The Beginning of the End:
March 16th, 2020 will likely be a date that lives on in infamy for me. Much like 9-11, my wedding day, and the birth of my first son. It was on this day around 12pm that we got the call that we were to close Fenton Fitness (the gym I’d spent the last 7 years running) for 2 weeks due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Michigan. This was unexpected and there was no warning. We asked members to leave, locked the doors and left, expecting to be back on March 30th. Then the extension of the order came, April 13th was the new date. Then another two weeks, then another. Eventually we had 6 two week extensions. At one point our Governor said the whole state would be back open (with some restrictions) by July 5th, then that was taken back as that date approached. There is a legal battle in progress involving a coalition of gym owners who have challenged the Governor's right to have a long term impact on the fitness industry. The court granted gyms the right to get back to helping change lives for the better, and we were ready to open again on Thursday, June 25th. 2.5 hours before we were set to reopen, an appeals court came through and determined we were to stay closed. As I write this we are approaching 19 weeks of forced shut down with no clear end in sight.
The Hammer Drops:
In early July the owners of Fenton Fitness approached me and told me they would not be re-opening our doors. One had taken another full time job, and the desire to pour more effort into the gym had come to an end. At that time, I was offered the opportunity to purchase the gym and invest in its future (as uncertain as that was). It had been a dream of mine to run my own facility for over a decade. After reviewing the numbers and consulting several different business advisors, I determined that the initial terms weren’t feasible for my family in these uncertain times. While these were risks I’d be willing to take as a single man, it wasn’t something I was willing to risk with my family. After our owners being there for over 20 years, and myself being there for 7, the building will cease to be Fenton Fitness.
Discomfort and Growth:
As my career has evolved over the last 12 years, it has been filled with stress, fear, and growth. Much like training, some level of discomfort is typically needed for growth and adaptation. While I loved Fenton Fitness and wished there would have been a way to move forward there, I’m able to see this as an opportunity for tremendous growth and adaptation in my professional life. At FFAC, I ultimately didn’t have the power to always run with or implement new ideas when I wanted to. Moving forward, I’ll have that chance.
My first job out of college was managing a small gym in Kalamazoo called Fitness Connections. I didn’t know what I was doing, and there was no direction. I was frustrated with living paycheck to paycheck, and having no one to teach me or show me how to grow and do more. I eventually took a job in San Antonio, TX for a contract company at Toyota working in Workplace Conditioning and ergonomics. It was scary at the time, as I was leaving all of my friends and family behind for somewhere unknown. The $4/hour raise and health insurance helped to soften the blow. I didn’t know it at the time, but this job and experience would give me a leg up to join Fenton Fitness. After being at Toyota for 2 years our family grew and my wife left the workforce. The $14.50/hour that seemed pretty good as a bachelor was no longer enough to get by and we once again lived paycheck to paycheck. I was soon offered a position at Anytime Fitness in Seguin, TX (about a 45minute drive east of San Antonio). I would be heading up all membership sales and managing the personal training department. The pay structure had a heavy commission set up. If I did poorly it would equate to a pay cut, and likely losing my job. Mediocre performance would likely be a lateral move, but if I did well there was great potential there. I was nervous, but my wife pushed me and believed in my capabilities. My only previous sales experience was as a sophomore at Western Michigan University. I worked as a personal trainer, and was let go after failing to land a single sale over an eight month period. Taking this gamble was terrifying. Fear turned into inspiration when for the first time in my fitness career I had a mentor. Our owners had a system they used to teach us how to create, follow up with, and close leads. They encouraged us to read business books, and helped us in creating marketing campaigns and implementing them. The first month or so on the job was very stressful and scary. I felt like I had no clue what I was doing, but this stress drove me to evolve and adapt. Within 12 months, I was routinely sitting in the number 1 or 2 spot of the nine clubs they owned. I nearly doubled what I had been making at Toyota and had more autonomy. The birth of my second son came with health complications, and we decided to make the move back to Michigan. I started passively looking for new jobs back home, and eventually came across Fenton Fitness. After a couple interviews and a flight back for an in person visit, an offer was made. Leaving Anytime Fitness was really tough. I worked with great people, awesome leadership, and tons of support. Again, I was terrified to leave the comfort of a job that was familiar, and where I was experiencing growth. What if this past two years had just been a fluke? Once again my wife encouraged me and expressed her belief in my abilities. The first few weeks on the job at Fenton Fitness were nerve racking with a new role responsible for growing and developing the training and assessment model at FFAC. There was loose guidance and vision, but no clear cut formula for what was to be done, or how to do it. In the first year on the job our training increased from working with just over a dozen clients to nearly 100, or about a 400% increase in training revenue. By year 5 we were up to around 150 clients and nearly 800% growth from day 1.
A New Era & Vision:
Now that this period of my life is over that level of uncertainty and scariness has returned. Once again my wife has been my biggest supporter and believer. With the fitness industry still technically closed in Michigan, I can’t look for another job. Survey estimates show that anywhere from 10-60% of gym goers will not be returning when they are allowed to open. Among the ones that are willing to return, there will undoubtedly be tension over mask and social distancing requirements. After working the last twelve years for others and relying on others for a paycheck, I feel it’s time to grow my own vision of a fitness business.
In one of his newsletters strength coach Zach Evenesh had a line that read “No one is coming to save you”. That resonated with me, and to be honest really choked me up. Throughout this forced shutdown I’ve yet to get a dime from Unemployment. I believe strongly in being a person of action. Within the first week of being laid off I went out and got a job delivering pizzas 4-5 days per week. This was a humbling experience and really forced me to swallow my pride. I’ve donated plasma twice per week throughout the shut down as well. While I’ve paid into the Michigan unemployment system for 11 years in Michigan and it theoretically is “owed” to me, I’m a big believer that nothing is owed to anyone. As Zach’s newsletter said, no one is coming to save me. I’ve been training clients outdoors (on top of my normal remote programming, training, and nutrition coaching) since June. As that number has grown I’ve scaled back my nights delivering pizza so that I can focus on this new venture. My plan moving forward is to finish my garage by October 1st so that training can be moved indoors (assuming it is legal to do so at that point). When October hits, the weather and daylight are no longer conducive to outdoor training. As things continue to grow Jeff Tirrell Fitness will be opening a commercial space in Fenton by spring or summer of 2021. Small group personal training will be offered (cap of 4 per session until bigger space is rented), 1 on 1 training, In home training, Sports performance training, remote programming, and nutrition coaching. As a former awkward, chubby, and bullied kid I believe strongly in the way that strength and fitness can improve your confidence, function, and change your life. While all the tools will be available to make the super fit and naturally gifted even better, I have a strong calling to help and guide those to whom fitness doesn’t come naturally. I believe that the strength, confidence, and resiliency you gain from a solid training plan can help you live a more fulfilling life. You’ll be a better husband, wife, father, mother, and be able to live out your dreams in this life. To all those who have worked with me in the past, I thank you for those opportunities. To those who have continued working with me during these past 4 months I thank you for taking this journey with me. As C.S. Lewis once wrote “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending”.