Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=181698
Story Retrieval Date: 5/23/2013 6:13:53 AM CST
It’s not always bad to be small. In the case of V-Tone Fitness, it may even be a competitive advantage.
“Since I’m dealing with lower customer volume, I can focus on giving them more personalized services and building relationships with them,” said 24-year-old Antonio Barbanente, owner and operator of V-Tone Fitness. “When competing with franchises, you’ve got to offer a different value perspective. Because there are fewer faces, I can remember people’s names and make conversations.”
The 5,000 square feet Rogers Park neighborhood gym is only a stone’s throw away from the Jarvis station on the CTA’s heavily traveled Red Line. People living in the area or commuting to and from work are V-Tone’s frequent visitors.
In addition to being surrounded by many residents, the gym faces only one major competitor in the area--Bally Total Fitness.
On a daily basis, about 50 to 70 people come in to V-Tone to work out.
Patrick Anderson, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, has been working out in gyms for 10 years.
He started coming to V-Tone a year ago because it’s more convenient and has a better atmosphere. “Before this place opened, I used to work out at Bally’s,” Anderson said. “Over here, you have the time to talk to the trainers. At Bally’s, it’s always too crowded.”
Roberto Hernandez, 33, usually comes for strength training in the evening. He has lost about 20 pounds in the past two months, and his goal is another 20. “When the economy went bad, I started coming here,” Hernandez said. “It’s cheaper than Xsport’s and Bally’s. Considering the commute time and parking, I was spending about $150 at Xsport’s a month, and here I spend $30 to $40. This place has all the things that I need, and is more down to earth.”
Most customers stay on a $36.95 monthly membership plan that gives them access to top commercial grade equipment at V-Tone.
Erin Shovlin, a 31-year-old marketing manager, gets her personal training from Duilio Lopez, who has been on staff at the gym since its first day of business.
Shovlin and her husband are on the $299 yearly membership plan and have just renewed their memberships for another year. “It’s just a block from our house, and the personal training is less expensive here,” Shovlin said. “There’s more of a neighborhood feel about this place--small, clean, and friendly.”
V-Tone’s total membership doubled in January to 400 members, compared with around 200 the same time last year. “Maintaining the membership is hard,” Barbanente said. “People move away or just stop working out. But we signed up about 700 since we’ve opened, and around 60 percent of people renewed their membership with us.”
Around 10 percent of the current members are signed up for the whole year, said Bianco Lopez, the gym’s personal trainer.
V-Tone opened its door in November 2009 when the economy was just starting to recover from the economic meltdown. But business has not been easy.
“During a bad month, the business might only generate $6,000 in revenue, and then in a good month, it could be generating $15,000,” Barbanente said. “There’s a gym season in the fitness industry where the summer time tends to be the trough and the winter season is our prime time.”
V-Tone Fitness brought in $60,000 in the first half of 2010, and $55,000 in the second half, mainly due to seasonal factors. But so far that hasn’t translated into a big profit.
“At this point, it breaks even,” Barbanente said. “After I pay all the bills and my staff, not much is left. It’s been many months since I stopped taking personal income.”
Barbanente opened up V-Tone during his sophomore year at Northeastern Illinois University where he was majoring in business administration. Shortly afterwards, he dropped out of school to focus on his new business.
“It was very hard to be opening a new business and going to school full-time. So I just had to cut it short,” Barbanente said. “When business opportunities are in front of you, you’ve got to take them. School is a doorway that can open at any time of your life.”
Barbanente says he always aspired to be an entrepreneur, which he attributes to his family’s influence.
Born in Chicago to Italian parents, Barbanente grew up with a deep appreciation for Italian culture and food. He worked in the family’s Italian restaurant since he was 12.
“I did different jobs. I started as a busboy, then a dish washer, a food runner, and a host,” Barbanente said. “As I grew older, I did bartender, cooking and waited tables. So I know the business from the front to the back.”
Barbanente started working out in 2004 in his senior year in high school. “We were going on a spring break for senior year. And I wanted to look good on the beach and be in shape with my friends,” he recalled. After that, the passion grew and he fell in love with the whole sport side of it.
Barbanente’s family supported his plans by lending him 80 percent of the $200,000 he needed for start-up money. They also leased a family-owned building to Barbanente at an affordable price.
The remaining 20 percent of the initial investment came from Barbanente’s personal savings from working in the restaurant. “I just sacrificed my life by not spending money,” Barbanente said.
His early exposure to business operations helped Barbanente greatly when it came to managing his own.
“Offering better value than your competitors is what keeps you in business,” he said. “I put myself in a member’s position and ask myself if I would pay to be a member here. And the answer is, yes.”
Running a small business provides the opportunity to keep a close eye on everything. Barbanente works out in the gym on a daily basis, just like everyone else. With the skills he acquired at an automotive technical school before he went to college, Barbanente took on on-site maintenance, making sure the equipment is in good shape.
“We do better maintenance here compared to the big franchise clubs,” Barbanente said. “Big places usually have many machines that are down. Customers are paying for such a big place with so many machines, yet the machines they need to use are out of order.”
Even with the success he has had, it will be a while before Barbanente can pay off the loan he got from his family. Luckily, there isn’t a set date for that.
“It’s my family, so I pay as I can,” Barbanente said. “Keeping the business running is my top priority. If I have extra money, I would pay them back.”
“When you do have good month, it does prove to you that the opportunities and the possibilities are there,” Barbanente said. “With the things going on so far, hopefully in another year, I would start making extra money and have a steady income for myself.”