Step into Old Town Fitness in Key West, and it is like stepping back into the ‘60s. Think about the type of gym Rocky Balboa would want to work out of – old school, no frills, you are there to sweat. And yes, you will sweat: There’s no AC – and that’s by design.
“In a gym, it’s not necessary. We have open air, the sunshine comes through the windows, sweating is therapeutic,” says Frank Dunne, the owner of the business. “It’s an iconic gym. We don’t have treadmills.”
Indeed, there’s muscle building equipment you won’t see anywhere else, even one machine hand-built by a Coast Guard member many years ago, and of course punching bags. Dozens of flags drape from the ceiling, and a larger than life-size painting of Ernest Hemingway in his later years and wearing boxing trunks watches over the hardcore fitness buffs.
Dunne never planned on owning a business. As a driver of 18-wheelers for Mayflower, he was working out one day about 14 years ago when the then-owner came over and says, “I’m selling the gym, Frank, and I want you to buy it.”
“Three hours later, I owned the gym. And then I went home and said ‘oh my god, what do I do now?’ ”
But Dunne learned quickly and managed to build up a good business. His clients include SEAL team and Special Forces members as well as athletes. It’s open to drop-ins, such as cruise ship passengers and other tourists passing through. And then there are the hardcore regulars. “There’s been a lot of characters through this gym, believe you me,” he says.
About 3 ½ years ago, Dunne bought the building, too. Things were going well — until the pandemic. His business and others were locked down for four months in 2020 and that set the whole town back, he says. The irony was that a nearby liquor store and porno shop up the road were kept open because they were deemed essential, but not his open-air gym.
“A lot of businesses in this town went out of business,” he says, “I was lying awake at night wondering how I would pay my next bill.”
So many people lost their jobs during the pandemic that the pain did not end when businesses opened again, he said. A lot of workers had left town. Trying to get a bank loan during the pandemic was a nightmare, too.
“I’ve been through a lot of hurricanes down here, but I know that after a hurricane, we get a team together, we get up on the roofs, we clear the fallen trees and limbs. Flooding doesn’t bother me; the water will subside. But this was different. For all the years, I had never been in the red until this lockdown put me over the top. I was ready to close my doors.”
But instead Dunne contacted State Rep. Jim Mooney who recommended he contact the Florida SBDC at FIU, the small business development center within FIU’s College of Business. SBDC at FIU offers no-cost business consulting to small businesses in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. During the pandemic, SBDC at FIU nearly doubled its staff of business consultants and offered additional training through webinars to meet the demand from struggling small businesses for assistance.
Kirby Chambers, an SBDC at FIU consultant who specializes in business operations, analysis and forecasting, process improvement and labor resource management, was a lifesaver, Dunne says. “He took me through step by step. It was 6 months of hard work.”
Chambers was instrumental in helping Dunne apply for and receive an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which kept him afloat. “With the help of the SBDC and the SBA we were able to reopen – and keep our doors open,” Dunne says.
That support continues, and it wasn’t only the help with the loan. “It was great to know that somebody actually had a genuine interest in me staying open to the community here,” Dunne says. Chambers and Dunne met weekly early on and now meet about every other week.
“He listened and he understood what I was going through, and his advice was as helpful as any financial package, maybe more, to ease my mind that things were going to be OK. It was fantastic. It wasn’t just me carrying the world on my shoulders,” Dunne says.
Chambers has encouraged Dunne to raise his prices – even just a bit. That’s a tough one for Dunne to swallow as he considers his customers his friends and has a good heart, Chambers says. Still, it is something that needs to be considered.
It’s not easy for the business owner, Chambers says. “Small businesses are not started to make millions of dollars. They’re started to fill a niche in the community or serve a certain customer group. And very often those customers have become good friends of the business.”
Now Dunne is beginning to look at expanding and considering ways to better utilize his valuable piece of land. His is the only building on the block that isn’t multistory, and he is looking into adding space with a second story and/or roof access.
“Now we’re looking at how to possibly reconfigure the building so that he can have additional income out of the property,” says Chambers. Chambers has been working with Dunne on better understanding his finances, and Dunne has increased his cash flow since working with Chambers.
“He has some pretty serious athletes coming through here and there’s the Navy SEAL team when they are in town, they go there. These guys are into their free weights. And that’s the clientele that he likes, and he goes for it,” says Chambers. “He’s got a market and it’s a good one.”
ADVICE TO ENTREPRENEURS
We asked Florida SBDC Consultant Kirby Chambers for his advice to small business owners:
- Chambers likes to ask business owners, if you doubled your price, would you lose 50% of your business? if you were to double your price and lose 50% of your clients, you’d be making the same amount of money. Of course, he’s not advocating that much of a price increase for every business – or all at once — but it is something to think about. What if you raised prices 10 or 20%? “Let’s find where the market is. Experiment with raising your prices just a bit,” he says.
- When figuring out pricing, entrepreneurs often underestimate what it takes to make the product or deliver the service. It’s not just their time producing the product, it’s also the overhead, the inventory management, the marketing, all the time it takes to prepare for the sales, the time spent in traffic making deliveries.
- You don’t always need a bank to tap capital. One of his clients had a well-funded Roth IRA. He suggested the client talk to his investment advisor about moving some of that money to a self-directed IRA and just keeping that set aside so you can lend that to the business and have the business pay you interest instead of going to a bank and paying somebody else interest.