The opportunity to acquire an already-established business in one’s hometown doesn’t come knocking every day, but Alex Dulac and Hannah (Binder) Dulac hit two birds with one stone.
The Dulacs took the plunge to become first-time business owners in December at the Snap Fitness franchise in Madison, where Mr. Dulac graduated from high school in 2007.
And last Tuesday, they took over as owners and operators of the Snap Fitness on East Washington Street in South Russell, located in the Chagrin Falls Exempted Village School District, where Mrs. Dulac graduated in 2007.
Now an international brand, Snap Fitness is a health and fitness club that provides members 24/7 access to gyms with multiple avenues for high-intensity workouts.
“It’s pretty crazy,” Mrs. Dulac said about herself and the couple now owning franchises where each of them grew up. “We didn’t plan it that way, but it’s kind of nice that we have a little piece of our hometowns, and it’s good because we know those communities. So, that kind of makes it nice rather than just buying a business anywhere.”
Mrs. Dulac was a swimmer during her high school days with the Lady Tigers, advancing to the Division II Northeast District meet in the 200- and 500-yard freestyles under head coach Beth Sonnhalter.
The Dulacs purchased the Chagrin Falls franchise of Snap Fitness from Larry Staley and Melissa Staley, whose son Davis Staley, a 2012 Chagrin graduate, was a two-time Division II state champion swimmer in the 100 backstroke and a three-time state podium finisher in the 100 butterfly.
The Staleys moved to Chagrin Falls in 2009, bought their Snap Fitness franchise from corporate in 2016, but now are moving back to Michigan.
“We started to get to know the Staleys through the Snap franchise once the pandemic hit and a lot of owners in the area started talking through social media about how to just kind of get through it,” Mrs. Dulac said. “So, we had been talking to Melissa and Larry when [COVID-19] hit and slowed things down a little bit, and they reached out to us to see if we were interested.
“And we always kind of had the intention of hopefully one day owning more clubs. We didn’t expect it to come up so soon and in the middle of a global pandemic, but we talked with them and went in to see the club and just talked about how their membership base is, and they have a really solid community and a strong club.”
Mrs. Dulac, who graduated from Ohio State University with a business degree, has a marketing background and also corporate experience working for Steris, before she became certified in personal training and group fitness.
Mr. Dulac, who spent six years as an officer in the Army Reserve, still works full-time as an operations manager for Amazon, a career that led the couple to take residency in Phoenix for about a year.
But they moved back to Northeast Ohio to help launch the North Randall Amazon Fulfillment Center last year. That’s when they starting exploring options to own and operate a gym.
“We were actually kind of inquiring about doing our own Snap, maybe in the Willoughby area, because that’s where we currently live now, in Willoughby Hills,” Mr. Dulac said. “And as we were kind of going back and forth with corporate on a couple numbers and trying to look at potential real estate in the area for that, Angela (DeMichele) kind of approached us and said, ‘Hey guys, I have this opportunity. I’ll be moving out of Ohio. Do you guys want to buy my club?’ So, we jumped on that pretty quick.”
Angela DeMichele is the previous owner of the Snap Fitness in Madison whom Mr. Dulac knew from his hometown ties. She moved to Minnesota, where Snap is headquartered.
Mr. Dulac was a three-sport athlete at Madison, notably a dual-threat fullback on the gridiron. He also played basketball and ran track for the Blue Streaks.
“Fitness has always been more or less forced on me, if you will, just through being part of athletics and then joining the military. Obviously, it’s just part of your lifestyle,” Mr. Dulac said. “So, it wasn’t so much my passion as much as it’s been Hannah’s, but I definitely enjoy being healthy. You know, as we’re getting older, I’ll be 32, you start to notice if you’re not.
“But the drive and the motivation to stay in fitness and going to gyms just comes from being married to Hannah. We’re actually in the car driving to the gym right now.”
While they are new to business ownership, the Dulacs have it in their blood.
Mr. Dulac’s dad was a small-business owner in the construction and drywall industry, while Mrs. Dulac’s dad is an ear, nose and throat doctor who owned his own medical practice with a handful of other doctors.
“We have seen that aspect of it, not through the fitness industry, but we both kind of grew up knowing some of that,” Mrs. Dulac said. “And I’ve always been into fitness. I think that was ultimately what I wanted to do, kind of my dream job that I didn’t really know if it would ever come to fruition.
“So, I bounced around for a few years after college, as I think most people do, and I never really figured out anything that I loved. And more and more as time went on, fitness was the one thing that I kind of always wanted to do and never plunged into.”
With Mr. Dulac still working full-time at Amazon, Mrs. Dulac primarily has been running the ship, so to speak, since the couple took ownership of the Madison location of Snap Fitness in December. And she is in the process of hiring extra help now that they own two franchises.
But when much of the economy was essentially on lockdown from the coronavirus, the government-ordered shutdown threw the Dulacs a curveball, as it did to other small-business owners across the country.
“You definitely have to learn to get creative, especially when your back is up against a wall,” Mrs. Dulac said. “That wasn’t really how I anticipated things going 4 1/2 months into owning a business. March 16 was the day we were forced to close, and that was a pretty big blow.”
With gyms being omitted from Gov. Mike DeWine’s phase one of reopening businesses in Ohio, Snap Fitness would not open again until May 26.
“I went through a lot of emotions, especially early on in that first week or so,” Mrs. Dulac said. “It was pretty hard to grasp, to get past that initial moment and the whole, ‘I can’t believe this is happening so early on in my business ownership career.’ But you just learn to figure out how you’re going to make it a positive thing, and, luckily, Snap is a pretty solid brand, and we have a good community of people.”
Many of the Snap Fitness franchisees banded together to go over common concerns and bounce ideas off one another, which is a benefit of being part of a strong franchise, Mrs. Dulac said.
But keeping her members active and engaged in fitness without the use of their facility in Madison kept the Dulacs busy.
“I had some videos bouncing around on Facebook, just trying to come up with home workouts for people to do as a way to connect with our community when we couldn’t physically see them in the gym like we normally would on a daily basis,” Mrs. Dulac said. “So, it was hard, for sure, but that was just what I did. Sometimes I felt like I was working more and putting more time in on things when we were shut down than when we were open.
“So, it was a rough time, but I think our members appreciated that, and I think, in some weird ways, it grew a closer bond in the community.”
With their doors open again for the past two months, members have been back to most of their normal fitness routines at Snap. After Gov. DeWine issued a statewide mask mandate last Thursday, members are now required to wear masks during entry and exit of fitness facilities but are not required to wear them during active workouts.
One of the perks of Snap Fitness’ 24/7 model is that members can come in, do their own thing and leave during abnormal hours, if that’s what they prefer, but the brand also offers members interactive opportunities to get fit through personal trainers and group classes during staffed hours.
“I think we always had faith that the Snap brand and Hannah’s influence on the clubs. We always kind of knew that it was stronger than a shutdown,” Mr. Dulac said. “We knew that people were going to come back. We knew that people weren’t going to just all of the sudden cancel all their memberships. And we knew that there would still be a product when all this was behind us.
“Just having faith that the fitness industry and Snap’s model, and that everything was going to push through all this [COVID-19] stuff, we knew keeping that quality product on that back end of the pandemic was going to be important.”
Despite the stress of the unknown, in regards to whether there could be another government shutdown, the Dulacs still felt confident in pulling the trigger last week to take over as owners and operators of their second Snap Fitness franchise in South Russell.
While they’re invested in the 24/7 gym business, the Dulacs said they hope members view the Snap Fitness brand as community driven. And they plan to be present and involved at both of their locations as owners who enjoy their own product.
“There’s obviously risk involved in buying a business in this economy,” Mrs. Dulac said. “So, we had those concerns. But looking at everything they had to offer, we’re optimistic about the industry bouncing back. There’s risks, but we still decided it was a solid investment. And owning a business in your hometown is pretty great. So, we decided it was worth jumping on the opportunity.”