When Private Equity Came for the Toddler Gyms

Changes didn’t take long. Within weeks, long-tenured headquarters employees started leaving. In conversations with franchisees across the country, numerous owners expressed frustration that the support they depended on had evaporated; instead of calling a trusted adviser whenever they wanted, they had to file an online ticket. (Unleashed said that it “never sought to cut access” to its staff and that the ticket system was instituted to make sure they were responding in a timely fashion.)

The company tried to impose a new payroll vendor that caused unending headaches. Certain activities, such as karate, were eliminated as Unleashed acquired businesses with similar programming; the company said it trimmed services with low enrollment to “streamline” the offerings. The company also outlined a process by which franchisees could lose their licenses if they failed to meet brand standards, which set a sour tone among some of the operators. To people who’d just made it through a pandemic and operated on thin margins even in good times, the changes felt unnecessary and destabilizing.

In the fall of 2021, the company required all franchisees to sign a new agreement allowing Unleashed to automatically debit their bank accounts. Ms. Cianci noticed that it also contained broad language allowing the company to extract any other fees that might be owed, which she believed went beyond her franchise agreement.

Under the advice of a lawyer, she refused to sign it and started to send her royalty payments via paper check. But she worried that most franchisees would simply accept the new arrangement, along with another requiring them to use — and pay for — a shared call center.

To sound the alarm to others, Ms. Cianci held conference calls, often with a lawyer present. As concerns spread, in May a group of Little Gym franchisees formed the Happy Handstands Franchisee Association, which ultimately reached more than 90 percent participation from across the system. Ms. Cianci was elected president. The company started sending warning notices to franchisees who hadn’t signed the new agreements.

On May 19, 2022, Happy Handstands’ lawyers sent Unleashed a cease-and-desist letter on behalf of the membership. The very next evening, an email popped up saying Ms. Cianci’s franchise had been terminated. When she tried to check it, her email account was gone, too. Unleashed said the company didn’t know she was the association’s president when they decided to terminate her. Ms. Cianci said it was widely known across the system and mentioned in a Facebook group visible to lower-level corporate executives.

To save her business, Ms. Cianci went before an arbitrator and filed for a preliminary injunction decrying the termination as retaliatory; the arbitrator ruled that she hadn’t cleared the high legal bar necessary to stop the process. After that, she started tearing down all her Little Gym branding and adapting her curriculum so as not to violate the company’s trademarks. She paused when Unleashed’s lawyers wanted to discuss a settlement, which she said she rejected over its harsh terms. When they demanded she finish the process of “de-identifying” as a Little Gym immediately, she had difficulty getting started again because she had surgery on a broken foot.

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