Surviving 9-11

Wahday washington and tony wilson knew it wouldn't be easy to expand their business, but the gym owners could not have prepared for the tragedy that threatened to shatter their entrepreneurial dreams

It’s 8 p.m. in the Tribeca section of New York City and the first month of 2002 is drawing to a close. As the city that never sleeps begins to wind down, Wahday Washington watches activity at his most recently opened 24/7 Fitness location pick up. Treadmills hum and free weights rise and fall to the grunts of gym-goers forcing extra repetitions while Washington talks about 12 months of events that seemed to conspire against the opening of his gym.

“Running one gym is fun. Two gyms — that’s work. But three gyms has been just plain crazy,” says Washington with a sigh as he reflects on expanding his business in the past year, and the events that nearly brought his and business partner Tony Wilson’s fledgling fitness empire crashing down.

Early in the year, while making plans to renovate what would be their second fitness center, the duo were presented with the golden opportunity to buy out a competitor and open a third gym. Reeling from the one-two punch of rising renovation costs and the expense of taking control of an existing facility, they found themselves in dire straits. And just when things seemed to be getting back on track came the events of Sept. 11. Through creative marketing, business savvy, and sheer tenacity, the pair was able to triumph. This is their story.

A YEAR TO EXPAND
Rewind 12 months to January 2001 and Washington and Wilson, 50/50 owners of Johnny Lats gym, now 24/7-Gramercy Park, are signing the deal that would give them their second location. They have successfully operated 24/7-Gramercy Park since 1997. Located in Gramercy, a Manhattan neighborhood stretching from East 30th to 14th Streets in Manhattan, 24/7-Gramercy Park is a bare-bones, hard-core gym that attracts professional body builders and amateur hard bodies. This new deal would give them a location in artsy Tribeca, an area south of Gramercy where creative folk live in ex-factories that have been converted to upscale and spacious lofts.

Washington and Wilson have been close friends since 1985 when Washington was a high school intern and Wilson was a college student, and both worked as proofreaders at a New York law firm. They always spoke about going into business together and when John McGrath, the original owner of Johnny Lats (where Washington worked out), decided to retire in 1997, the two pooled $70,000 from family, friends, and savings and made the initial payment toward the $175,000 asking price. Four years later they were looking to broaden their horizons.

It made sense to expand in 2001. Business was good for them; 24/7-Gramercy Park brought in $550,000 in 2000. “When we evaluated the growth we had at our first location [and] looked at the market, we knew 2001 was the year to expand,” Washington says.

This was part of an overall trend. The health and fitness industry had ended 2000 with its best year to date. Industry revenues reached $11.6 billion in 2000, up from $10.6 billion in 1999, according to industry watchdog International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.

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