Shakira and Kelly Ripa Love AKT Fitness. But Can It Come to a Studio Near You? – The New York Times

Anna Kaiser, a celebrity fitness trainer, is known for dispensing advice like “top tips for busy moms who can’t find time to exercise” and for longtime clients like Shakira, whom she trained for the Super Bowl Halftime Show, or Kelly Ripa, whom she guided in a home workout using wine bottles and a dish towel.

But for the past several months, Ms. Kaiser, who created a dance-based exercise known as Anna Kaiser Technique, or AKT, has been living a far different reality than the flashy one she portrays on social media. She has permanently closed one of her two Manhattan studios and is locked in a bruising legal battle over control of her brand.

In early August, Ms. Kaiser sued Xponential Fitness, a franchise company that purchased AKT in 2018, in the Delaware courts, alleging that it owes her more than $700,000. Two weeks later, Xponential, which also owns brands like Club Pilates and Row House, filed its own suit in California. Among its allegations are that Ms. Kaiser has refused to convert her studios in Manhattan, the Hamptons, and Connecticut into franchises (per their agreement), and that she has violated her noncompete clause.

“They left me no choice but to sue — it was clear they were not going to pay me what I was owed,” Ms. Kaiser said recently, as she sat on a gray balance ball in her Upper East Side studio, dressed in a stretchy black jumpsuit and sneakers.

Ms. Kaiser, 40, a former professional dancer, is petite and blond, with a perky nose and striking white teeth. She was also nine months pregnant with her second child. “This experience has been a tsunami,” she said. “There’s my pregnancy, then this pandemic and having to close the studios, and now, this lawsuit.”

Anthony Geisler, the chief executive of Xponential, and Melissa Chordock, the president, declined to comment for this article.

But the court filings are rife with details of the feud. Ms. Kaiser claims that Xponential failed to make a series of payments that she was owed as part of the sale of AKT; that employees hacked several of her online business accounts; that Mr. Geisler froze her out of management decisions; and that he disparaged her on Zoom calls with fellow AKT franchise owners.

Xponential accuses Ms. Kaiser of instigating a “campaign of disruption” and calls her actions “willful, wanton, malicious and oppressive.”

Just a couple of years ago, Ms. Kaiser was running a mini empire in the booming world of boutique fitness, with locations on East 84th Street, in the Flatiron district in Manhattan, East Hampton and New Canaan, Conn.

The luxury studios featured her signature AKT classes, services such as nutritional advisers and cryotherapy (a treatment using freezing or near-freezing temperatures), and a long line of well-heeled devotees, including TriBeCa moms and stars like Alicia Keys. Ms. Kaiser made regular appearances in women’s magazines and on television shows like “Live With Kelly and Ryan.” She even had her own clothing line in Target.

Ms. Kaiser wanted to continue growing her brand, so she began meeting with potential investors. In the fall of 2017, she flew to Los Angeles for a meeting with Mr. Geisler of Xponential.

“Initially I was not too interested because the word ‘franchise’ has such a mass-market connotation,” Ms. Kaiser said. “But after months of talking, or dating, really, I envisioned how we could make this the very first dance concept to be scaled nationally, and I was convinced it was going to be incredible.”

The following March, the sides had closed a deal that would give Xponential the rights to AKT’s intellectual property, as well as a license to use Ms. Kaiser’s image and persona. In return, she was to receive $2.15 million in cash, plus $850,000 over three equal installments, in addition to a consulting deal, an equity stake in Xponential’s parent company, and other payments.

When the deal closed, Mr. Geisler was bullish on the company’s swift expansion, boasting of plans to open as many as 20 new AKT studios within 12 months and up to 150 more in 2019. But the first AKT franchise studio didn’t open until June 2019, more than a year later and only eight are now open. While Xponential has spent more than $8 million on the AKT business, it has yet to generate a net profit, according to court filings.

The pandemic, of course, has been particularly hard on the fitness industry. Companies including Gold’s Gym, 24-Hour Fitness and Flywheel Sports are just some of those that have filed for bankruptcy. As for Xponential, sales “have been hit hard, wiping out strong gains observed over recent years and pulling sales back to the levels not seen since the third quarter of 2018,” said Liyin Yeo, an applied data analyst at Second Measure, a technology company that analyzes transaction data from a panel of 4.5 million consumers.

The performance of AKT has been even more anemic, according to Second Measure. It found that, as of August, sales of AKT classes account for less than 1 percent of total sales at Xponential, the lowest year-over-year growth across all of the company’s brands.

Xponential disputed this but did not provide financial figures. “We do not work with Second Measure, and they do not have access to our data to be able to provide such a statement,” a spokesman said.

Kate Spies, the general manager of the wellness site Well + Good, believes Ms. Kaiser’s method faces an extra challenge in a competitive field. “Dance cardio as an exercise style is very difficult to scale, particularly in a franchise model, because it is so technical,” she said. “You really need someone who is a professional dancer who can teach it well. AKT is not a rinse-and-repeat model.”

In a highly competitive and fast-changing environment, additionally complicated by the lawsuits, Ms. Kaiser worries about the futre of the AKT franchises. “This was never some get-rich-quick scheme,” she said. “I believed in this model, I wanted to empower women, to have them be not just managers of studios, but owners. I was never given that chance and as an entrepreneur and business owner, my heart goes out to them.”

While Ms. Kaiser’s studio in the Flatiron district is now closed, she has reopened in East Hampton and New Canaan. Her Upper East Side location is available for private training and small groups.

These locations have been rebranded as Anna Kaiser Studios. It is a move that Xponential claims is in direct violation of Ms. Kaiser’s noncompete agreement. It will also cause AKT franchises “significant and imminent harm,” according to testimony filed by a paid expert hired by Xponential, Yoram Wind, the Lauder emeritus professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

But Ms. Kaiser said that Xponential did not uphold its end of their agreement, and it is within her rights to reopen. Still, she is not rejoicing. “This is a terrible place to be. Even if I win the case, I won’t be paid what I am owed anytime soon,” she said. “And I am having to start all over from scratch.”

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