Not long after takeoff, about 10 miles east of Tampa, FL, the battery on Joe Cirulli’s A36 Bonanza single-engine six-seat airplane exploded. Cirulli, an experienced pilot, lost all contact with air traffic control as well as his lights and navigation. His only guide was a compass that he could only see by holding a flashlight in his mouth.

It was the middle of the night in 2005, and a hurricane approaching the east coast of Florida meant Cirulli couldn’t go east, as several airplanes were headed from the east to land in Tampa away from the hurricane. Cirulli, flying solo, navigated his dark airplane over the Gulf of Mexico, then he zigzagged across the state, looking for a place to land, his fuel running low.

That night was not the first test of Cirulli’s mettle. Before he became the owner and CEO of the now profitable Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers in Gainesville, FL, he had reached and overcome the depths of despair many times.

Next month, Cirulli will receive Club Industry’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Club Industry Conference and Trade Show in Las Vegas. How he became the 10th recipient of the award is a tale worthy of a movie script, one part “Rudy” and one part “Rocky.” It is a tale of grit, determination and the will to succeed. Cirulli is, in the health club industry and in life, a survivor.

A Leader from the Start

Joe Cirulli was born and raised in Elmira, NY, a largely blue-collar town in south-central New York just north of the Pennsylvania border. He is the third of seven children born to Armand and Fran Cirulli. Armand served in the U.S. Navy and later worked for the post office. Fran was a nurse. Many days, Armand would return home from his postal job as Fran was leaving for work. It was a busy household in which young Joe saw hard work first-hand.

Cirulli (pronounced “seh-ROO-lee”) started working out at age 7, watching Jack LaLanne on TV. By age 9, Cirulli already showed an interest in lifting weights, so at Christmas, he received a Mighty Mouse weight set. Still in grade school, Cirulli led the neighborhood kids in workouts in the cellar of his house. He later lifted weights with men at the local YMCA.

In high school, Cirulli expanded his leadership role. He led his football teammates in weight training, and before his senior year, No. 63 was named captain.

“He would always leave everything out on the field,” says Cirulli’s sister, Linda Cirulli-Burton.

In his Notre Dame High School yearbook, a photo of Cirulli on the sidelines of the football field is paired with this quote: “It’s not winning that matters but the will to win.” The quote was from Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers and one of Cirulli’s idols. Years later, another of Lombardi’s quotes is displayed on Cirulli’s club wall.

One of Cirulli’s greatest achievements in high school came in a loss. As a wrestler, he faced an opponent 20 pounds heavier—and with a beard. The opponent almost pinned Cirulli, but at the last second, Cirulli lifted his shoulder to prevent the pin. After time expired, Cirulli’s teammates gave him a big ovation for his efforts. It was one of the first moments in which he showed his survivor instincts.

While attending Corning Community College in Corning, NY, Cirulli ran and hitchhiked the 20 or so miles back home so he could lift weights with his friends in Elmira before returning to Corning.

His journey to Gainesville came almost by accident. After getting his associate’s degree, Cirulli and a buddy planned to travel the country, starting with a trip to Gainesville, but the buddy backed out. So instead, Cirulli went to Gainesville anyway to visit his girlfriend, who was going to a community college there. Cirulli arrived in Gainesville on Oct. 27, 1973. That is when his real survival story began.

Gator Country

Cirulli’s first job in Gainesville, at the age of 19, was at the Steve Spurrier Health Spa, which was partly owned by the University of Florida Heisman Trophy winner and later head football coach. When Cirulli arrived in Gainesville, Spurrier was across the country serving his seventh season as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

In exchange for a membership, Cirulli worked as an instructor at the club. A few months later, after the club gained new management, he asked if he could sell memberships, and he sold eight his first day. Eight memberships in a month was a good month, he was told later.

Over the next five years, Cirulli experienced a series of high hopes and dreams crushed, as a total of six clubs that Cirulli worked for either went out of business while he was there or went bankrupt shortly after he left. On two occasions, Cirulli lived and slept inside the club. When things were really bad, he slept in his car.

One day, the fiscally challenged Cirulli went to McDonald’s for a 16-cent Diet Coke, only to discover he had 12 cents in his pocket. That was all he had to his name, too.

As he walked out of the McDonald’s, he began to feel grateful for the lessons he learned from all the club owners whose poor handling of their clubs led to his penniless circumstance.

“I will never allow myself to be broke again,” Cirulli told himself.

In the parking lot, Cirulli encountered a friend who, upon learning of his situation, offered him a place to stay. Inspired earlier in his career by Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking,” Cirulli found another motivational book called “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill. After reading that book, Cirulli wrote down a list of life goals. Cirulli was thinking positively again, but he would soon encounter more obstacles that would test his mettle.

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.”

Employees and Family Are the Same

Cirulli has created an environment at Gainesville Health and Fitness in which the staff treats him like family and vice versa. Some of the staff is in fact Cirulli’s actual family.

In addition to Coley-Cannon, several Gainesville Health and Fitness employees have been with Cirulli for 15, 20, or 25 or more years. It is not hard to understand why. Cirulli has rewarded his management team with whitewater rafting trips and excursions to Costa Rica. One year, as a Christmas bonus, Cirulli took his staff to a mall in Orlando and gave each employee an envelope containing more than $1,000 that they were to spend that day.

“I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else,” says Shawn Stewart, operations manager, an 18-year veteran at the club. “He’s helped me grow as a person as much as any person I’ve ever been around.”

One day, Cirulli told Stewart to keep Thursday open for a special trip, just for the two of them. Cirulli flew Stewart that day to a golf tournament. In Augusta, GA. At The Masters. Stewart, a golf fanatic, was floored.

“It’s that personal level of knowing that he’s thinking about you all the time,” Stewart says. “We all work hard, but we get to play hard.”

Sometimes, Cirulli will solve a problem for which his staff sees no resolution. One day, a car that was part of a giveaway was parked in front of the club and needed to be moved but was not moveable conventionally. Depending on whom you ask, the car either was barricaded and/or no one could find the keys. Not a problem, Cirulli thought. He and a few staff members simply lifted the car and carried it out of the way.

“Failure never enters his mind,” Stewart says. “It truly never enters his mind.”

Debbie Lee’s first exposure to Gainesville Health and Fitness came in 1984 as a part-time aerobics instructor. Right away, Lee said to herself, “One day, I’m going to work for this man.”

Today, Lee is the company’s director of marketing. She calls Cirulli a marketer’s dream.

“Joe is willing to put up the money to allow us to be the best we can be at our positions,” Lee says.

Jan Matkozich, general manager and sales manager, has been with Cirulli since 1980, with a couple of pauses in between.

“I don’t come to work,” Matkozich says. “This is just part of life. This has never been a job in that sense. Outside of my wife and my two kids, this is my family. Joe and his family took me in like I was one of theirs.”

Matkozich says Cirulli leads by walking around, often stopping to help a member on a machine or picking up a candy wrapper or paper clip off the floor.

All employees follow the company’s core values: hard work, integrity, a commitment to helping people and a willingness to create your own future. The staff—men and women—wear blue dress shirts, with the men required to wear a tie. That’s partly due to Cirulli’s Catholic school upbringing and partly to differentiate the staff from the club’s trainers, who wear polo shirts.

Gainesville Health and Fitness receives about 2,000 employment applications each year. The extensive interview process concludes with a workout in the club.

All six of Cirulli’s siblings, from Linda to Debbie to Dan to Ro to Mike to Crissy, now live in Gainesville, as do their parents. And all but one of the Cirullis have or have had roles at the company, from public relations to the smoothie bar to finances.

At 86, Armand still goes to work every morning to manage Joe’s personal bills. He shares an office with Mike Kline, CFO at Gainesville Health and Fitness.

“He doesn’t believe in retirement,” Armand says of Joe. “I can understand what he means.”

Joe Cirulli, who will turn 59 in December, bought Armand and Fran a house in Gainesville, one of the many goals he set as a young man. Joe himself was married for a brief time in his 20s to the girlfriend who brought him to Florida. They later divorced, and he has never remarried. Although he does not have kids of his own, he sees his many nieces and nephews at birthday party after birthday party.

“The industry is what he loves,” Dan says. “I don’t know how he could get tied down.”

Safe Landing

After flying all over Florida with no lights, no instruments, nothing but a compass lit by the flashlight in his mouth, Cirulli finally was ready to land. Some runway lights happened to turn on at a small airport in Cross City, about 50 miles west of Gainesville.

Cirulli had to manually lower the landing gear. For every turn, he had to twist the handle four times. It required 15 turns, and he needed every ounce of his upper-body strength to maneuver the handle. He pushed himself the way he would push someone to lift a weight in his club.

“Thank God I work out,” Cirulli thought.

After landing the plane safely in Cross City at 2:30 a.m., he called a friend to take him back to Gainesville. Later that morning, Cirulli, still shaken by the flight, went into his club without telling anyone what had happened, even denying anything was wrong when someone noticed that he was less talkative than usual. Then Cirulli found a book on his desk that included this famous quote: “Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.”

After reading that quote, Cirulli thought about all the times in his health club career when he had no one else to turn to, just as he had no one to turn to but himself that night in the dark skies above Florida. His flying adventure re-emphasized what he had learned in his journey to becoming a business leader: Focus on what you can accomplish, not on what you cannot accomplish.

“I did OK,” Cirulli said to himself that day. “I did what I was supposed to do.”

For more on Joe Cirulli and the respect he has earned inside and outside the fitness industry, read this online-only sidebar.

Joe Cirulli's Timeline

1953: Joe Cirulli was born on Dec. 13 in Elmira, NY.

1973: At age 19, Cirulli arrives in Gainesville, FL, and works at the Steve Spurrier Health Spa.

1978: The first Gainesville Health and Fitness Center opens in a 2,500-square-foot space in Creekside Mall.

1984: The 9,500-square-foot Gainesville Health and Fitness Center for Women opens. It eventually expands to 14,000 square feet.

1986: The main club moves to a 22,000-square-foot space formerly occupied by a Winn-Dixie grocery store. It eventually grows to 31,000 square feet.

1988: The first ReQuest Physical Therapy center opens.

1996: The main club moves to a 51,000-square-foot facility at its current site. It eventually expands to 66,000 square feet.

2001: A ReQuest satellite office opens in Alachua, FL.

2007: A new 25,000-square-foot coed club and a ReQuest center opens in Tioga Town Center in Gainesville.

2012-2013: The main club undergoes expansion that will take it to 78,000 square feet.

Joe Cirulli's Top 10 List

As a young man, Joe Cirulli set 10 goals to achieve in his life. He accomplished all of them before he turned 33.

1. Own a health club in Gainesville, FL, so no one can tell me where I’m going to live.

2. Make it respected in the community.

3. Earn $100,000 by the time I’m 25.

4. Own a Mercedes-Benz like the one driven by the Six Million Dollar Man.

5. Own a home in the mountains, one by the ocean and build a home for my parents.

6. Become a black belt in karate.

7. Become a pilot and own an airplane.

8. Travel all over the United States.

9. Travel all over the world.

10. Save $1 million.

Club Industry Lifetime Achievement Award Recipients

Profiles of all Club Industry honorees are available online at: http://clubindustry.com/awardsrankings/lifetime-achievement-award.

2003 — Joe Weider, Weider Publishing

2004 — Joe Gold, Gold’s Gym, World Gym

2005 — Judi Sheppard Missett, Jazzercise

2006 — Rick Caro, Management Vision

2007 — Alan Schwartz, Midtown Athletic Clubs

2008 — Dr. Kenneth Cooper, Cooper Aerobics Center

2009 — Jack LaLanne, TV Fitness Personality

2010 — Curt Beusman, Saw Mill Club

2011 — Red Lerille, Red Lerille’s Health and Racquet Club

2012 — Joe Cirulli, Gainesville Health and Fitness Centers