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Joe Cirulli, who has owned and operated Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers since 1978, is the 10th recipient of Club Industry's Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Migdalia Figueroa.
A Club to Call His Own
After a brief stint at the International Health Spa in Gainesville, Cirulli began working as manager at the Gainesville Executive Health Spa and soon worked a deal to take over the failing 1,500-square-foot club from the owner.
“He was on a mission. You could tell even back then,” says Karen Coley-Cannon, who started working for Cirulli at the Gainesville Executive Health Spa and has been working for him ever since.
Cirulli wanted to expand the club and thought he had found the perfect spot for it, but when he went to sign the lease, the bank had leased out the space from under him.
Cirulli was crushed. He went to a friend, an attorney named Bill DeCarlis, and shared his frustration.
“You’ve got no choice,” DeCarlis told Cirulli. “You’ve got to go find another place.”
And Cirulli did—a 2,500-square-foot space in Creekside Mall. After years of bouncing from club to club, Cirulli finally had a club of his own, the Gainesville Health and Fitness Center. Before construction was finished in 1978, Cirulli began selling memberships and opened the club for workouts even though it meant that members needing a restroom had to use the one at a nearby restaurant. Cirulli needed the membership money to pay for the rest of the construction.
Eventually, the club passed the final inspection, and it became successful enough that in 1984, Cirulli opened a second club, Gainesville Health and Fitness Center for Women. He also expanded the original club and was about to expand further when city regulations ended those plans. Cirulli was three parking spots short of what the city required for his planned expansion.
Cirulli was crushed again, especially after a club operator from Wisconsin who also owned a club in Clearwater, FL, visited Cirulli to tell him he was going to open a club in Gainesville that would put Cirulli out of business.
After visiting the potential competitor’s Clearwater club, Cirulli determined he needed to act fast to keep his business in business. For years, Cirulli had had his eye on the 22,000-square-foot Winn-Dixie grocery store across the street from his club. He knew a move to that location was the key to his company’s future and the key to warding off the would-be competitor from Wisconsin.
When Cirulli heard the Winn-Dixie store was closing, he approached Fred Cone, the building’s co-owner. With the relentlessness of a college football recruiter, Cirulli talked to Cone every day for the next five months, trying to persuade him to give him that store.
By the time Cirulli’s would-be rival and other companies expressed interest in purchasing the grocery store, Cone had already determined who the future tenant would be.
“If anybody’s going in that spot,” Cone told a prospect over the phone in front of Cirulli, “it’s my Italian Stallion here.”
Cirulli got the Winn-Dixie store and moved his club there in 1986.
More challenges faced Cirulli, but he met them head on. Around the time of the main club’s move, the University of Florida announced the construction of its own student recreation center. The student population made up the bulk of Cirulli’s memberships at that time.
Undaunted, he began an aggressive marketing campaign to the entire Gainesville community to replace the students he likely would lose. As part of the wooing of the Gainesville community, he also opened his first rehabilitation center, complete with Med-X equipment developed by Arthur Jones, the Nautilus founder whom Cirulli knew and worked with for years. Back when Jones owned Nautilus, Cirulli would help give equipment demonstrations around the country. The Arthur Jones One Set to Failure training method became a staple in Cirulli’s clubs.
Today, the main Gainesville Health and Fitness Center, which moved from the Winn-Dixie site in 1996, is 66,000 square feet, with plans to take it to 78,000 square feet by early next year. In addition to that club and the women-only club, Cirulli opened a 25,000-square-foot Gainesville Health and Fitness club in 2007. The company also runs three ReQuest Physical Therapy centers, including one inside the main club.
Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers generated $14.7 million in 2011 revenue, putting the company at No. 54 on Club Industry’s Top 100 clubs list this year. The company has 26,000 memberships and 456 employees. Some of those members who have been with the club since the beginning pay the same rate as when they started, in some cases, as little as $50 per year.
Cirulli’s impact on the Gainesville community has resulted in several awards and recognition, including turning Gainesville into the healthiest community in America in 2003. Cirulli’s status in Gainesville may be on par with Spurrier, who came back to Gainesville to coach Florida in 1990. Spurrier didn’t know Cirulli well when Cirulli worked at the clubs that bore his name, but when Spurrier was the Gators’ coach, he worked out at Cirulli’s club, and when asked, he always attended company events.
“He’s come a long way,” says Spurrier, now the head football coach at the University of South Carolina. “I forget who said it, but the way you measure a man in life is not where he is but how far he came to get there. Joe came a long way from those early days.”