Keeping the faith

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For the three Christian sisters who own the SB Fitness Complex at 8940 N. 85th St., Milwaukee, their business is a blessing.
After nine years of financial hardship involved with starting a health and fitness business, Joyce Harvey Davis, president, Barbara Harvey Carter, vice president of finance, and Elnora Harvey Wilson, vice president of administration, finally have success at their current 20,000-square-foot location.
The sisters’ story is one of faith and perseverance.
They ran a pilot program for one year in 1994 at the Milwaukee Enterprise Center, and for another year in 1995 at the Boys and Girls Club in Milwaukee.
"The six-week programs had participants coming in three times a week," Carter said. "We just wanted to see if it was possible, if people would come in for our workout sessions. We had 50 or 60 participants in the first year."
In 1996, the sisters purchased a small 2,500-square-foot site on Fond du Lac Avenue and Townsend Street and opened in 1997 what would be the first of three locations for SB Fitness.
"We decided to start a fitness business because of a combination of my background and the success of the pilot program," Davis said. "We had also conducted surveys that concluded that many African American men and women did not feel comfortable going to a fitness center, and we wanted to provide a place where they did feel comfortable."
Davis was an aerobic instructor for the Milwaukee County Parks Department when the sisters decided to go into business together. Combined, their backgrounds created the platform for running their business. Wilson has a background in human resources, finance and administration. Carter has a master’s degree in business administration and is a certified nurse. Davis has a bachelor’s degree in business management and is a certified personal trainer.
The sisters had success drawing in participants of all backgrounds and sizes for both the pilot programs and SB Fitness when the business began.
In 2000, SB Fitness leased a larger, 5,000-square-foot location on 64th Street and Capitol Drive in Milwaukee. In early 2002, somebody else bought the building where they were leasing space, and the sisters contemplated moving.
However, a fire at that building in June 2002 destroyed all of their equipment.
Even that disaster was not enough deter the three sisters.
"We always look at the glass as half full, not half-empty," Carter said.
With high expectations, Davis, Carter and Wilson combined their own contributions with $350,000 in loans from Legacy Bank, the Milwaukee Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), the Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Wisconsin Department of Commerce, to purchase their current building from the Wisconsin Athletic Club later in 2002.
Although Wisconsin Athletic Club owned the building, it had been vacant since 1999, when Bally Total Fitness pulled out.
SB Fitness and the three sisters have not looked back since reopening on 85th Street in 2003.
"We thought people would be lined up at the door when we first opened because we are the only fitness center that is a short distance from businesses and residences in the area," Wilson said. "But after opening, we realized that we are the new kid on the block and have to establish some name recognition."
By the end of 2003, SB Fitness had $250,000 in revenue and 400 members. So far in 2004, the membership has grown to 750. Carter declined to disclose this year’s revenues.
Although the sisters are targeting a market that can afford a private health club, SB Fitness stands out from its competition as a holistic health center focused on health, stress management and love.
SB stands for "spiritually beautiful."
"I had a dream in 1984 where the name ‘spiritually beautiful’ was given to me," Davis said. "Nothing came of it until 1991, but until then, I just kept that moment with me."
The sisters’ holistic approach transcends into the club. As members release tense energy on the Stairmaster, their minds are treated to jazz, big band and gospel music played over the loud speakers. The entire facility is decorated in a tropical theme, complete with a juice bar and an aquarium.
Wilson said focusing on the body, mind and spirit is both relaxing and can improve the health of the entire person.
"Many people are so busy throughout the day that they don’t take time to relax," Wilson said. "We can provide stress management exercises for them."
According to Davis, every exercise class begins with prayer and scripture reading and ends with stress management exercises and sharing.
"Most people know we are a Christian-based company," Davis said. "They can sense the environment is different here. They know that we do not force God upon them, we only show them love."
"We have members that are all different types of religions here," Carter said.
However, the biggest reason SB stands for spiritually beautiful may be because the club is not promoting rock-hard abs or losing 60 pounds in 60 days.
"It all goes back to too many people leading sedentary lifestyles," Davis said. "We as fitness experts need to teach them the seriousness of obesity and the risk factors that are involved. We need to tell them until they understand that if they do nothing, then nothing will be done."
SB Fitness stands apart from its competition beyond its holistic approach. The sisters also promote individualized service and a range of membership plans with daily, monthly and annual options.
The sisters have big plans for SB Fitness as the growth continues, including a socialization room, an outreach room for seniors and youth, an indoor pool and sauna and three quiet rooms with massage chairs or rocking chairs.
"If the demand is right, we would spend and expand. We already have aerobics instructors on a waiting list," Carter said. "We have wonderful plans but we have to be patient. Once we increase membership, we will have the money to saturate the market."
"It will happen sooner than we think," Davis said.
October 15, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI

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