her Pembroke Pines house.
The year was 1996, and Latham, then 40 and a single mother to a 9-year-old, had just lost her job. Channeling a maxim her PE-teacher/football-coach dad had taught her, she thought of how she could "momentum-shift up" — focus on her strengths to rise above challenging circumstances. She ended up parlaying her Pilates certification, master's degree in exercise physiology, and experience at a spa and fitness company into her home-taught classes.
"You could fall apart, decide to give up, just go find a job — any job," the now-61-year-old Latham says from her company's headquarters in Boca Raton. "But I wanted to stay in what I'm passionate about, the fitness industry."
She quickly built a following large enough to open her own Pilates studio. And after learning that most of her clients were either running or taking spin classes to get the fat-burning results Pilates didn't provide, she decided to create her own workout that would do it all.
The result was Ellen's Ultimate Workout, an hourlong class that was racking up waitlists — and transforming its devotees' bodies — shortly after its launch. One of Latham's clients, whose husband handles franchising deals, encouraged her to take the business further. Orangetheory debuted in 2010. Seven years later, the company has locations in 16 countries.
"It's pretty crazy," Latham says.
What sets Orangetheory apart from other fitness routines is its combination of endurance, power, and strength training, which makes participants burn 500 to 1,000 calories in a 60-minute session — and continue burning them hours later through an effect Latham calls "afterburn." Classes include the use of rowing machines, treadmills, and free weights, plus heart-rate monitors that track progress.
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If that sounds intimidating, sessions offer three levels — walker, jogger, and runner — to make them accessible. Latham says she designed the classes so every participant could feel successful.
"I tried to really psychologically make sure that everyone walked out going, 'Oh, wow, I can do that,'" she says.
Last year, the company earned $451 million in revenue — a huge leap from $87 million in 2014. Latham, who still teaches classes every week, never expected to see her company grow so fast. But even as Orangetheory continues to spread, she says its financial success is not the most rewarding part.
"My biggest legacy is that I can touch other human beings' lives through fitness," she says, "which is why I got into this business over 40 years ago."