Each week, they had their routine. Cyndi Weis and her mother, Dovila, would get in the car and drive through rural Pennsylvania. Her mother would drop her off at the edge of her territory and wait for her, knitting, while 15-year-old Cyndi walked door-to-door with her Avon suitcase, selling cosmetics.
At 16 she was the No. 1 salesperson in the district and cleared nearly $400 per week.
That same entrepreneurial spirit has helped her find success as owner of breathe yoga & juice bar inc. It has three corporate locations in Pittsford, Webster and downtown Rochester and a Greece franchise.
The Pittsford and Webster locations include a heated vinyasa yoga studio, a juice bar and a retail store. The downtown annex location has cold-pressed juices available with a heated vinyasa studio and retail section.
The company employs 56 people and ranks No. 96 on the 2013 Rochester Top 100 list of fastest-growing private companies.
A native of Bradford, Pa., Weis, 54, came to know yoga at age 12 when her mother brought her a yoga book and album by yogi Richard Hittleman. As an overweight child, Weis found that yoga was one avenue that gave her independence and the support she needed to get fit.
"I liked it because I wasn’t embarrassed or intimidated," Weis says. "The thing that makes it so different from running or weight lifting or bicycling is that yoga is the most inclusive physical modality of anything.
"You use deep breathing, you move every muscle and every joint in your body, you affect every system from your lungs to your circulation, (and) every time you do a twist, you squeeze your digestive tract. There’s nothing that literally touches all parts of the body the way yoga does."
Coming to Rochester
After graduating in 1980 from Gannon University in Erie, Pa., Weis and her husband, Larry, moved to St. Mary’s, Pa., where she worked as a high school guidance counselor. In 1984 the couple moved to Rochester for her husband’s job as a manufacturer’s rep in the powdered metal industry.
When her first daughter, Carly, was 9 months old, Weis decided to leave counseling and began teaching fitness at a health club part time.
In 1986 she partnered with Diane Castellani, then aerobics director of the Winton Racquetball Club. Together they formed the corporate wellness firm Fit Company of Rochester Inc. They wanted to spread the idea of holistic wellness to companies across Rochester.
"This idea of taking on-site aerobics classes and doing them outside into corporate venues sounded really exciting," Weis says. "I remember at Bausch & Lomb I personally went in there twice a week and taught aerobics in their cafeteria. We’d move the tables aside, there would be potato chip crumbs all over the floor, (and) we’d do aerobics."
Bausch & Lomb Inc., Wegmans Food Markets Inc. and local school districts were among the company’s clients. There were 40 client accounts and 25 teachers on staff for different corporate health classes.
Weis decided to go back to school at Rochester Institute of Technology to get her degree in nutrition so the company could expand into other aspects of wellness. She completed her degree in 1991 and began private practice as a registered dietitian in 1992, specializing in healthy weight management, eating disorders, sports nutrition and vegetarian diets.
After six years together, both partners decided to pursue other interests, and one of the aerobics instructors bought the business.
Yoga continued to reappear in Weis’ life. She began taking classes at the Open Sky Yoga Center and at the Old Pickle Factory with the Yoga Society of Rochester. However, her focus was on other aspects of fitness such as running or cycling.
"I thought, ‘I’m lifting a lot of weight; I’m doing a lot of cardio. I should really be doing yoga,"’ Weis says. "I am not by nature this yoga body. Flexibility is something I have to work on … just for me to be functionally flexible."
She decided to pursue retail work and began at a boutique called L’Avant Garbe in Pittsford. Weis was back to selling cosmetics.
She was a partner in the Trish McEvoy Cosmetics part of L’Avant Garbe, though not a partner in the full store. She started at L’Avant Garbe as an employee in 1990 and helped bring in Trish McEvoy Cosmetics in 1997. She left the boutique in 2000.
Weis was working as a dietitian, she understood fitness, having worked since 1988 as a personal trainer, and she knew retail. For much of her adult life, she had pursued fitness, nutrition and retail together.
Yoga reappeared in her life in the form of a magazine article about Baron Baptiste’s power vinyasa yoga.
"They showed pictures of this guy with this bandana on his head helping people that are in these yoga poses," Weis says. "The article said that he goes to Mexico and he’ll wring you out like squeezing an orange from the inside out (with) this yoga practice.
"I was like, this is it: This is the collision of yoga, as I’ve always known it to be, with this new intensity that I found to love. The running, the biking, more sweat, more vigor now put together with yoga … this is what I’ve been looking for-Baptiste power vinyasa yoga."
She has since gone on multiple yoga retreats. Her second retreat with Baptiste was for teachers of yoga, though she had no inclination to teach. The day after she returned, she floated the idea of a business to her husband. However, she believed she did not know business, since she had no business degree.
"I said, ‘You know, if I was smart, I would take all the things that I know how to do and put them all under one roof,’ kind of like when you go to Fourth of July fireworks and you get this and this and then you get the finale," Weis says.
She wanted to start a juice bar using her background in nutrition, and she knew retail would make sense, given the market that supported healthy lifestyles. The power vinyasa yoga she had experienced on multiple retreats didn’t exist in Rochester in 2002.
"We (didn’t) have a heated vinyasa yoga studio. That grabbed me like I’ve never been grabbed before by yoga," Weis says.
She also recognized the opportunity that occurs when someone comes to a yoga class. They would like a juice or smoothie after class.
"And oh, by the way," she adds, "that’s a cute pair of yoga pants. I’ll have those too?"
After driving around Pittsford that same day, Weis noticed a sign for rental space on South Main Street. She instantly felt the location would be perfect for a yoga studio and, after some persuasion from her husband, she inquired about it.
The 1,400-square-foot space accommodated a juice bar, yoga studio and a retail shop when it opened in November 2002. The business housed the first juice bar in Rochester and the first heated vinyasa yoga studio. It was also the first studio that offered drop-in yoga, she says.
The first few years were tough as Weis faced the challenge of attracting customers.
"We were pioneering many things … and along with that came really a learning curve, an education curve of the customer," Weis says. "It took a while for it to catch on.
"I can remember days where there would be hours where nobody walked in the door," Weis says. "I remember going to get my hair cut one day, and I’m sitting there and I’m just thinking, ‘I’m in trouble; I need business. What do I do?"’
Weis decided to take public relations into her own hands early on.
"I called Channel 8, I called Channel 10, I called Channel 13, and I just said, ‘I have something really newsworthy.’ Within 24 hours all three of those stations were here, and I just showed them around. That year they used me on Channel 13 26 times," she says.
"So I’d get them inside my doors (and) I’d make sure I strategically was standing in front of my juice bar. I had that entrepreneurial sense to do that."
Diversification was one way Weis was able to stay in business. And her husband’s job provided the financial stability to pursue her dream. He is now vice president of sales and marketing for Alpha Sintered Metals Inc.
"This was the first time I’d ever had to invest capital in a lease, a build-out, equipment, inventory, and that was really scary," Weis says.
Her first loan request was declined. People at the second bank listened to her story. They liked what they heard.
"I said to the guy, ‘I don’t want to make any money; I just want to be happy,’" Weis says. "These are the things I know how to do; this is my fireworks finale. I just think this is a really good idea. You don’t tell a banker who is trying to get a loan for you that you don’t want to make any money."
With her gradual success in Pittsford, Weis wanted to try out an experiment to test the success of her business plan.
"The question kept coming up, you know, ‘Cyndi, I’m from Buffalo; can’t you come open in Buffalo?’ ‘I’m from Syracuse; can’t you come open in Syracuse?’ And I’d be like, ‘I don’t know,’" Weis says. "I don’t know if I’m just lucky, I don’t know if it’s because Pittsford is a gem, I don’t know. I thought, ‘Well let me open somewhere where the cards aren’t stacked in my favor. Let me open in Webster.’
"Demographically Webster on paper looks a little like Pittsford, but in real life it doesn’t function at all like Pittsford."
She opened in Webster on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010 in a 3,100-square-foot space. It doubled the number of classes available in the area and began to grow a new yoga following.
"Webster was validation that we could grow in another community," she says.
Weis credits her success to not having a business degree.
"The one thing about me that I think is my biggest asset is that I do not have an MBA and I do not have a business degree," Weis says. "I’m grateful every day that I don’t, because I feel like when you know what you’re supposed to do, it kind of inhibits you from doing what your gut tells you to do.
"I think that I followed my gut. I’ve done my due diligence, but I have not been bound by reports and statistics and plans."
Those instincts have been modeled for her two daughters.
"The biggest thing that I’ve learned from my mom with business by watching her over these last 11 years is I’ve really observed and learned how to trust your instincts," says Carly Weis, director of yoga and acupuncturist at breathe. "My mom, she trusts her gut and she trusts her instincts, and that is something that is very hard to teach."
After the success in Webster, Cyndi Weis knew more growth would be necessary. She worked with a consulting firm in Chicago for nine months and created a franchise. Today breathe is registered for franchises in 47 states.
Across its locations, the company offers 110 classes per week.
"The full franchise process was like learning Latin," Weis says. "It was a big undertaking on every level. You have a blueprint, an operations manual, processes that are dialed in so that your brand is clear and clean and can be replicated. The legalities of it all … it’s enormous."
The franchise in Greece opened on April 20 in a 4,000-square-foot stand-alone space. It is run by partners Ryan Barry and Carin Laniak.
Embarking on the franchise path has been one of the most rewarding areas of business for Weis.
"This business has impacted my life and my family’s life in such a big way that it’s just made me so happy to be able to let someone else create their own bubble of happiness," Weis says. "(To) be able to support that and say, as the franchisor, ‘Don’t go down that road. I went down that road, and I could have bankrupted myself.’ I can give them the recipe and the learning curve so that they can avoid the pitfalls that could have taken me out any period of time. I love that I can share that with them."
Both of Weis’ daughters are full-time partners in the business.
"Breathe is the third child in my family, no question," Weis says. "It’s probably like any other family business. We don’t get through one family dinner without talking about breathe."
Carly, 30, is the director of yoga, and Abby, 28, is the retail manager.
"I would say that our relationship as a mother-daughter has shifted some as we’ve become more like equals on the same team working professionally together," says Carly. "We’ve had to adjust a little bit, (but) I think that’s very true to say if you work in a family business. We have such a deep level of trust with each other, we know each other so well, and (the) same thing with my sister."
Though some may typecast business owners as always focused on the bottom line, she knows that is not how her mom interprets her role at breathe.
"I think something that people probably don’t know is that my mom is really fun, she’s really silly," says Carly. "I think that she gets stressed by excitement in a way. She doesn’t get bogged down; she’s very light-hearted, and so for her a stressful day is when she has a lot going on, but they are all things that she gets excited (about). She’s not a heavy, heavy person; she’s really light."
Living her brand is the way Cyndi Weis markets her business.
"A lot of times I think that businesses get started because there’s a hole in the market, and then there’s a brand that’s created and you have to figure out how to stand behind your brand," Weis says. "With me I live it for sure, and the people that are involved with me that work here, we live and walk our talk, and so our brand is just a reflection of that."
Last year Weis was honored by RIT with the Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
"It’s for someone who has taken risks and made a success of their business, and there’s no question that Cyndi has done that," says Carol Whitlock, professor and chairwoman of the hospitality and tourism management department at RIT. "Breathe is a magnet for the health-conscious and the fashion-conscious women of Rochester, and yet she also teaches through that.
"(She) teaches nutrition and fitness, and really she has a strong work ethic. She’s built this up herself; she’s always been reliant on herself for her success."
For six years running, breathe has been the only yoga studio in the world to raise $20,000 each year for the Global Seva Challenge, an international service project that focuses on rebuilding worldwide communities.
Seane Corn, founder of Off the Mat, Into the World, a non-profit of the Engage Network, is a yogi and activist who sponsors the challenge through her company. Weis learned about the program through Corn’s sponsorship and wanted to get involved.
The local studio has raised $120,000 to help communities in Cambodia, Ecuador, Haiti, India, South Africa and Uganda.
"It brings community together," Weis says. "When we’re raising money for a common goal, it allows us to feel really good. To me money is a means to what else I can do."
Her friend Nancy Mann, CEO of Mann’s Jeweler’s Inc., could see Weis’ potential.
"Cyndi has been successful because of her devotion to the fundamental concept of breathe since its creation," Mann says. "She has worked hard to continually enhance the breathe experience in addition to adding relevant extensions to her original concept.
"Based on her far-reaching travels and time spent on her mat in reflection, she has brought a cutting-edge, West Coast mindset to our part of the world. She’s created a perfect marriage of all of the things she loves and, in doing so, has motivated many others to enhance their quality of life as well."
Mann has witnessed each stage of the business. She watched Weis drive around town in her yellow Volkswagen bug plastered with pink flowers to build her business.
"Cyndi is a woman who says what she will do … and then she does it," Mann says. "Every time she raises the bar for herself, she never misses the mark. I have watched her build an incredible business, successful on so many levels, from a simple idea she had. … Cyndi makes it her responsibility to help every person who walks through the doors of breathe reach their potential."
Weis often thinks of her mentor, her mother, who passed away a few years ago.
"I remember coming home and always having 12 women in a sketching class or in a decoupage class or a painting class, so I think that even though my mom wasn’t the way you’d look at a businessperson, she really was (one)," Weis says. "I come by that whole fitness/wellness thing so honestly. I credit my mom and dad."
Weis still is energized by what’s next, such as Reclaim Your Diet, a program she created last year that offered education about nutrition to community members in conjunction with a regular yoga regimen. More than 750 people participated in the program’s three sessions, and its success prompted a repeat, set for January 2014.
Weis is in constant forward movement and seeks to share her passions in life.
"It’s not like ‘What can I do to affect my bottom line?"’ she says. "We have a yoga studio; we have a huge base of people that are really like-minded about wanting to feel great. Something that helped me or that I’m interested in may interest them. How could I take that and create something that would allow other people to get involved and get supported?
"The key to work feeling like play is to follow your passion and do what you love," Weis adds. "I love the elements of the breathe concept. I really don’t feel like I have gone ‘to work’ once in the last 11 years."
She now feels she is a true businesswoman.
"I think the part that now, 11 years later, is really kind of validating for me is that I am running my business," Weis says. "I’m running it from my gut and filtering it through my head, as opposed to running it from my head. … I’m not going to say that I don’t think-of course I think-but I’m running it from (the place where) ‘I believe people will want this.’"
Position: Founder and CEO, breathe yoga & juice bar inc.
Education: B.S. in counseling, Gannon University, 1980, Erie, Pa.; B.S. in dietetics, Rochester Institute of Technology, 1991
Family: Husband Larry Weis; daughters Carly, 30, and Abby, 28
Activities: Yoga, being a foodie, scavenging for cool new things, traveling
Quote: "The one thing about me that I think is my biggest asset is that I do not have an MBA and I do not have a business degree. I’m grateful every day that I don’t, because I feel like when you know what you’re supposed to do, it kind of inhibits you from doing what your gut tells you to do. I think that I followed my gut. I’ve done my due diligence, but I have not been bound by reports and statistics and plans."
11/1/13 (c) 2013 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.