Women of the Industry
Women bring a unique brand of leadership to the world, including the health club industry. Here, we highlight just a handful of women who are working hard to transform their businesses and bring them to the next level of success.
Vicki Brick, the CEO of Brick Bodies, entered the health club industry with a bit of reluctance. Though she played basketball in college and fitness has always been important to her, she didn’t see herself working in a health club setting.
“When I was younger, I disliked spending any time in our clubs,” said Brick. “My parents [Lynne and Victor Brick] started the business when I was 4 years old, and it seemed like I spent every day in the club. I grew to resent the club because it represented something that took my parents away from me.”
That all changed when, at 26, Brick began working for her parents. “I got butterflies in my stomach before I would go into work — the same butterflies I used to get on game-days, and I knew I found something special,” she recalled.
Now, Brick is at the helm of Brick Bodies, which has seven locations in Baltimore, Maryland. There, she gets to share her love for the industry, citing her passion for “the impact that we have inside and outside our clubs to help change people’s lives.”
To Brick, the keys to her success involve hard work, discipline and getting in the trenches with her team. “[Another key is] my ability to take the lessons I learned from sports and apply my experiences to business, such as coaching, mentoring, performing under pressure and dealing with competition,” she added.
It was while playing basketball her sophomore year of college at the University of Maryland that Brick experienced the biggest challenge she’s had to overcome.
“I tore my ACL one week before basketball season started,” Brick recalled. “It was a very challenging and humbling experience. I made a bad pivot in a pick-up game and, in a matter of seconds, all of my hard work was destroyed.”
Although the injury was a painful one, Brick explained she was able to learn from it. “The experience made me stronger in the long run,” she said. “I learned what it’s like to be at the top of my game, and then have everything taken from me and have to start all over again. I learned resilience and how to persevere in the face of adversity.”
Struggling with your weight is just that, a struggle, and Trina Gray, the owner of Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan, dealt with it when she first entered the health and fitness industry.
“I was an overweight college student who joined a family-owned health club outside of Madison, Wisconsin,” recalled Gray. “I started off in the back of class, self-conscious and needing to lose about 25 pounds. I stayed committed and the group exercise director noticed my drive and my results. She invited me to become an instructor. It changed the trajectory of my entire life. I was a journalist by day, instructor by night for about eight years before I opened my club.”
Now, Gray lives by a few key mantras, first and foremost, “success is not convenient.”
“Success is about failing forward in daily life and getting better,” said Gray. “It’s about grinding out work when others watch television, waste time gossiping or scroll the Facebook news feed. Success is not convenient, but it’s worth it. It leads to a life of convenience with greater choices and freedom.”
Gray has kept this mantra in mind while striving to build her health club into a cornerstone of its community. Her drive for success was essential in overcoming multiple road bumps along the way, such as having to let go of a general manager after six months.
“I did not know if I could rebound from the drama and the setback,” explained Gray. “I was worried about what everyone else in the community would think. I was worried about him joining the gym down the road. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to figure it all out.”
Gray overcame the challenge by turning to industry resources and her mentor, Todd Durkin. “I put down the Kleenex and got back to work with a better mindset,” she said. “I built a stronger, thriving team with amazing fitness professionals who fit my vibe and my vision. I invested in them, and many are still with me nearly 10 years later. They are my friends and leaders. That failure actually fueled my success.”
Now, Gray couldn’t be happier about the events that led her to where she is today. “I absolutely love that we are advocates of prevention and wellness,” she said. “We are fighting diseases, fighting depression and fighting for people’s lives. I love that I never dread Mondays and never live for Fridays. When you love what you do, you are pumped up to get back after it. It is the best cause on the planet.”
Maureen (Mo) Hagan landed her first job in the health club industry in 1983, during her year off between earning university degrees. She began working at a small chain of women’s fitness clubs, where she was hired to teach group fitness classes, set up members on individualized exercise programs and sell memberships.
That start with group exercise proved to be the platform that would launch her to where she is now, as the vice president of program innovation and fitness development for GoodLife Fitness and canfitpro (Canadian Fitness Professionals).
“I had no idea that what started as an entry-level job in the fitness industry was actually setting me up for a life-long career,” said Hagan.
Over the course of her career, she’s discovered the importance of staff training and continuing education to a company’s success. At GoodLife Fitness, employee development is a major component of its business model.
“We know that if associates feel like they’re cared about, and if we’re investing in their personal and professional development, they’ll do the same for our members,” explained Hagan. “Whether it’s our personal trainers, management staff or group fitness instructors, one of the biggest factors in our success is that our associates are caring, well-educated, certified and constantly improving themselves.”
A turning point in Hagan’s career came after she became the first director of group fitness at GoodLife. Because there were no other group fitness directors, it pushed her to step up to the plate as a leader and learn how to sell her role and vision to the company.
“This, in turn, helped me build respect and credibility with the leadership team that has led to the ongoing success of my department and eventual promotions that I have achieved within the company,” continued Hagan.
Though Hagan is at the top of her field, that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten her roots. “Even after 25 years in senior management at GoodLife, I continue to teach fitness classes, participate in group fitness and train with a personal trainer on a weekly basis,” she said. “I visit clubs all over the world to learn and stay on top of the trends and to connect with others. This helps me keep my finger on the pulse, my head in the game and my presence in the field with my peers and the members.”
When Cher Harris, the assistant general manager of The Houstonian Club in Houston, Texas, was 16, she had her life mapped out. “I had a well-calculated plan of what I wanted to do in life,” she said.
If Harris could tell her younger self one thing, “I would tell myself to slow down and be open to all of the wonderful opportunities life has to offer,” she said. “I would have found myself in the club industry much earlier if I had this advice.”
Although it may have taken her a bit longer to break into the industry than she’d like, Harris is happy to have landed at The Houstonian Club. “What I love most about working in health and fitness is that I work with people who all have the same goal, and that is to take care of people first,” she said. “Whether it is helping someone reduce their blood pressure, reduce their stress or have fun, we make a difference in people’s lives and their health every day.”
According to Harris, at The Houstonian Club, the key to success has been its employees’ commitment and passion for the business. “Our employees are our most valuable asset,” she said.
That is why, explained Harris, it’s so important to offer staff the support they need. “Listen to your employees, take time to build strong relationships with them, learn from them and focus on serving their needs above your own,” she explained. “They are the backbone of your business. Take the time to coach, train and inspire them. If they aren’t successful you won’t be either.”
Concerning her personal success, Harris credits her drive to go above and beyond in everything she does. “This philosophy was instilled in me from a very young age and it has served me well through the years,” she said.
This philosophy was instrumental in her recovery from glomerulonephritis, which in 2004, required her to receive a kidney transplant from her brother. “Being someone that did all of the right things for my body, it was a decisive blow,” she recalled. “It was right then and there I realized that health is nothing to take for granted and that God had not only given me a second chance at life, but a true calling to help others through the work I do in the health and fitness industry.”
Jasmin Kirstein – Founder of My Sportlady
If Jasmin Kirstein could tell her 16-year-old self one thing, it would be to “follow your heart.”
In 1984, her heart led her to found My Sportlady, the first women’s-only gym in Germany. “I love what I am doing,” she said. “I am passionate about the industry.”
Because My Sportlady was the first of its kind in Germany, Kirstein worked hard to mold it into a full-service facility that women could turn to for health, fitness and support. In addition to a fitness facility, the club boasts The My Dance School, The Cooking School, The My Sportlady Foundation and The My Day Spa. Through these different avenues, the club strives to cater to women in all aspects of their health and wellness.
It was during a major expansion of the club that Kirstein faced one of her biggest challenges in life: watching her 17-year-old daughter fight a life-threatening illness.
Fortunately, both Kirstein and her daughter persevered. “My daughter recovered fully and my two clubs continued to be successful,” she said.
In July of 2014, My Sportlady celebrated 30 years in business. “It is still growing, developing and always trying to change for the good,” said Kirstein.
In addition to owning a health club, Kirstein is the author of a book and a yoga instructor. She is also the founder of the My Sportlady Trust Fund, which supports women and children, worldwide.
Regarding keys to her success, Kirstein referenced the great people she’s been able to work with and meet over the years. “Wonderful people are working in the industry and more great people want to work there,” she said. “So I always find fantastic people to work with, and they feel happy to come to work.”
Looking back at her time in the industry, Kirstein gave this piece of advice: “Keep up your motivation by joining industry events and try to remember the days when you started your business,” she said. “Usually there was a lot of passion.”
In September 2014, the Camelback Village Racquet and Health Club was damaged in a rare flood in Phoenix, Arizona. The majority of the club was underwater and sustained over $600,000 worth of damages. But Carol Nalevanko only closed the club for one day, then opened different parts of the gym as they were repaired.
“We overcame this disaster by staying calm, confronting our reality, working together to make a plan of recovery and communicating our plan every step of the way to our members,” said Nalevanko. “Our Camelback Village team came out of this disaster a much stronger group of employees and we earned a lot of respect and admiration from our members.”
Nalevanko, now the president of Village Health Clubs and Spas, said that is the biggest challenge she’s had to overcome, and she learned much from the flood.
In order to be a sufficient leader, she believes it is “important to be a strategic thinker with a good sense of humor, relentless preparation, the ability to formulate and lead a team of people, a strong communicator and have a genuine fondness for people.”
The quality and genuineness of the employees at Village Health Clubs and Spas make them successful, according to Nalevanko. The club gauges its success on how well the employees know each other, how well the members know each other and how well the employees know the members.
“We believe that employee training is very important and have created an annual employee training program for all levels of employees. Friendship, fun, integrity, involvement, trust and teamwork are the core values of our company,” said Nalevanko.
After working in the health and fitness industry for over 35 years, Nalevanko has had the pleasure of watching the Village Health Clubs and Spas grow. She says she has seen the positive change they’ve made in members’ lives, a feat she says should not be discounted.
“We are in the healthy lifestyle business and we should not continue to cheapen our prices. Our industry needs to do a better job with member retention and the way to do that is to charge a fair membership price, engage your members so they actually use your clubs and show that you really do care about them,” said Nalevanko. “We cannot continue to be a revolving door of members joining and then leaving.”
Nalevanko and her team have created a social element in her clubs, which she believes has led to long-lasting relationships and memberships.