Pulling No Punches

Former boxer and retired ballerina turn innovative fitness approach into business success

Michael Olajide Jr. and Leila Fazel offer a unique approach to fitness that melds the artistry and rigor of their past pursuits—just don’t call it a comeback.

Olajide, a former middleweight boxing champion, and Fazel, a former professional ballet dancer, met in 1998; both had retired because of injuries. Olajide was in New York teaching a fitness routine that combined boxing footwork with conditioning moves such as push-ups and lower body lunges. Fazel, a luxury spa innovator at the time, was impressed. “I saw Michael teaching and said, ‘That’s the class I want to be in,’” she recalls.

The two became business partners when, in 2005, they opened Aerospace High Performance Center (www.aerospacenyc.com, 212-929-1640). The New York facility highlighted Olajide’s boxing-inspired fitness techniques, along with some of Fazel’s smooth ballet moves.

Aerospace generated $1.2 million in revenues in 2009 from membership fees, personal training offerings, and spa services. Add the release of a series of home workout DVDs, and the company is on track to reach $2 million by year-end. With six full-time employees, Aerospace’s success has also led to a mini workout facility in the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York. “Most gyms take your money and put you on a machine,” says Olajide. “But we pride ourselves on teaching people an actual sport.”

Though they have found their niche, Olajide and Fazel encountered obstacles. “It was difficult to get money from lenders,” Fazel recalls. So they raided their savings and sought investments from friends to scrape together nearly $1 million, to construct the center, buy light weights and boxing equipment, pay rent and legal fees. The duo took advantage of Olajide’s star power (since he’d trained celebrities such as Spike Lee, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, and Mary J. Blige).

Acquiring capital and clients was one thing; identifying employees was another. Olajide and Fazel were adamant about professional boxers teaching the classes, but recruiting them prove their greatest challenge. The fitness techniques taught at Aerospace would require a certain intimacy between the instructor and clients. And, Olajide adds, many simply didn’t have the patience and personality. To overcome this hurdle, Olajide personally works with them. “We treat [prospective employees] like members,” says Fazel of Aerospace’s rigorous recruitment process. Finding instructors with the right mix of skill and temperament can take anywhere from one to four months, but the business partners swear by its ability to identify instructors who are the right fit for Aerospace. Olajide adds, “They take the classes and we see how they interact with people, not as teachers, but as people.”

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