On the south end of Ukiah sits the Ukiah Valley Athletic Club, a fixture in the community for many years. We stopped by to chat with the owners about what it was like operating a fitness facility during the pandemic and what the future holds for them.
ALL: Hi, I’m Lauren… I’m Deni (Lee)… and I’m John (Strangio), and along with my mom, Linda, we are the owners of the Ukiah Valley Athletic Club.
LS: And anyone who knows us, knows we are extremely busy so I already have to leave to see some of my nutrition clients.
WC: What inspired you to start or own an athletic club.
JS: I started working at the UVAC (formerly Redwood Athletic Club) in 1996. I worked under three different ownerships and saw where some excelled and some were deficient. Under the last ownership, I was let go but about three or four years later, I heard the club was for sale. I asked my wife Lauren if she was interested in buying a gym and the next thing we knew, we were taking over the ownership.
WC: So Deni, how did you come into this partnership?
DL: Besides being Lauren’s mom, I worked here for over 20 years doing spin classes and group fit and became a personal trainer. When John approached me and his mom about becoming partners, I said, “Of course!” The place needed love and we had the love and energy to give to it.
WC: This is a family business in every sense of the word. What are some of the benefits of having your partners in your business being family.
DL: The dynamic works out incredibly well for us because each of us has our own dynamic and abilities. Linda does the accounting, John is mechanical and deals with electronics, Lauren is the computer person as far as social media, and I have energy for everything!
WC: What inspires you on a day-to-day level, especially over the last year of struggling with the pandemic?
DL: The beauty of Covid – if there was one – was that we had a huge list of maintenance items that needed to get done. So while we were shut down, John and I knocked down our list and now that members are back, they can’t believe how much we’ve put into it. The smiles on their faces and their appreciation is absolutely wonderful.
WC: John, what are some of the challenges that caused to you to speak with West SBDC?
JS: We went to West Center over a year ago when we were looking to expand to build a sports complex north of town – this was prior to Covid. We went to West because they have an abundance of resources and when we started asking questions, they sent a lot of advisors our way to help coach and guide us in the right direction.
WC: What was your experience like working with the folks at West SBDC?
JS: When I first met with our advisor he was open arms, saying “let’s talk about the project.” He saw that it was a community project and I think he was really driven by that. He immediately gave us the resources we needed for the plans and projections we were working on.
WC: And what were the results of your interactions with West?
JS: The advisors have been amazing. They’ve helped us out tremendously in different areas. We’re still looking at our future expansion and we will continue to work with West on that project.
WC: What would you tell someone who’s starting or running a small business in the county about West Center?
JS: I first went to West via a referral from a friend. I found it hard to believe that they offered so many services at no cost. I went in to talk with an advisor and he reassured me that there was no cost… “it’s the Small Business Administration and your tax dollars at work.” They’ve been extremely helpful in many ways.
WC: How do you measure the success of your business? And is this is a good place to continue investing in community growth?
DL: I think it was a good investment overall because we both loved it (the club) and knew it was a diamond in the rough. We knew that we could bring the place to its highest potential – a goal we’re still working toward. We ask our members what they want and we listen.
JS: We’ve been able to expand. We purchased the two former World Gym locations in downtown Ukiah and have branded them as Ukiah Valley Athletic Club. Here in Mendocino County, we’re seeing a huge support for health and wellness, and people getting in shape. And I think we’ll see that grow exponentially coming out of Covid.
WC: Is this a great place to start a business and is now a good time?
DL: I would say yes because our communities are very supportive of small businesses and there’s a huge movement to keep things local. We found that out over again when we were closed due to Covid and our members would drive by just to check on us.
JS: Mendocino County has been very supportive of us. They’ve helped us get through the pandemic. And they are also supportive of other local vendors. I think that Mendocino County is an amazing place to start a new small business or to grow your small business.
WC: What are all the exercise areas you have here?
BOTH: Outdoor pool at 80 degrees, indoor pool kept at 90 degrees year round, hot tub at 103 degrees, saunas. We have an awesome lobby where you can have beer or wine after your workout with comfortable couches and free wifi. We have power during all the PSPS events; group fitness, free weight room, TRX and group exercise, cardio equipment, spin, 24-hour locations, apparel, raquetball and basketball court, volleyball, and handball!
WC: Let’s talk a bit about health and wellness and the importance of having space to exercise.
DL: I’ve always been passionate about fitness. I was a runner for many years. For me it’s the combination of mental and physical health. Having a gym brings that together and also provides a sense of camaraderie among the staff and members.
JS: For the past couple of years, I’ve found it very therapeutic to be here and be around healthy individuals and access to exercise. I was always active but I never took the time to really work out very much until the last two years.
WC: Where do you see yourself in your business in the next ten years? And what do your other partners think?
JS: I can see us continuing to grow and get our next location built and running so it can become one of the hot spots in the county.
DL: That’s the dream. I see us expanding to provide a great place for the kids in this county to play sports.
JS: That’s right. Now, parents take their kids elsewhere to play sports so having this new facility will provide an economic benefit as people wll come here and spend money. My wife Lauren has so much energy and supports us in every way.
DL: John’s mom, Linda, is amazed by how much we’ve done and how much we’re forecasting we can do. When their family comes to town, they come to the gym when it’s closed and show it off. My grandson, who’s five, wants to be a gym owner!
At West Center, we look forward to seeing the UVAC’s plans for a sports complex come to fruition. We’ll be there to help John, Deni, Lauren and Linda makes their business dream a reality!