UPPER DEERFIELD TOWNSHIP — When former Mr. Universe Joe DeAngelis bought an old gym in 2006, he designed the kind of fitness center he would use.
The gym would have consistent, convenient hours. It would be well-lit and clean and welcoming to men and women of all ages and physical abilities. None of the machines would be out of order. Summer or winter, it would have a comfortable temperature.
It would offer separate areas for spin and aerobics classes, for hardcore free weights and for women who might prefer exercising with a little more privacy. To join, customers would pay a flat monthly fee, not sign complicated multi-year contracts.
The result was Flex Family Fitness, a two-story, 21,000-square-foot gym on Cornwell Drive just outside Bridgeton in Upper Deerfield Township.
DeAngelis estimates he has set foot in thousands of gyms around the world as both a professional bodybuilder and sales representative for dietary supplements.
The former Mr. America knows what he likes in a gym and, more importantly, what he doesn’t. And he has a hunch he’s not alone.
“We stay open to 10 and that means the doors stay open until 10. Some places close early if it’s slow and I hate that,” he said.
Women and men recently shared machines side by side while watching banks of televisions. Despite another summer day in the 90s, the two-story gym remained cool.
“I can’t stand the heat. I like it to be comfortable,” he said.
DeAngelis, 46, of Bridgeton, grew up in nearby Pittsgrove Township in Salem County. He said he was overweight as an adolescent, which made him a target of school bullies. When he was 14, he started lifting weights, quickly shedding the baby fat and developing a physique that would launch him to the top of his sport.
For years he managed Gold’s Gym in the nation’s bodybuilding mecca of Venice Beach, Calif. He met all of the sport’s top names, including former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Mr. Olympia.
The sport requires unflagging determination about training and diet, he said.
“On that Saturday night if you have pizza and beer, your competitor probably isn’t having pizza and beer,” he said. “The competition is over before the competition date.”
DeAngelis said he brought this attention to detail to his gym, where his wife, Jennifer, is manager.
Flex offers a workout regimen DeAngelis developed called the Rapid Success Program. It’s an intensive eight-week program guaranteed to produce results, he said.
“Most people drop out of their gym within the first 30 days. But we have a better retention rate because we try to show people results,” he said. “A 5-pound dumbbell here is the same as a 5-pound dumbbell anywhere. So here it’s about customer service.”
The gym offers child care to members during their workouts. Rows of cardio machines, each with a speaker jack for earphones, face a bank of televisions tuned to news, sports and daytime programming.
His employees lead nightly fitness classes in everything from spinning to belly dancing to pole dancing. He also sells his own line of dietary supplements.
Later this year, DeAngelis and his lifelong friend and business partner, Jason Reed, of Yardley, Pa., plan to open a second Flex Family Fitness gym in Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Nobody at the gym is perfect, he said, not even the up-and-coming bodybuilders who train there.
“The thing everyone has in common is they want to improve,” he said. “Everyone is after the same goal.”
The United States is home to 29,960 fitness clubs with $21 billion in revenue, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, a trade group. Despite the recession, gym membership was up 2 percent in 2011 from the previous year to 51 million people. The number of clubs did not change substantially.
DeAngelis said the gym develops relationships with public and private employers through its wellness programs. Employers have learned that $1 spent subsidizing gym memberships saves as much as $4 in health care costs and lost productivity.
The past decade saw a rise in specialty gyms such as Curves, a national chain that caters to women. DeAngelis said he has an opportunity to capture the customers who outgrow these niche gyms.
“About 17 percent of people will join a fitness club. We’re going after the other 83 percent,” he said. “We don’t want this to be an intimidating experience for anyone.”
Contact Michael Miller: