Back in the early ’90s, Alethea McCann and her husband were frustrated with the gym they frequented. “The weights would pinch you when you put them down, and the equipment was old,” McCann recalled.
Rather than look around for a better fit, they decided to open their own gym in a former grocery store at 2921 E. 57th Ave.
“We actually had the lease signed and the equipment ordered before we even had a name,” she said.
McCann explored franchise opportunities, eventually gravitating to Gold’s Gym. “They were more interested in our business backgrounds than our fitness backgrounds,” she said.
This month, McCann is marking the gym’s 20th anniversary with special events and giveaways, culminating with a birthday party from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 25.
“I have members who have been with me since the day I opened,” McCann said, “and their kids, who used to come to our day care, now work out here. As part of our celebration, we’re encouraging members to share stories about what they were doing in 1993.”
During a recent interview, McCann discussed how the couple’s Gold’s Gym franchise has evolved and what challenges lie ahead.
S-R: Were you athletic as a youngster?
McCann: Growing up in Arizona, I did a lot of outdoor things – swimming, scuba diving, hiking – and I always belonged to a gym.
S-R: When you launched your own, was there a learning curve?
McCann: Oh, my God. Back then, Gold’s had good advice for equipment and floor plans, but they didn’t have a lot of support material. So I’d be at the front desk and suddenly realize we needed some contract or form, and I’d run upstairs and knock it out on a computer.
S-R: How have fitness clubs evolved during the past two decades?
McCann: They used to focus pretty much on swimming, racquetball and weights. Now it’s all about your core and balance, especially as you get older.
S-R: Any memorable mistakes early on?
McCann: I tried to do everything at once – have the best fitness program, the best this, the best that. And you can only sustain that for so long when you’re building a business. My philosophy now is to hire people who are better than me at their specialty, and then get out of their way.
S-R: You mentioned you have about 2,500 members. Has growth been steady?
McCann: No, it’s been up and down. All kinds of things – particularly a recession – affect this type of business. Competition is fierce, so you really have to keep your prices low even as you try to update your facility and attract qualified staff.
S-R: Was the business ever at risk of failing?
McCann: Yeah, a couple of times. I added Gold’s Gym North in ’98, and that went well until the new YMCA came in and put a dent in everybody’s business. I had to close that gym last August on short notice, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.
S-R: How would you characterize where you are right now?
McCann: We’re in a great spot. Our business is run very tight, and we’re automating things more. Members use their thumb to check in, and go online to get billing information.
S-R: What distinguishes Gold’s from other gyms?
McCann: Our customer service, and our equipment – we keep it clean and repaired.
S-R: Your logo, which dates back to the company’s origins in Venice Beach, Calif., features a bald, muscle-bound weightlifter holding a bent barbell. Is that your typical client?
McCann: We do have a few bodybuilders and serious powerlifters here, but we also get a lot of older people. And we have Zumba classes for 4- to 12-year-olds. We get all kinds of people.
S-R: What’s the most popular activity?
McCann: Cardio is huge – treadmills, ellipticals and bikes.
S-R: What are the busiest times of the day?
McCann: It’s packed the minute we open (at 5 a.m. on weekdays), then calms down around 8 o’clock. We’re busy again from 9 to 10:30, then things are pretty steady until people get off work, and we’re packed again. (Weekday hours are 5 a.m.-11 p.m.; weekends 7 a.m.-8 p.m.)
S-R: What’s the best way to approach a gym membership?
McCann: Be open to new ways of getting fit. You don’t have to just lift weights. One guy who has a stand-up paddleboard comes in with his paddle, gets up on a ball and practices balancing.
S-R: What do you like most about the business?
McCann: The energy. Every time I come in here I leave smiling.
S-R: What do you like least?
McCann: Maintenance. A toilet clogs up, a treadmill goes down, then the roof leaks, and you have to fix everything right now.
S-R: What’s the biggest business challenge you face?
McCann: Keeping costs low. But I’ve chosen a facility and a layout where I can do that. I don’t have a pool and all the other things that drive up costs.
S-R: What are your strengths?
McCann: I embrace what people are going through. And I’ll stand up for what I believe in.
S-R: Anything you wish you did better?
McCann: I need to pay more attention to my work-life balance. It’s a grind day in and day out, especially because I have two other businesses – a staffing firm and a medical supply company.
S-R: What do you look for in job candidates?
S-R: What advice would you offer someone interested in pursuing a career in fitness?
McCann: A lot of people come into this business trained as exercise specialists, but there’s a lot of salesmanship to being a trainer – you have to sell. I’d advise people interested in fitness careers to study business, so they can better understand their role.
S-R: Speaking of selling, some people join gyms with ambitious expectations, only to slack off and regret signing a yearlong contract. What advice would you offer prospective customers?
McCann: Consider a month-to-month contract. There are lots of options. And as with any agreement, understand it before you sign.
S-R: What do you see as the next big trend?
McCann: I think there’s going to be a big demand for fitness facilities because of health-care reform. People are going to have to be more proactive about their health. We already have relationships with doctors – helping them monitor patients – and I see that growing. More and more baby boomers are coming in every day.
S-R: How often do you work out?
McCann: Three times a week in the gym; every day outside the gym. And I still love scuba diving.
S-R: What’s your favorite dive?
McCann: The Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize – a 150-foot cave dive. But I don’t care where I go, as long as I’m underwater.