A couple of good years in business

It required some heavy lifting, but the Rosenthals restored faith in the local gym.

Reviving a failing business is one thing. Taking over an enterprise that turned out to have been run by con men, and returning it to respectability, that’s quite another.

That was the challenge for Michael and Alexa Rosenthal, when they were awarded control of the Madison Avenue gymnasium now known as Island Fitness two years ago. While principals in the former enterprise, Health Maintenance Center, have been jailed for defrauding investors, the Rosenthals have developed a thriving club that one member says “promotes a strong sense of friendship, goodwill and good health.”

For their efforts, the Rosenthals will be honored this week as Business Couple of the Year, sponsored by the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce. The honor will be conferred at a luncheon banquet beginning at 11:30 a.m. May 27 at Wing Point Golf and Country Club.

All they ask is that you forget HMC.

“Yes, we’re in the same building, and yes, this was a club – but that’s where the similarity ends,” Alexa says.

Adds her husband, “What we said for the first year was, ‘come in and feel the difference.’”

The Rosenthals had been on the island for nearly a decade when business opportunity knocked. Michael came to the venture after a career as a commercial fisherman; Alexa headed a nonprofit foundation that served Southeast Asia before leaving to teach conditioning classes.

They had planned a new gymnasium for some time when the HMC enterprise – which turned out to be largely a front for the biggest securities fraud in Washington history – was closed down by state and federal regulators. As they had a business proposal in hand, the Rosenthals were tapped by a court-appointed receiver to reopen the gym in April 2002 and run it for an indeterminate period.

When the HMC assets were liquidated at auction four months later, the Rosenthals were the high bidders for the business equipment. It was an obviously emotional day, although Alexa now notes, “We were about to have a baby. If there were tears shed, I think that had a lot to do with it.”

“It was important for us to stay open for all the members who supported us from the beginning,” Michael said. “They’ve been really unbelievable.”

Since that time, they’ve grown the staff from just six to more than 30 employees and instructors, most part-time. The gym has been reconfigured and upgraded, further distancing it from its predecessor.

“We had a lot of things to overcome,” Michael said. “You want to make it look different so it feels different the moment you walk in the door.”

The gym has developed a supplemental training program for youth sports including rowing, soccer, basketball and baseball. Under contract with Group Health, they provide a “Lifetime Fitness” program for seniors.

The real goal, they say, has been to create a welcoming atmosphere, where the average person in “average” shape won’t feel intimidated by “musclemen and lycra.”

“Michael and Alexa have established a business that serves our community in so many positive ways,” wrote one person, in nominating them for the Chamber award. “They have created an environment where our community members can become more healthy and fit in a positive, non-threatening, motivating atmosphere.”

While they decline to disclose their current membership figures, the Rosenthals say the business is doing well, with members ranging in age from 9 to 94.

“We’re happy with the number we have,” Michael said, “and we have a lot.”

Their ambition doesn’t extend beyond the club; Alexa deflects the oft-heard question of “are you going to start a chain?” with a polite but firm, “No.”

“I think we always knew we’d be here,” Michael says. “We’re going to be a successful club. We are a successful club.”

They’re also a successful family, with sons Luke, 13, Jess, 9, and Wyatt, 19 months. It was the latter who came along during the tumultuous months during which the Rosenthals took control of the Madison Avenue gym for good.

“I think the business was more planned than the baby,” Michael suggests.

Says Alexa: “I disagree with that.”

Answers Michael: “The timetable of some things is hard to control.”

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