Massage Envy: I’ll take an order of wings with that massage, please.

What do chicken wings, magnetic signs, garbage collection, pet food and massage all have in common? They are all products or services offered by franchises that are owned by Roark Capital Group of Atlanta, Georgia. This company has invested $3 Billion Dollars in collections of franchises across the US and around the world. Their latest acquisiiton is the chain of more than 800 Massage Envy locations, which has brought massage to the masses, and is now grossing about $1 Billion Dollars per year.

Massage Envy has often been referred to as the McDonald’s of massage. Actually, we have to leave McDonald’s out, but we can include Arby’s, Cinnabon, Carvel Ice Cream, Auntie Anne’s (the pretzel people), Schlotzsky’s, WingStop, Seattle’s Best, McFornaio, McAlistar’s Deli, Moe’s Southwest Grill, and the Corner Bakery.

Along with all these food venues, Roark also owns the Atkins diet brand–I guess after you get fat on all the fast food, they’re ready to slim you down with the diet stuff–as well as pet stores, several garbage pickup companies, a truck washing company, and more.

I have come to the defense of Massage Envy many times. They provide employment for about 16,000 massage therapists, many of whom are students fresh out of school. I know many therapists who have or are currently working there; some are satisfied and some are hoping for something better to come along. Like any franchise, some owners are better than others, and employee satisfaction, at least among those people in my networks, seems to depend a lot on the business ethics and integrity of the owner.

Just for your edification, here’s a little history of the company. ME founder John Leonesio created a chain of health clubs which he sold to 24 Hour Fitness in 1999. He took the money from that sale and adapted the health club membership concept for massage therapy.  In 2008, he sold out to The Essel Group, a multi-national conglomerate based in India. Just two years later, Essel sold ME to Sentinel Capital Partners (owners of groups of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Cottman Transmission franchises) — and now the franchise network is owned by Roark Capital Group. It’s just life on the food chain of capitalism.

In just two years, the average per-location gross revenue of a Massage Envy franchise increased more than 50% — from $815,000/year in 2009 to $1.25M in 2011. Did the earnings of the massage therapists employed at these franchises go up 50% during the same period? I seriously doubt it. The ones who are making the big money off massage are the Massage Envy franchise owners; the regional developers (those who own the rights to operate franchises in each state); the Massage Envy corporate HQ in Scottsdale, Arizona; and now the investors at Roark Capital.

It seems like everything in the world is franchised these days…everything from cleaning services to florists to funeral homes and even medical care. I suspect we can’t expect massage therapy to be any different, but still, it’s kind of sad to see such a personal service turned into just another link on the corporate chain. I’ll take an order of wings with that massage, please, and pass me a Cinnabon for dessert.

33 thoughts on “Massage Envy: I’ll take an order of wings with that massage, please.

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  3. Barb

    I think I just got a little sick inside reading this. I’m always defending against the McDonalds comparison and now to hear this? I’m disheartened. :(

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  5. Moses River

    Touching people, changing lives..
    The way I see it the more folk in the world get massaged the better. Mickey Dee style if that is the best way of spreading the love. Roll with it, keep touching, keep changing..
    I think you need a massage!?! :)

    PS If your hungry have some chicken wings.

  6. David Palmer

    There will always be a creative tension between the container and the contents. i can cite plenty of examples of individual practitioners in private practice who have operated with what I would consider to be less than stellar business ethics.

    My interest, like Moses Rivers, is to provide safe, convenient and affordable touch. On that score the AMTA, NCBTMB, etc. model of turning “massage” into “massage therapy” has been a rousing failure. After nearly 30 years of trying, less than 5% of the adult US population gets regular massage. Pathetic! The only sectors changing those numbers in any significant way are the Massage Envy’s and clones (for table massage) and the Chinese immigrants in all of the malls across America (for chair massage).

    Why? It turns out most people don’t want (or need) massage as a health care service. What they want is a personal care service. If you provide a massage service that people can book the same day and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, the customers will be there.

  7. Bodhi Haraldsson

    David Palmer wrote “It turns out most people don’t want (or need) massage as a health care service. What they want is a personal care service. If you provide a massage service that people can book the same day and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, the customers will be there.”

    This is an interesting commentary from Mr Palmer. Here in British Columbia, Canada, we have a very successful model of “massage” being used a part of the health care services the public seeks out on regular basis or as needed. I don’t think that using statistics on how many use massage or regular basis is a valid measure on how successful the “push” to have massage become an accepted form of health care has been. Perhaps that push has been resisted by those with vested interests and/or it needs a new approach.

  8. Rick Rosen

    David Palmer and Bodhi Haraldson represent the two endpoints of the very wide spectrum of massage therapy. At one end, you can go to a three-day course and learn a choreographed routine (or “kata”) to be able to deliver a seated relaxation-oriented massage. At the other end of the spectrum, you can go to massage school for three years in British Columbia to get the mandated training become a Registered Massage Therapist and be regarded as part of the mainstream health care system.

    The spectrum of client needs ranges from general and ongoing relaxation / stress reduction / health maintenance work — to specific clinical work. The core question raised by the posts of these two esteemed leaders in our field is whether or not we can continue to work with this entire spectrum within one container. Arguments have been made on both sides, to preserve one generalist level of regulation, versus splitting so-called “relaxation” massage from so-called “clinical” massage.

    I don’t have a recommendation here, except to restate the old proverb, “United we stand, divided we fall”. Most other regulated health care professions have inter-family squabbles and turf wars, but they tend to present a unified identity and position when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world outside their domain. We have not figured that one out as yet.

    Obviously, the wild success of Massage Envy shows strong continued demand in the United States for massage therapy that is focused on general relaxation, and which is affordable and easy to access. I’m curious if Mr. Haraldson has figures on the percentage of Canadians who receive massage therapy on an ongoing basis. With entry-level training requirements in half of the Canadian provinces above 2000 clock hours of instruction, are Canadian MT’s overtrained for the basic level of wellness massage that most people are seeking these days?

    I observe some of the national associations in our field being focused on getting massage therapy more recognized by and utilized within the medical mainstream. This kind of “reaching for the stars” may be good for some massage therapists’ self-esteem, but we still don’t have the foundation of consistent educational standards or quality of teaching that is needed to develop practitioners who are solidly competent. To be promoting the potential of what massage therapy can provide — without having a reliable pool of therapists across the country who can actually deliver the work at that level — leads to unsatisfied clients and employers.

    Until these structural problems are remedied, and the identity crisis solved about what constitutes massage therapy, this field will continue to move forward in random order. The owners and franchisees of Massage Envy are clearly not waiting around for the massage organizations to get this figured out! They are making hay while the sun shines.

  9. Rosemary

    I think there might be some “generalizations” here and a tendency to not look at the other side.
    First off, franchise owners invest a lot of money. Just because they invest it isn’t everything – a lot of them have to work their butt off. One of them near me was shut down in 18 months – probably because the owners didn’t work their butt off.
    And implying that the MTs that work there didn’t get a 50% raise isn’t that great a thing to do either. Just from what I read online, it seems that some MEs are operates quite a bit differently from others and some MEs have happy MTs working there, some don’t.
    I don’t work for ME. Never have. But even if people have a problem with it, I think there are bigger things in our MT world to go after than job creators, even if you believe that those job creators are doing things wrong, especially in this economy (and no, I’m not a “Republican” either). Prostitution, education standards of therapists, lack of commonality of policies across states, and the lacking of standards in our educators are bigger issues. So, I like the figures, but it doesn’t make me sad at all. A lot of these issues do – and some of them make me a little mad.

    Anyway, just my two…


  10. Tracy Hristov

    Massage Envy has put massage on the map. It donates thousands to research and I am grateful for the clinic where I work. I love my clients and the people I work with since it’s a blessing really. There is nothing wrong with franchises. I like eating fast food as a treat because there is something fun about it! Getting a 2 hour relaxation massage is also nice and if all I can get is 30 minutes I’ll take it! Love love love Eat goodand touch with

  11. Sarah Weaver

    This posting has confirmed what I have known for years. I worked for ME for 2.5 years from 2005-2008. I am grateful that they hired me as quickly as they did, but I didn’t even get a thanks from the my boss on my final day. After performing 35 hours of hands on work per week, I was disappointed that they didn’t even say bye to me. I now live in Northern BC Canada, and there is no Massage Envy to be found. It wouldn’t work here due to the stringent regulations for the profession. I am not RMT now, because I couldn’t afford the program after a year. When I lived in Arizona, it was very difficult to keep up my practice, because of the incredible numbers of ME shops all around me. They had the name and all of the money in the world to market with.

  12. Deb Woodrow

    Lots of great points. All I can see is that in general we all agree to disagree….as politics has shown us as long as we agree to disagree NOTHING gets accomplished. I found it odd that after all of the efforts by massage associations to “unify the educational field” they suddenly switched the channel and now the hotspot or topic is “slave trade” within our massage industry.Guess they realized that unification was not likely to happen and found a new topic to fight over OOOPs make that fight for (LOL)

  13. Dennis Gibbons

    I have started a Club Massage program within my own office. The reason being the clients would come to us for therapy and ME for their relaxation massage. The club is a contract that they sign agreeing to pay a discounted amount monthly to receive a relaxation massage. They also are eligible to receive a discount on other relaxation massages within the month. We automatically charge their card on the same date each month, whether the service is used or not. This encourages the client to take care if themselves, keeps them on house, and helps the newer massage therapist to build a client base. My answer to wings and a massage.

  14. Holly Foster

    WELCOME TO CAPITALISM! It’s what every single business in America is based upon. It’s what every small business owner aspires to become. The owner takes the top cut, and the employees take a percentage. Whether that’s in the form of a salary or a commission split. That’s the way a capitalistic society operates.

    Have you looked at the pay scale hospitals are using when they “hire” massage therapists? Talk about sad. A major medical center in NC, with hospitals and clinics covering a large majority of the western portion of the state hires massage therapists. That means as employees, not independent contractors. The starting salary is $12.00/ hr. There are NO opportunities to receive TIPS.

    ME and others franchises in NC pay their LMBT’s an average of $16 – $18.00/ hr, and they receive TIPS. Most of the individuals that work in these establishments think it’s a fair pay in exchange for what they DON’T have to deal with. They also receive their CE at no cost to them. That can be a big chunk of money, but it’s something they don’t have to worry about.

    Now tell me which one seems most unfair to you? The MT whose employed at a hospital (where they are provided benefits but no TIPS), or the MT who works for ME (where they are also provided benefits, and TIPS), or the self-employed MT who has to work their posteriors off, and may not be able to afford any benefits or receive a TIP?

    I don’t work for ME or any other franchise. I never have. I doubt I ever will. However, I don’t think of them as the enemy.

    I also don’t get why it’s assumed that the only treatment available in a franchise is palliative care (ie relaxation massage). I know of therapists who work in these establishments who are certified in NMT, and sports massage. Customers who book with these individuals may receive those treatments for which the LMBT is qualified.

    As for educational standards, I’m all for opening practice acts to redefine to basis for entry into the profession. It has little to do with hours — although, I think 500 is a joke. It has to do with professional development of the therapist. That takes time, and changes to how we approach treatment. I can teach someone how to perform an adequate massage in a matter of days. I cannot teach them all they need to know to practice safely, and successfully in 500 hours.

    I also don’t think I can progress to profession in that amount of time. Meaning, it’s impossible to develop the necessary critical thinking skills, research skills, business skills, and interpersonal skills than can be developed over a 9-12 month period. This is where to focus of our educational reform needs to be.

  15. Lisa Gutowski

    If they would pay a decent salary to the hard working service providers who are burning out their bodies for little pay, I wouldn’t have a problem with ME. Over working the people who work there, for such little compensation, is revolting to me. New MT’s can work there short term to gain experience, then for Pete’s sake, leave for something better! It’s a truth that turn over is high, and the staff is green, ergo a cheaper massage than someone who has been practicing for many years. I’d never accept the terms, it’d be degrading.

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  19. Jennifer Uhler

    Wow…I heard about this but I had no idea. I remember being contacted by ME after graduation about managing a clinic. Brand new concept…founded by a MT with big hopes to get massage into the mainstream where people could afford it. It sickens me when people sell out and money takes the place of purpose.

  20. conan owen

    Wow, Laura…what a bunch of mis-informed dreck, and the same goes for so many of the comments.

    Most MEs ARE locally owned business. The FRANCHISE concept is what is bought and sold, along with some locations held by the founders. McDonalds may be “owned” by a giant company in Oak Brook IL, but my Big Macs come from LOCALLY owned restaurants.

    “In just two years, the average per-location gross revenue of a Massage Envy franchise increased more than 50% — from $815,000/year in 2009 to $1.25M in 2011. Did the earnings of the massage therapists employed at these franchises go up 50% during the same period?”

    If they did 50% more massages then, yes, if not NO, and why should they earn more money of they did not do proportionally more work? Massage revenue is a linear equation — # of services is almost 100% in line with revenue. So if I work at ME, am booked 5 – 6 hours per shift, and I want to earn 50% more money, I have to be booked 7.5 – 9 hours in a shift — how is that possible? Do you just want the business owner to GIVE the employees 50% more money for doing 0% more work? What would they pay the new employees (that is called JOB CREATION, a concept that is foreign to business bashers everywhere, and seldom seen the past 4 years)

    “I seriously doubt it. The ones who are making the big money off massage are the Massage Envy franchise owners; the regional developers (those who own the rights to operate franchises in each state); the Massage Envy corporate HQ in Scottsdale, Arizona; and now the investors at Roark Capital.”

    Doubt…now there is a solid fact on which to base an arguement. How about asking some employees at ME’s that saw a 50% increase in business. Find out how many of them had more clients and earned more money, how many of them saw friends and collegues get jobs they did not have before.

    Again, why should the employees make 50% more if they are not doing 50% more treatments? The local franchisee or regional franchisee SHOULD be making 50% more money — they BUILT the business, put their personal capital at risk (almost impossible to get a business loan without putting up your house as collateral, so are you going to feel sorry for them and let them stay with you if their ME does not succeed and they lose their home), and worked their ass of to make it succeed. Not all work involved 500+ hours of training and a license to be considered hard and valuable.

  21. Gina

    Conan are you an LMT? If you were you’d, get it. If you’re not, I’m not surprised you don’t get it. You sound like you have zero idea about this professional and i sure as hell hope you are not a franchise owner because I don’t doubt you agree with the slave labor wages for LMTs. You sound like you are outraged but reading your post is laughable because you have no clue what you are talking about even though you think you do.

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  23. CommonSense

    Just had to chime in. A person can go through a decent 500 hour massage therapy for about $5,000 (5 month program). Assuming they go to work for a place that pays them $15/ hour plus average a $15 tip, work 30 hours per week for 50 weeks per year, that is ($30 x 30 x 50)= $45,000/ year.

    Conversely, a person can attend a 4 year college at a cost of $50,000 and earn $52,650 per year (based on 50 weeks). Most likely at this pay scale, the person at 50K salary is probably working well over 40 hours a week. .

    My point is that, based on this information, I think that even at a $15 dollar rate, it can be very luctrative for a person who is only required to invest 500 hours into their education. It bothers me when people say businesses exploit their people when they are providing them a good wage, a good, safe work place, an opportunity to make a career. The massage therapist is always free to increase their skills and command a higher pay or leave if they are unhappy.

  24. Beth

    First at an ME competitor $15 tip is an exception think more like $5 or $7 sometimes nothing at all.
    Second, I wouldn’t have such a problem with ME if they were more up front about ut price to service. 50min of massage at thiere normal rate is close to a dollar a minute. People think their getting this super good deal but not really. Maybe their is a price point dynamic we should look into

  25. Martha

    There were a lot of good comments about this subject. I worked for ME for a couple of years while I was working to get my own practice established. I think it’s a great way to get a lot of hands on experience and if you have to work a “side job” to be able to afford doing massage privately then it’s a good way to go. At first it was a pleasant place to work. I was actually surprised. I was also surprised at the length of time some of the therapists had worked there. Then they got bought out by the company from India. We all noticed a BIG shift in the way were treated at that time. Their value for the therapists became based on numbers. In other words, how many people signed up after they had a massage. But, here’s my problem with that. ME knows how to market massage but not therapy. So the client is given the choice “Are you wanting a relaxation massage or deep tissue?” That automatically sets up in the mind of the potential client “foo foo massage or get results massage”. And as any therapist knows there are a LOT of therapeutic modalities in between those 2 choices. Since I’m not trained in deep tissue I don’t market myself as a deep tissue therapist. So I would be booked with clients who were coming in because they wanted to treat themselves to a massage etc. I was still able to build a small following of regulars but my potential was not tapped into. I do a LOT of therapeutic massage with great results but like I said I’m not a deep tissue therapist and do not market myself as such. Other therapists ran into the same thing so they would just put themselves on the deep tissue list so they could get more clients but I never felt comfortable with that because I was afraid the client would have certain expectations that I couldn’t deliver or that I would get big muscle bound guys that really needed deep work that I wasn’t trained to do. Well, the bottom line….when it came time for my review and my numbers weren’t where they were suppose to be I wasn’t given a raise because “I didn’t contribute to the success of the company.” That’s all the raise was based on. Not the fact that I was always there for my shift, never called out sick, I was professional and CLEAN, always filled in shifts when needed, didn’t show up for work hung over etc. I am a professional therapist but obviously that’s not what they are looking for. They want sales people who do massage. Eventually to push me out they stopped booking me so it became a waste of my time to be there.
    So the positive for me was I got a lot of hands on experience initially, learned how to work with a lot of different clients, met a lot of great therapists.
    I hope one day they will realize how demanding this work can be and will be willing to compensate and appreciate their employees. After all, massage therapists are the backbone of a massage business aren’t they?

  26. Mike H.

    Preach on! I love this blog, right on point and right on time. I have worked for McMassages and it was like overseas slave labor wile the owners sit in their offices and become more bloated oh gwosh don’t get me going. Its hard for male therapists or any independent therapists. But I am a loyal soldier for change. Wish everyone else was….

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