During the past 34 years, Joe Cirulli, founder and CEO of Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers and the recipient of Club Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award this year, not only has built a reputation within the community of Gainesville, FL, but he also has built a reputation in the fitness industry.
Not long after Geoff Dyer opened his first Lifestyle Family Fitness club in 1982 in Lakeland, FL, he heard rumors that Cirulli was thinking about opening a club there, too. That rumor was false. Cirulli has only ever wanted to build and grow in Gainesville.
“Joe was the 800-pound gorilla,” Dyer recalls. “Just to be in his presence, I got hot sweats. It intimidated me being around him.”
Other companies have inquired about buying Gainesville Health and Fitness over the years. One executive of a prominent club company asked Cirulli this past spring, “What’s it going to take to turn your clubs into ours?”
No deal, Cirulli replied.
“What will I do when I wake up tomorrow?” Cirulli often says in these situations.
Derek Barton knew all about Cirulli’s prowess back when he was the senior vice president of marketing for Gold’s Gym International, Irving, TX. Barton says Cirulli was directly responsible for putting a Gold’s Gym in Gainesville out of business.
Who was this Joe Cirulli, Barton thought? Well, like Dyer, Barton got to know Cirulli a little better, and the two hit it off, so much so that Barton became Cirulli’s branding consultant.
“One of the coolest guys in this industry,” is how Barton describes Cirulli. “He’ll tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.”
Another one of Cirulli’s consultants is Rudy Fabiano, architect and owner of Fabiano Designs, Montclair, NJ. Fabiano is working with Cirulli on the interior of the main club’s expansion.
“I have to give Joe a lot of credit,” Fabiano says. “He could rest on his laurels, but he’s continually thinking about how to deliver a more meaningful experience. He has a very strong vision of where his club needs to go.”
Over the years, Cirulli has become a sought-after speaker around the country and around the world. At a conference years ago in Florida, Cirulli was asked to pinch-hit for the keynote speaker who had canceled at the last minute. Cirulli told the story of how he got started, and the speech went so well that he was asked to speak at other conferences, including Club Industry.
“Joe Cirulli was the most impressive club owner I met during my time at Club Industry and is one of the best people I have ever known in business,” says Marc Onigman, co-founder of Club Industry.
Recently, Cirulli spoke to a group of Tampa, FL, CEOs upon the request of Dyer. He became the highest-rated speaker there in three years, Dyer says.
“I came to love Joe as a friend. To this day, I consider him one of my best friends,” Dyer says. “Joe is a student of great thinking. He is continuously learning. He continuously reads books. He is continually challenging his staff. He doesn’t try to re-invent the wheel.”
Cirulli also is active in the industry’s REX Roundtables for Executives, led by Will Phillips. In 19 years, Phillips says, Cirulli has not missed a meeting.
“Of the thousand CEOs I’ve worked with, Joe is probably at the top in terms of taking an idea, and you see him next month or next quarter, and he’s figured out how to make it work in his club,” Phillips says. “Joe will take a thousand ideas a year and use them to refine, improve, hone something in his club, and people see that improvement.”
It was Phillips who suggested Cirulli to Bo Burlingham, editor-at-large for Inc. magazine, for a profile. Burlingham had just completed his book “Small Giants” about unique companies across the country. Burlingham liked the idea, and Cirulli and Gainesville Health and Fitness were featured in an Inc. cover story in 2008. It was one of the most popular articles in the magazine that year, Burlingham says.
Had he found Cirulli earlier, Burlingham adds, he would have included Cirulli in his book.
“He’s been a great ambassador in the industry,” Burlingham says. “He embodies everything that’s great and admirable in the industry. Business is just a tool. Some people take that tool and they do bad things with it. And then they blame business. Joe exemplifies that it isn’t business. It’s them.”
Jim Flanagan, a former Nautilus sales manager who later became a distributor for Med-X equipment, has been friends with Cirulli since 1979 when both were under the tutelage of Nautilus founder Arthur Jones.
“I knew he was born for superstardom,” Flanagan says. “He’s a top-shelf man in my book. They don’t come any better than Joe Cirulli.”