By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
At the Libertyville Gymnastics Academy (LGA) near Chicago, young bodies in colorful leotards leap and flip. Some tumble across the gym’s blue mats while others form human stacks as part of cheerleading routines. Still others carefully practice back walkovers on balance beams, or play with hoops and balls as they laugh with friends and listen to music.
The guiding force behind this organized chaos is Kelly Legate Michalek, or “Miss Kelly” as she’s known to her students. Eleven years after she co-founded LGA at age 42, Michalek, is having the time of her life.
“I have such passion for this business,” she says. “I love each and every day.”
By all measures, Michalek has realized her dream to create “a big gym with a big vision.” In addition to gymnastics and cheerleading classes, her 20,000-square-foot facility provides workshops, birthday parties, field trips, events for special-needs children and weekly summer camps with different themes (one of the most popular is American Girl Doll Camp). It also has a separate, climate-controlled baby gym, a preschool program, a competitive team and a recently remodeled gift shop.
During the school year, LGA’s enrollment averages around 1,300 students. Some have been coming to the gym since they were in diapers, developing skills in one program before advancing to the next. One of them, a five-year-old named Darby, recently displayed her remarkable cheerleading skills on national television when she appeared on America’s Got Talent.
Those kinds of student success stories thrill Michalek, whose love for gymnastics began at an early age. She grew up in Northern Virginia and attended Falls Church High School, where she competed in vaulting and floor exercise.
Soon after earning a degree in public health from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, Michalek married and had two daughters. For many years, she coached gymnastics on a part-time basis so she could focus on raising her children.
Then in 1995, while she was working at a gym in Mundelein, Illinois, she went through a divorce that left her drained emotionally and physically. “Here I was, a single mother of two,” she said. “I was 35 years old, frightened and had never worked a full-time job. But I had to find a way to make a living.”
Michalek went to her boss, who gave her a full-time job at the gym. He also sent her to New Orleans to participate in Kinder Accreditation for Teachers (KAT), the first preschool gymnastics certification program offered by USA Gymnastics (the sport’s governing arm in the U.S.). Michalek became a national KAT instructor who traveled throughout the Midwest region, giving eight-hour workshops to certify other preschool gymnastics teachers.
The Turning Point
While Michalek benefited from this experience, she had bigger ambitions. In 2000, she left her job for a better-paying one at another gym. After two years there, she gave herself an ultimatum: go back to school or start a business. The startup won, a choice she might not have made if she wasn’t dissatisfied.
“I had taken another coaching job to try to improve my life,” she says. “But at that point, I realized I wanted to work for myself, and not for someone else.”
In 2002, Kelly Michalek founded the Libertyville Gymnastics Academy with David and Angi Rawles as well as her current husband Ronald (who left the gym business about two years ago). Initially, LGA overstaffed its operations with quality personnel based upon the belief that the salary expense would more than pay for itself. Says Michalek,“Our approach was, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
The approach worked. With help from word-of-mouth advertising, more than 100 students registered before LGA opened its doors on December 11. Four months later, enrollment reached 400 children. By the tenth month, it topped 1,000.
Today, LGA has annual gross revenue in the low seven figures and 52 employees. Michalek oversees the baby and preschool programs, workshops, camps, personnel, advertising and website while David Rawles manages the gym’s competitive team, payroll and bookkeeping.
Michalek, an avid reader of business books, finds inspiration from other companies. In the front office, she seeks to create a Disney-like environment with friendly, smiling staff members who talk to everyone and give “boo-boo gifts” to children when they need them.
Could she have done all this if she were 20 years younger?
“No,” she answers firmly. “By the time I started my business, I was so much more mature and knew what I wanted. My kids were older by then and I could focus on me.”
Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Looking ahead, Michalek hopes to try her hand at new entrepreneurial endeavors, including a consulting business to help other gym owners establish preschool programs. But for now, she’s proud of what she’s achieved – and endured.
“I could not believe the amount of work and energy it took to build this place,” Michalek says about her gym. For aspiring entrepreneurs, she has these recommendations:
- Always be positive. Entrepreneurship has no room for negativity.
- Be different. Do things to set yourself apart from the competition.
- Focus on retention. Michalek points out that developing new customers requires six times more effort than keeping existing ones.
- Create a strong culture. “Good people attract good people,” says Michalek. If you are good, you won’t have trouble attracting good people. Your staff forms the heart and soul of your program.”
- Follow the Golden Rule. “Treat others the way you want to be treated,” she says. “That means your staff, your customers and each person who walks through that front door.”
Most importantly, don’t give up, stresses Michalek. Expect the first five years to be especially tough.
”You have to have passion for what you do,” she says. “And the intensity and drive to make it the best it can be.”
She pauses for a beat. Then adds:
“Each and every day.”