By Sandor Slomovits | Photos by Rebecca Rowe
Balance Massage Therapy (BMT) celebrated its ninth anniversary this past October. Founded in 2008 by Josie Ann Lee and Christin Lee Draybuck, the business has grown dramatically, from five massage rooms and five therapists when they opened, to eleven rooms and sixteen therapists, who now give more than 10,000 massages per year. Although BMT opened at a challenging time for the economy, the business has thrived in part because it very effectively combines the disparate talents of its two women founders. Lee says,
I literally grew up in a business. My parents owned a country store that was on the same property as our house [in Metamora, MI]. My crib was just on the other side of the counter. My love for business was born dusting the shelves of Hickory Market.
While Lee started on the business track from day one, Draybuck came to massage somewhat later in her life. “I was working at General Motors in Flint while I was finishing up my bachelors at the University of Michigan. I’d only been working for GM a couple of years when they started offering buyouts to help with their finances.” She took the buyout and decided to go on to graduate school to get her Masters in Social Work, planning to pay her way by doing massage. She enrolled at the Ann Arbor Institute of Massage Therapy (AAIMT), partly because the school offered training in a number of massage styles. (Today, depending on the needs and preferences of their clients, Draybuck and the other therapists at BMT offer a wide variety of massage styles, from neuromuscular therapy, Swedish, hot stone, myofascial release, to prenatal, rotator cuff, and oncology pain relief.) Draybuck says,
I just connected with massage therapy. I absolutely loved it! It was more than what I thought. I only knew about relaxing stuff, but all the problem solving, really being able to help with pain, and deeper tissue stuff, I loved it so much that I really just wanted to do that. It was really neat to go through that year of massage school, because besides learning massage, you’re getting so much bodywork, you just see these huge changes with everybody in the class with you. You change, you change a lot.
Meanwhile, Lee, who’d been living and working in Chicago for a software company, moved back to Michigan after her father passed away unexpectedly. Lee recalls,
I helped my mom run our family store for a year before she decided to close it. I wanted to stay close to my family and so moved to Ann Arbor. I’d had this dream of opening a politically themed cafe so I decided to get a job working in coffee so I could learn the ropes. I started working at Caribou Coffee in March 2006.
Draybuck also wound up working at Caribou Coffee starting in September 2006, because the flexible schedule there allowed her to continue studying massage. (She never did end up pursuing that degree in social work, having become so committed to studying massage.) The two women became fast friends and, as Lee wrote recently in an email to BMT clients, “We had no idea on that day in September that in two years and one month’s time we’d be engaged, and opening our own business.”
A pivotal moment for both women came soon after. As part of her training at AAIMT, Draybuck needed to perform massages on forty friends and family. At the same time, Lee’s mother had joined a widows group to help with her mourning and healing process. Draybuck and Lee asked her if the group would like to receive free massages from Draybuck. The answer was ‘yes’ and, says Lee,
From the moment we arrived, to the moment we left, we were showered with love and joy. They had craft projects going on, a huge potluck spread, and enough hugs and smiles to warm my heart for days. Chris set her table up in the back of the large room and throughout the day took turns massaging my mom’s friends. I remember that day so well. It was a room filled with the common understanding of sorrow while living in the moment of caring and happiness. It was a game changer for me. I could hear Chris working with each woman and letting them know midway through their massage it was time to turn over so she could ‘balance’ them out. My heart was also touched by watching the reaction the women had after their massages. It left me with such a greater understanding of the power of touch and healing that comes with massage. The women were so grateful that someone had taken time to care for them, to provide them touch, to get them a sense of healing. I remembered thinking, there is a clear reason it’s called massage “therapy.”
That moment and lesson stayed with both of us and when we decided to open our own studio, “Balance Massage Therapy” was just a natural name. We knew we wanted Balance to become a place that allowed people to heal from all that life brings them.
By the time BMT opened, they had a very clear vision of how they wanted to run their new business. “We wanted it to be accessible, affordable, adaptable,” says Draybuck. “We would be open seven days a week,” says Lee. “Even though we weren’t going to be busy right when we started, we’d make it a place that we were here if people found us, and something that would consistently be a part of their wellness plan.”
“We wanted to see people multiple times,” says Draybuck.
We really wanted them to have that positive effect from massage. We didn’t want to see people only once a year. We didn’t want to see people just when they got a gift. We really wanted them to get a lot more out of the massage. That was always our focus right from the beginning: trying to work everything around getting that amount [the cost of a massage] that’s going to be great for everybody — it’s going to be great for our clients, it’s going to be great for our therapists…
We talked in terms of value, right? So, not like discount…What is the value of a massage at Balance? It’s got to be expert therapists, so there’s got to be a service component. But how do we make it affordable? We limited our variables from day one. We just do massage. We don’t sell any products. We don’t add on aromatherapy. We are therapeutic massage. That was our flag that we planted and then we built everything around that.
They’ve learned a great deal along the way. “We did mailings in the beginning to get the word out,” says Lee.
When you’re new, you don’t know what you’re doing. I would literally drive the neighborhoods and write down addresses. Then we learned that Dixboro is not a mailing address, (laughter) it’s Superior Township. We got all our cards back! (Long laughter.) We tracked everything, so if we put money in a local magazine versus radio – what was the spending that was working? So then we could change the next year and spend our marketing budget a little bit smarter. Now we take the marketing money we used to spend to get clients, we now spend it on our clients. We do client appreciation, we do giveaways, we have been able — which is nice — to transition that money going out, to staying in. Because people tell the story for us at this point.
They’ve also seen the massage industry and people’s attitude toward massage change over the years. “More and more people are familiar with massage, familiar with the health benefits,” says Draybuck. “It’s not just for relaxation, it’s not just a spa day thing. People have a specific issue that they are coming for, and working through it.” Lee continues, “I think that’s also a testament to the massage industry getting licensing through the State, so there’s more credibility for it as a wellness industry. The massage industry itself is getting more respected. We’ve seen more of our client base become more of a therapeutic, repeat client.” Lee reflects further,
The coolest thing now is we’ve created the foundation for Balance, and it has its voice, it has its heart. And it doesn’t require us. I love being here, but it can run without us, and I’m proud of that. There’s this really cool structure so whenever we want to do something, we give it to the business and see what the business says. That took years, and there’s things we’re still tweaking, but in general it’s this living organization, culture, team. Even when we’re not here, it is its own person now. Our number one goal is happy clients, and everybody is a client, so my job is, how do I make everybody happy? (Laughter.)
And they are also eagerly looking ahead to the future and planning how to improve Balance. “One of the things that helps with the quality of the therapists here is we do a lot of internal training,” says Draybuck.
So, besides systems and really getting communication very clear, we also work with technique. It’s been great from day one to be able to help people get the feedback that they need. A lot of therapists, when they get out of school and they’re working, they don’t get feedback anymore. They don’t know why somebody is not coming back, what can make them better. When people first get started with us we get a lot of feedback for them, we work with them a lot, so they learn those little things that are going to make them more successful faster. They don’t have to start from square one. We’ve learned all those lessons.
“Our team wrote a vision statement in 2015 for 2020,” says Lee. “Part of my job is to make sure we’re working through that vision. That helps me figure out our strategic plan for the year, like where we’re putting our time and energy. A lot of this year was getting Chris’ certification…” Draybuck interjects, “I just got my Continuing Education Provider status, so now we can offer some Continuing Education Units to therapists as well, which is what they need to continue to renew their license. They’re required to take so many classes every three years.” Lee continues, “So now we can start creating the classes, and we can offer them internally, and then eventually we’ll be able to offer them to other therapists. Then, hopefully, Chris will be able to work with therapists if they also want to teach. Because it’s a really hard career physically, so it’s how can you extend your career at some point.
“You have to learn what you need to do to take care of yourself as you work, to extend your career,” says Draybuck.
The biggest focus is on good body mechanics from the very beginning, and revisiting those good body mechanics. We also do trades here on a monthly basis, so getting bodywork yourself is going to help work out a lot of those issues. As you get into massage you’re going to learn your limits, you’re going to learn what feels like too much. You can keep massaging forever, you just may have to adjust what you’re going to be doing. You may be doing a different type of massage, or you may be doing less people. But the director of my school, she’s still massaging, she’s in her seventies. She’s been massaging for over thirty years and she’s completely fine and injury-free.
Lee and Draybuck are sharing their lives and their business, and feel very fortunate to have found each other. “Chris and I met at transitional times in our lives,” writes Lee. Draybuck, like Lee, had suffered a significant loss before the two met. Her brother died of cancer during her sophomore year at U-M. “I think both experiencing such a devastating loss at an early age made us realize that there are no guarantees in life,” writes Lee.
We didn’t have anything holding us back. We’d been through hell and came out of it with a renewed sense of purpose. I love our story of finding each other. It’s a sad one at a lot of levels, because had we not experienced loss, our roads wouldn’t have led us to each other. However, it’s so full of joy and love. Finding each other helped us grow as people, strengthen as a couple, and create a business that lets us help people every day.
Balance Massage Therapy is open seven days per week and is located at 5155 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, 48105. For more information, please call (734) 660-5919 or visit lifeisactive.com.