If you wonder whether a local entrepreneur running a small business can beat competition from the national chains, consider the case of Kimberly Rose, president of River Bend Athletic Club in South Kingstown.
She founded the River Bend Athletic Club – “not a gym, but a health club,” she said – in 1979, working with her dad, Anthony Rose, a local businessman who owned and operated Technical Industries in town for many years. Now 81, he remains involved in the health club, although his daughter is the one who runs it; no one more surprised than she to still be doing so.
There is good reason for her amazement. Her two-story building of 26,000 square feet has been damaged twice by serious flooding, when the nearby Saugatucket River rose over its banks in 1982 and, more recently and devastatingly, last spring. At neither time did her business have flood insurance, although now it does.
Last year, “the water came up through the floor and we lost carpet, tiles, racquetball courts, basketball courts,” she said.
Now, a full year afterwards, “it’s OK,” Rose said. “My members and my staff helped during the cleanup” and the sympathetic response from the town’s tight-knit Peace Dale community “warmed my heart. People sent me flowers at home. It made me know I am a vital part of this little town.”
Because River Bend is a health club and not a gym, there are no rehabilitative services, nothing for children except a room where they can play while parents work out; there is no swimming pool, but there is a staff of 42 employees, including instructors, fitness technicians and personal trainers. River Bend does not benefit from tax breaks, as nonprofit gyms such as the YMCA do, and “that’s why I’m a little more expensive,” Rose said. Proceeds are reinvested into the business.
When people see advertisements for low-priced gym memberships at what are usually national chains, what they do not see, Rose said emphatically, is that the gym may have just two showers, no personnel on duty evenings or weekends and limited equipment. “It’s a whole different feel here,” she said, and that “feel” is based in large part on personal service.
“I care,” Rose said.
Rose stays on the top of the latest trends and keeps her health club up to date. When it opened in 1979, the club had eight racquetball courts, later expanded to 12 as the racquetball craze grew. Now she has just one, along with a squash court. Racquetball courts were replaced over the years by an aerobics room, cardio theater and yoga studio. She speaks enthusiastically about the benefits of Spinning, a class involving stationary bicycling. River Bend has 21 bicycles in a studio dedicated to this activity.
“You can lose 800 calories an hour in there,” Rose said. “Bring your water and your towel, it’s exhilarating.”
Yes, she admits, the recession has taken a toll. “I’ve seen some deterioration in membership, but it is nothing to worry about,” she said, declining to provide specifics on membership numbers and annual revenue. “We could all use a few more customers,” she said of small businesses.
Now 55, Rose intends someday to pass River Bend Health Club over to her 27-year-old son, Michael Fragomeni, who has worked there five years in charge of billing and the physical plant.
This would make the athletic club that Rose and her dad started more than 30 years ago a third-generation establishment. “He’s got it all planned,” she said wryly of her son. •