As Chattanooga area businesses shift, pivot and change, trying to adapt to a new normal, many are tapping into the passion that led them to open their business in the first place. Over the course of the next number of weeks, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce will profile some of these owners and share their inspirational stories on how they are doing it.
As one of the first types of businesses to go into lockdown back in March, Forte Fitness, a 1-on-1 personal training studio located on Chattanooga’s Northshore, is happy to have most of its clients back.
“We opened back up in mid-May,” says Julian Kaufman, owner of Forte Fitness. “We have been training and in terms of clients, we are about 5 to 8 percent down. It’s not terribly down. However, in May through July, we were down 45 percent in sales. That is now more back to normal since hitting August. It has definitely been difficult.”
Like many Chattanooga businesses, Mr. Kaufman immediately jumped on the PPP loans but was turned down the first time. He didn’t give up. Instead, he dropped his large national bank and turned to a smaller bank more suited for his small business.
“Community National Bank and Kathryn Gann did an incredible job…the way they handled it,” Mr. Kaufman says. “If you are a small business owner and you need help and support, she got us the PPP monies. It was not a problem the second time around. She held our hand through the whole process.”
With the wait for the funds and the majority of his personal training clients not making the transition to online, Mr. Kaufman was still determined to keep everyone employed. So he turned to his team and asked how they could help. Many of them are not only long-time salaried associates but also able to participate in profit sharing in the business.
“My employees all looked at their personal budgets and took as little as they could.”
As the owner, he is still not able to take a salary but is grateful for his business and personal savings accounts along with a long history of running his personal training business.
“Fortunately, we don’t have any debt and we have saved,” Mr. Kaufman says. “We are still in a very strong position at this point and revenue is rebounding and resembling normal.”
As a personal training business, the CDC guidelines and state mandates fell right into place. Already the small private studios at Northshore were set-up for one trainer and one client at a time.
“We have three physically separate private training suites, about 400 sq. ft. each. It’s just our client and trainer and no one else. The trainers are masked. It’s easy to social distance and it’s very easy for us to keep everything sanitized. We know everything that is being used and being touched. We don’t have members. Everything is by appointment. And, we have cut five minutes off all the training sessions to have extra time to make sure things are sanitized as much as possible.”
“The team also allows for some extra time on the front end, making sure clients arrive with masks, answer COVID questions, get a quick temperature check and wash their hands.
At age 50 and still in incredible shape you could say that Mr. Kaufman’s business is reflective of how he has lived his whole life – always in motion.
“I always played sports. I played three sports in high school. I played college football at Furman,” Mr. Kaufman says. “My way of enjoying the world has been by moving.”
No surprise when it came to his college major, exercise science.
“I remember joking about, ‘what kind of job can I wear shorts and a T-shirt for the rest of my life?’ Pretty much, that has worked out.”
His first job out of college was teaching, and coaching football at Hixson High School. Right away he started personal training on the side. Wanting to continue coaching, but not move his young family around a lot, Mr. Kaufman decided he needed a steady second income to make it all work.
Forte Fitness opened its doors in 2004.
“I had been doing these core fundamentals – education, and caring for a whole person and it shows at Forte Fitness,” Mr. Kaufman says. In addition to the Northshore studio, there are two other satellite locations, one at the Volunteer building for tenants and another at Jasper Highlands for residents.
With a team of 16 employees, now, Mr. Kaufman continues to split his time doing what he loves: personal training and coaching football. He is in his 13th year at Baylor School as an assistant strength and conditioning coach.
The active lifestyle is only half the story. Much like the mission of Forte Fitness, Mr. Kaufman believes in caring for the whole body.
“When I look at the fitness industry as a whole, to me, it’s a very sad industry. The message of the industry at large is people are not valued, not important because their bodies don’t fit into a particular image. We believe when someone comes in, we deal with a whole person. We focus on two things we know we can promise people and have a chance at delivering: improving overall health and quality of life.”
At Forte Fitness, it’s a true team approach as a personal program is laid out in detail for every client.
“We are not looking at a client as potential revenue,” Mr. Kaufman says. “We are looking at them as a human being that we want to care for. We want to care for that whole person. We want to care about them when they come in and we want to educate them.”
And that is the other key piece: education, learning about healthy living and making that a priority. Growing up, Mr. Kaufman, a first-generation Italian American, was not only super active, his main diet was very much native to his family’s country, Italy. They all ate a Mediterranean diet.
“We ate a ton of vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans, and because of that, my eating was always every different than any of the kids I knew,” Mr. Kaufman says. “In third grade, I remember eating sardines and an arugula salad, and people were looking at me weird.”
Mr. Kaufman still follows that Mediterranean-style diet today. It’s a lifestyle and an educational message he carries over into his personal training business every day.
“My heart is really for that person who has never been able to have joy in movement … where they enjoy their body and it works for them. We want to help build a body that is functional, that works so you can have that highest quality of life as possible.”
It’s a simple message that still resonates even in the midst of a global pandemic. Mr. Kaufman is more focused than ever and hopeful for his business and other small businesses in Chattanooga.
“There is no one silver bullet answer. I empathize with what people are going through and I am pulling for everyone.”