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3/7/2004

LAC at 25

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — It was 1982, and the Longmont Athletic Club buzzed with members working out in leg warmers, headbands, Spandex tights and thongs when then 7-year-old Laura Richardson first tagged along with her dad to his new job as the onsite physical therapist.

But by 1986, when then 35-year-old J.R. Richardson bought the club — established in 1979 as Gymnastics World, he said — other trends in everything from workout wear to equipment to class instruction were rippling across the health club scene.

In this hyper-competitive business, which has matured over the past two-plus decades into a $13.1 billion-a-year industry, according to Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, Darwinian principles were in play as much as the membership, he explained.

Only the fittest survived. And LAC made the cut year after year with a winning track record long enough to warrant a silver anniversary celebration in 2004.

“Have we always been successful? No. Have we run some people away over the years? Probably,” said J.R. Richardson. “But that we’ve been here so long says something.”

Casual Internet browsing will unearth a “LAC Rant” page mostly devoted to ad hoc member frustrations over the club’s electronic billing procedures. But longtime members such as John Weibert, a 74-year-old Longmont resident who joined in 1987, found nothing to gripe about, he said.

“I just got started there and nothing happened to make me want to change,” he explained. “They’re always trying to upgrade and maintain a first-class operation. ... And I always get a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ from the staff.”

Industry statistics reported by the IHRSA show catering to members in and around Weibert’s generation represents a smart business move. A survey conducted from 1987 to 2002 revealed that the numbers of those older than the original target ages of 18 to 34 growing at a much faster rate. For instance, 15 years ago, the younger set comprised 53 percent of health club growth. Today, the figure has fallen off to 34 percent, according to IHRSA data.

With that in mind, the Richardsons have continued investing in the club’s Life Style Center to offer more than 20 alternative therapies, some tailored to those in what J.R. Richardson calls the “wisdom age.” The center now offers, according to the LAC Web site, support for everything from incontinence and physical therapy to acupuncture and astrology.

“We educate people on what they need to be responsible for in their own case,” he said.

All business decisions along the way, he continued, stemmed from his enduring two-fold vision, one shared by Laura Richardson who has managed operations for her elder since 1999. The father/daughter duo aimed, they explained, to nurture a family-oriented, one-stop-shop health & fitness center.

“We’ve seen people meet and get married, get divorced and meet someone else here,” J.R. Richardson said. “We’ve seen thousands of babies born (from these couplings).”

As for the one-stop-shop element, numbers show the tremendous expansion needed to get it all under one roof. According to Laura Richardson, square footage has jumped from 10,000 to 40,000 square feet; from 400 to 3,500 members; and from the original location at 10 Mountain View Ave. to include a satellite center — the old 24-Hour Fitness at 1801 Lefthand Circle — now called LAC West.

Since trends make a moving target, some growth decisions hit the jackpot while others siphoned resources, she said. Spinning, the trademarked stationary cycling class with music and certified instruction, represents one of the best investments in equipment and leadership for giving members a low-risk-of-injury option with plenty of pacing flexibility.

Slide classes in which participants slid side-to-side on a toboggan-looking plastic rectangle with bumpers on each end, bombed for reasons unknown, Laura Richardson added.

Yet, reflecting on setbacks makes celebrating this milestone year all the sweeter, her dad said. After losing one-third of membership after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he and his kin had to dig down deep to offer creative incentive programs and to do more with less after being forced to lay off seven full-time staff members.

Despite twin tempests of fickle trends and lingering recession, LAC is still standing and proud of much more than ongoing profitability, he continued. For instance, the club still connects with his core values, keeps him engaged and allows him to give back to the community.

“If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” he explained. “If you want to dance, you have to pay the fiddler.”

According to the Richardsons, LAC has employed 3,000-plus people, paid more than $1.3 million in city taxes and school district donations, hosted numerous fund-raisers and donated a surplus of $200,000 to organizations such as The Tiny Tim Foundation, The OUR Center and World Trade Center disaster relief.

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244 Ext. 224 or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.