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New city, new year, new career: Former TV producers open kickboxing franchise

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/30/16/50/1hsPg7.Em.138.jpeg|199
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    Amy and Danny Leon, co-owners of soon-to-open gym called CKO Kickboxing. Amy and Danny were big-time television producers (she with CNBC, he with ABC) when they decided to leave New Jersey, move to Charlotte, and open the area's first CKO Kickboxing gym. (CKO stands for Club Knock Out).
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/30/16/50/15L2zG.Em.138.jpeg|209
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/30/16/50/1pkCcD.Em.138.jpeg|221
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    Danny Leon, co-owner of soon-to-open gym called CKO Kickboxing, works with trainer Diana Brush.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/12/30/16/50/VXOx6.Em.138.jpeg|210
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    Amy Leon, co-owner of soon-to-open gym called CKO Kickboxing, works with trainer Brandon Hightower.

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  • Making a change

    Going from employees of massive corporations to a two-person small business isn’t easy. But here are some strategies that Danny and Amy Leon have utilized:

    Connect with neighboring businesses: As soon as they signed the lease for the building off Prosperity Church Road, the Leons started frequenting other businesses in the shopping center. The met the owners. They gave employees free CKO T-shirts and discounts. And they traded stacks of fliers for their respective customers to take.

    Don’t be afraid to ask, and ask again: Amy and Danny have a standing phone call with CKO Kickboxing’s director of business development every week. But they call him often throughout the week, as well. Better to ask than to fail or miss something critical.

    “We’re out here by ourselves, but we don’t feel alone,” Amy said.

    Never miss a call: When the gym’s phone was installed, Amy set up a forwarding service that sends gym calls directly to her cellphone, if the Leons are not in the office. That way, she sees all calls and can return them quickly.



For Amy and Danny Leon, the new year brings a complete career reinvention.

It started in March 2013, when the newlyweds went to Hawaii on their honeymoon. Danny was a producer with ABC News in New York City and Amy was a producer with CNBC.

They were reading on lounge chairs by the pool when Amy mentioned a new workout her friend had been raving about: CKO (short for “Club Knock Out”) Kickboxing.

“I jokingly said, ‘How fun would it be if I could own my own gym?’ ” Amy recalled.

Fast forward six months to late September, and the Leons had a new workout routine, new home, new city and new jobs as co-owners of a CKO Kickboxing franchise off Prosperity Church Road in northeast Charlotte.

And when their new endeavor officially opens Jan. 11, they hope to have a new flock of CKO believers.

Family near Charlotte

Danny, 47, had been in the television business for 24 years. He had worked with Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer. He had spent him in war zones and hurricanes. But he had always had an itch to teach and was weary of the corporate politics.

“There’s politics in TV. There’s politics in academia, but there’s very little politics in a kickboxing gym,” he said.

Amy, 39, had worked for Bloomberg News, Time Inc., and CNBC, but never felt she had used the degree she had in social work. And as a workout junkie with a couple of Ironman races to her name, a job as a small business owner and exercise coach fit the bill.

“I’ve always said if I could find a job where I’m paid to be a professional motivator, I’m in,” Amy said.

Plus, Charlotte – a slower-paced city near Danny’s mother – was a market CKO Kickboxing corporate had wanted to move into. There are around 50 CKO franchises nationwide, but they’re largely concentrated in the northeast.

The only wrench in the well-laid plans: The Leons didn’t have the requisite funding, about $125,000, for the franchise fee and startup costs.

Like many New York City and New Jersey residents, the Leons were long-time renters, not homeowners. Their credit history was limited. Consequently, they were turned down for financing.

Then they began researching ROBS plans.

Short for Rollovers as Business Startups, ROBS plans allow business owners to roll their retirement funds to pay for business startup costs without the typical IRS taxes. The Leons turned to an investing firm to execute their plan.

It was a risky move, they both attest. But they also believed in themselves, their mission and their money management.

Diving in

After weeks of training with CKO executives, Amy and Danny signed a lease for a 4,000-square-foot freestanding space with roadside visibility that once housed a Blockbuster.

Then they jumped headfirst into the Charlotte business community. After all, it was exciting to open the area’s first CKO Kickboxing franchise, but that also meant they had to introduce the community to the brand.

Within days of moving to the area, they joined the Charlotte Chamber and were setting up tables at events, including the Charlotte Observer’s “Observe the Pink” event for breast cancer research.

They also paid to set up a table at Concord Mills mall, where they passed out brochures, offered T-shirts and showed lots of enthusiasm.

“Marketing never stops,” Amy said. “It’s like laundry and garbage.”

‘The details matter’

At ABC News and CNBC, Danny and Amy were just two of thousands of employees and weren’t forced to penny-pinch.

At ABC, “if we hadn’t booked a flight in time, we got a Leer jet,” Danny said. “Now, you’re making sure you order toilet paper for the lowest price.”

Amy said one thing she’s learned as a business owner is that many costs are negotiable. When ordering hand-sanitizer dispensers to install around the gym, she negotiated $20 off each one.

“When you’re putting your retirement on the line, the details matter,” Danny said.

To save on living expenses, Danny and Amy moved in with Danny’s mother in Taylorsville when they came to town in late September. It’s quite a commute – about 60 miles, Amy said – but they found a way to maximize that time by buying a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Now, whoever is in the passenger seat, can use the car as a rolling office.

They also made the car a “rolling billboard,” by having it professionally shrink-wrapped in CKO promotions. It was a strategy that worked for the CKO founder, who used to park his car in front of train, bus and ferry stations to boost visibility.

It wasn’t cheap – an investment of more than $10,000 – but no advertising is, Danny said. And though it’s about the same price as a weeklong roadside billboard, the shrink wrap is supposed to last for eight years.

It’s also paying dividends. They’ve already gotten more than a half-dozen calls from people interested in joining the fitness center.

“And because of New Year’s Resolutions,” Amy said, “it’s the perfect time to capture folks.”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045; Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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