J Madden’s office at Pura Vida Fitness & Spa in Downtown Denver, Colo. is his favorite place in the entire world — looking out his large windows into the deep blue Colorado sky illuminated with the perfect amount of sunlight, it’s easy to see why.
Pura Vida, Madden’s most recent venture and second full-service fitness facility, is located in the Cherry Creek district, deep in the heart of Denver. The club is on E. 1st Street directly across from the Cherry Creek Shopping Center and about a block away from the Denver Country Club, the oldest country club west of the Mississippi.
The club differs from Madden’s original fitness club, Greenwood Athletic Club, in that it is 18 and over, and possesses more of a luxurious style created strictly for the adult population. Madden said he took a deep look at the market in 2006 and 2007 prior to the real impact from the recession. What he saw at that time was a market that was blooming and ready for lavish amenities as well as a new focus on wellness and healthy living. “A host of things were going right,” said Madden. “Luxury products were very popular — resorts and spas, nationally and internationally were going strong. The sales numbers at Cherry Creek Shopping Center were off the charts in terms of total revenue that the shopping center was doing per square foot. To try and create the elevated experience in the fitness world seemed like it would follow the trends of the economy at that time.”
Madden couldn’t foresee the economic downturn, but due to his more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, he was able to weather the initial storm. It could be perceived that indirectly, Greenwood Athletic Club, Madden’s start in the fitness industry, was the lifeblood that helped Pura Vida dodge the recession enough to successfully arrive on the other side.
Greenwood Athletic & Tennis Club
It was the mid ’80s and Madden was looking to get his feet wet as an entrepreneur. His father had been in real estate for the majority of his life. In fact, it had been real estate that brought the family out of Nebraska and into Denver in the early ’70s. Real estate had been good for Madden’s family, but he had another idea.
Greenwood Athletic & Tennis Club was the brainchild of Madden after he saw the desire for an already active community to have a place to stay active all year. At that time aerobics was growing, as well as fitness for the every-day individual. Health was becoming more of a concern, and people were attempting to look and feel younger for longer.
“We had a phenomenal piece of land located in a very upscale suburban neighborhood,” said Madden. “There was this 14 acres just sitting there and looking for use. In 1985 I suggested to my father that we should consider being on the frontier of building an athletic club, which no one clearly knew what that meant.”
At the time, Madden said people believed athletic clubs were warehouse-like structures with racquetball and perhaps a small gym or weight room. “That was really before Stairmasters were emerging,” said Madden. “I set up a design contest with a bunch of architects and contractors. We broke ground on August 20, 1986, and opened Greenwood Athletic Club on July 1, 1987. My dad believed in me enough that I could pull this off.”
Madden experienced competition in the market, but felt that he understood business development and real estate enough, with assistance from his father, to make an educated decision on whether or not to move forward. They paid a research team to investigate the business strategy to ensure themselves that the business would work. “That was done in 1986, and the research team’s conclusion was ‘no,’” Madden laughed. “But, being the entrepreneurial maverick thinking developers that we were, we ignored their recommendation and pressed forward.”
Greenwood opened with the emergence of the Stairmaster 4000 that revolutionized the cardiovascular equipment in the club. Greenwood had a bunch of Stairmasters, treadmills, some weights and racquet sports. “What we did was sort of a transformation in the industry.” Madden not only put together a facility that was full of the most modern equipment at the time, but he focused on the architecture and landscaping of the facility. “We spent a significant amount of money making the building attractive with a lot of natural sunlight and phenomenal landscaping. We won landscaping awards and used public art in the space. We did a number of different things to make this club truly different.”
Over the years Greenwood Athletic Club continued to invest in the building and its programming. They attempted to stay on the cutting edge of the industry, providing members with possibilities they wouldn’t experience at competing facilities.
“We are always on the leading edge of identifying what we thought our members would like,” said Madden. “We didn’t sit still. We deployed a huge amount of money and continued to reinvest in the building and our programming.” Madden said they took a different approach from an owners’ standpoint. “Many owners are looking for a return on investment,” said Madden. “We took a different approach that if we didn’t reinvest, there might not be anything for us to return to.”
That mindset kept them continually reinventing themselves for their members. “Because of our strength in the Colorado market, our vendors and equipment reps helped us always keep a close ear to the ground,” explained Madden. “If we saw an opportunity or something was about to emerge, we jumped on it. It’s just being good listeners.”
Besides learning from equipment suppliers, Madden spent time using his members to learn about what was new and what was cutting edge. “There are always people moving into Colorado,” said Madden. People come from all over the U.S. to live in Denver and they bring with them insights into other fitness trends in bigger, or similar sized markets. “We’ve had a very successful membership advisory committee for many years, where we ask our members what they are seeking, what they are looking for. It comes back to being as good of listeners as we can be.”
Greenwood Athletic Club continued to grow on the desires of its members. It added tennis courts as well as spas and saunas. “We’ve built our platform on constant and consistent improvement,” said Madden. “First, I wanted to have the architecture drive the experience. Then I started building our club around it.” The club has blossomed and improved membership numbers as well as its personal training business, which Madden boasts as one of the best. The personal training department at Greenwood Athletic Club won’t simply hire a trainer with a certification — they also require a four-year degree and experience. “Our personal training has been an industry leader based on our particular configuration,” said Madden. “We are one club, we are suburban, and we do an excess of $2 million in personal training every year. We look for ACSM, as well as other certifications, and a four-year degree. Trainers are going to come to us with experience from around the country, or even locally, and they are going to have a host of different certificates. They are going to come to us because they know they can make a great living at Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club. It’s the same thing at Pura Vida. We don’t hire people there that are just emerging or looking for upward experience. If they are coming to one of my clubs, they are already experienced. Certainly they will have what their academics have taught them, but they have to have the personality and the people skills to turn this into something meaningful.”
After 25 years of owning Greenwood Athletic & Tennis Club, Madden’s favorite part of the club is still walking through the front door. However, Pura Vida limited Madden to the amount of time he could spend in Greenwood — about one day a week in the first three years of Pura Vida.
Greenwood Athletic Club was established as a suburban health club for everyone. Pura Vida, on the other hand, was designed for a different type of fitness consumer — one that desired a slightly more modern appearance, as well as an adult only, high-end fitness club.
Pura Vida Fitness & spa
“It appeared to me, in the urban market, the right demography, the right state, you could create an upscale, high-style, high-touch fitness experience,” said Madden. “Denver does not have some of these Equinox-type brands, so this has been a model on the radar screen for 10 years.”
In 2006 Madden started believing that this particular club idea could potentially work. “Pura Vida is a fitness experience that is 18 and over, high service and we had to be at a price point that wasn’t over the top, but comfortable for our target audience,” explained Madden.
Pura Vida wasn’t created to be anything like Greenwood Athletic Club — but it wasn’t going to lack any of the top-notch service that Madden had instilled into Greenwood. Everything had to be modern and able to attract the successful demographic that found itself in Downtown Denver.
Madden’s initial focus was to bring yoga and Pilates, as well as other fitness and spa amenities into the club. However, yoga in Denver was a process. According to Madden, those that practiced yoga weren’t simply going to move to Pura Vida because it was a beautiful design and great location. Yoga members are loyal to their yogi, and it takes time for the yogi to see the benefits of Pura Vida, cross the line and bring members with them.
“I look at Pilates and personal training sometimes just like your hair stylist,” explained Madden. “If you’ve been doing personal training and Pilates with someone for a number of years, you don’t change your hair stylist, do you? It’s the same type of thing. You create this great personal relationship, they know your head, they know your stories, they like you; it’s second nature. We had to overcome that barrier where people had to overcome their hair stylist — had to give up their other personal trainer or other Pilates instructor to come to Pura Vida. Ultimately, that did happen.”
Pura Vida’s Pilates classes have gone from almost flat-lined in the beginning to astonishing results. “We are busy from the time we open, until the evening with a remarkable balance between men and women,” said Madden. “People are figuring out that they can go to fantastic yoga classes at Pura Vida and have the rest of the facility too for just a little bit more than another yoga studio.”
Not only does Pura Vida provide members with a great place to exercise, but it also provides them with every type of exercise they could desire to help them reach their top performance. Classes are continually updating and Madden’s team does everything in its power to stay on the cutting edge of fitness, both in terms of service and equipment. “We are doing a ballet class right now that is always filled. We do a 30/30 that is an afternoon lunchtime class that is always filled if not overflowing. Our spin program, when we first opened was an underachiever, but now every class is always filled,” said Madden. “Granted we are in the first quarter of the year with the New Year’s resolution buzz, but right now we are doing about 1,650 participants in classes every week. Given our total population, that’s an exceptional number.”
The overall idea of Pura Vida has grown to be more than just a new idea on fitness, but a philosophy on how fitness and exercise clubs can be perceived and enjoyed. Madden believes the next couple of years will truly show the power of the brand, and its mission. “It is a transportable brand,” said Madden. “The stars have to align on certain things. Who will be out there that will see Pura Vida as a brand that they would have an interest in, and how can we create that partnership going forward? Those are things I’m going to start focusing on this year and next year. It is a remarkable facility — and similar zip codes and similar markets — it just seems to make sense. We don’t want to be all things to all people, we just want to be all things to our target market.”
Madden doesn’t have a desire to be an empire builder, but he does believe there is enough quality behind Pura Vida to take the club into other markets. “North Scottsdale in Arizona, or Highland Park in Dallas, those are demographics that are similar to the Cherry Creek market in Denver.”
Growing the brand will be a lot like nurturing a child, said Madden. There is so much to developing a successful child and putting them in the right place at the right time to help them be successful, he sees a lot of the same concepts in developing and growing Pura Vida. “From the software to the office furniture to what the programming is going to be — there are thousands of decisions on architectural details, but at the end of the day, you’ve jumped from not being profitable to being profitable, it’s just win-win. Members are paying you because they are having a great experience; they have plenty of choices where to go. They are choosing here, paying Pura Vida, they’re winning, our staff is winning — they have a great place to work — and ultimately my aspiration is that my partners can win.
“If it’s done right at the starting line, it’s a very gratifying business. It’s a gratifying business because everyone chooses to be here. There is no gun that is making someone go here, we’re not the dentists. Here is where I choose to be, it makes me feel good.”
In the mid 1980s Greenwood Athletic Club differentiated itself from the competition by providing members with something they hadn’t seen before — an elegant looking club with top-of-the-line architecture and landscaping, as well as high-end fitness equipment and amenities. In the past four years, Madden has replicated his ability to think outside the box with the development of Pura Vida. It only mimics Greenwood Athletic Club through its impeccable service, but it is its own entity with an original style and concept that has members moving from studios and other clubs to see what the buzz is about at the new high-end Pura Vida.
In the last 25 years, not only has Madden founded one of the largest, most enjoyable athletic clubs in Colorado, but now he has also launched a successful high-end facility that could be a successful brand almost anywhere in the entire world. And, although he has no desire to be a fitness mogul, he has a track record that could suggest otherwise. -CS
By Tyler Montgomery