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Passion for Work Hits Home

(Reprinted from the February 5th, 2007 Cincinnati Business Courier)

HealthStyle Fitness Owner's Dedication Gets Business in Shape
By Karen Bells

Brian Calkins helped in his family's construction company throughout childhood and spent the first decade of his professional career there. But it wasn't until he left the family business that he finally felt at home.

In 1999, Calkins started HealthStyle Fitness, which offers personal training, exercise and nutrition counseling, and a variety of corporate and personal fitness programs. He's grown the business to $20,000 per month in revenue, and said it could hit $25,000 per month later in the year when he hires his fourth trainer. And he's scouting sites for a second location, which he plans to open in 2008, to supplement the company's Pleasant Ridge home.

The journey from employee to business owner, from being dependent on the family company, Homes by Calkins, to an independent proprietor, has been eye-opening. It has forced Calkins to deeply examine what makes him happy in a career, and this fitness buff has spent many hours working to get his entrepreneurial skills into shape. It hasn't always been easy, he said, but for the first time in his life his career feels natural and right.

"I'm living my dream life," Calkins said.

That kind of joy for the work should be a given for anyone starting a business, said Jean Lauterbach. But often, it's not - people start companies in fields they're not excited about because it's an area they're trained in or they think is thriving.

Lauterbach coaches owners through her Prism Consulting, as well as in her role as a chairwoman of the local chapter of Vistage, a CEO membership organization with more than 13,000 members worldwide. And passion - for their industry, their clients, their daily work - is the common denominator among the most successful owners she coaches.

Working as a fitness trainer might seem obvious to Calkins now - he's been an athlete since he was 5, loves to work out and enjoys helping people. But when he decided to leave his family's company at age 30, he only knew that he was frustrated and unfulfilled in that industry to the point that "I was going to just die inside."

Before he left, he spent a year taking skills-assessment tests and reading every career book he could find (see box). Everything pointed to some sort of coaching, and fitness training finally clicked.

Launching the business was scary, especially with a wife and child at home. He sold his car, downsized his house and pared back his life. He took classes at Thomas More College in exercise science and nutrition to supplement the business degree he'd earned at Xavier University.

He's never regretted his career change. But that's not to say there haven't been bumpy spots, lessons he learned through mistakes. The biggest were in the area of managing employees. Calkins assumed - naively, he realized - that everyone would have the same work ethic he has and feel as passionate about the work.

An important insight many business owners miss is that every employee has a personal interest in working at a company, as well as a business interest, said Tom Clark, director of the Entrepreneurial Center at Xavier and a professor of management and entrepreneurship. Owners must stay aware of that and try to reinforce both areas and see if they can align both sets of interests, he said.

"People that work for you are comparing working for you with working for others." Clark said. "They see what you don't see, from a different perspective."

To manage employees well, small-business owners have to become good listeners and observers, he said. They also have to constantly reassess their business and their leadership skills, said Lauterbach, and strive to be a great communicator.

Another rookie mistake, she said, is not having proper processes and business systems in place. An owner who doesn't give employees framework and infrastructure could find that employees have trouble delivering what he wants.

Calkins learned that lesson the hard way, finding that his business felt chaotic before he cracked down and established systems and protocols for everything: There's a schedule for welcome letters, reminder cards and other communications. There's a procedure for exercise recommendations and a guideline for how clients should be treated. Trainers who show up late know what disciplinary actions await them.

The attention to processes has made running HealthStyle Fitness much easier, Calkins said, and been a great lesson.

And to people considering a major career move, he said it's scary but well worth it: "At 30, I felt my ladder was on the wrong house, and I'd been spending all this time climbing that ladder. It was overwhelming, but you just have to put the ladder on a new house and start on the bottom rung."