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Years of hard work pay off in fitness center

January 28, 1999

There are a lot of things you could say about Phil Physioc II, owner of Fitness Priority at 435 E. Baltimore St. in Hagerstown, but the truest statement of all might be that, first and foremost, he's a worker.

Now 38, he started making money at age 13 by helping out at the Beaver Creek County Club.

"I was riding my bike up there to caddy on the weekends, sometimes two rounds a day, and I probably made $75 to $80 a week, even back then," Physioc said.

He wanted to drive an automobile, but was too young for anything but those slow-moving farm tractors that creep along the shoulders of the county's rural roads. And so he got a job as a hired hand on a farm in Boonsboro, a job he liked so well that he transferred from South Hagerstown High to Boonsboro, so he could catch the school bus to his farm job.

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"I worked until 8 or 9 at night every night until one night my mother got angry and she told me I couldn't work there on Sundays anymore," he said

That cost him about $4 a month since he was being paid only $1 a day, though he did get meals and his work clothes washed.

"They'd pay me about $35 per month, when the milk check came," Physioc said.

Then he turned 16, and that little bit of money wasn't enough to keep his car gassed up. And so he went to work at Higgins Exxon on the Dual Highway.

"I still have my pay stubs. It was probably illegal since I was only 16 but I was doing 65 to 70 hours a week," he said.

The next year his grandfather asked him if he'd like to get involved in his business, providing springs to the automotive and trucking industry. Though he was only 17, he borrowed money from his family and set up Hagerstown Spring Works in 1978, incorporating it in 1981.

The only trouble was, the Maryland Avenue business was located in a residential area. One day an officer came by with a subpoena, advising him that he must come to court to answer a charge that he was in violation of the zoning ordinance.

He faced a penalty of $150 and 30 days in jail. The judge found him guilty and suspended the jail time, but left the young entrepreneur without a place to do business. In short order, Physioc found a building on Mechanic Street with a two-bay garage and an apartment next door, which - fortunately or unfortunately - allowed his customers to find him just before dawn and long after dark when they needed a spring.

The next move was to Baltimore Street, near Municipal Stadium, where the business grew rapidly to employ 17, in part because he took on a number of sidelines.

Unfortunately, some of them were less profitable than others and so in the mid-1980s, Physioc scaled it back, in part because he wanted to concentrate on a new business - a fitness center.

"I always had a love for the sport and having my own gym was always in the back of my mind. Once I got the Spring Works to the point where it could more or less run itself, I decided to do it," he said.

To learn more, he signed up with a personal trainer from Fairfax, Va., who turned out to be the chief of protocol with the International Federation of Body Building. That led to some weekend gigs with Arnold Schwarzanegger, a visit to the White House gym and a handshake from President George Bush.

His preferred site for the gym was a building at the far eastern end of Baltimore Street, ideal because it was located only a few hundred feet from his other firm. But it took several years, and more trouble than he likes to remember to get it set up.

He paid $3,500 as part of a three-year agreement to be a licensed franchisee, but when things came together slower than he anticipated, he told the company to just keep his down payment. Instead, they sued him for the balance.

Then there was the name hassle. He wanted to call his gym "Fitness Authority," but that was challenged by another company with "authority" in it name. His lawyer told him they could win, but that it would probably take several years and $20,000 to do so. So "authority" became "priority."

Physioc hasn't looked back since. He proudly displays a stack of thank-you notes, not only from individual clients, but from charitable organizations he's assisted with fund-raising efforts. The Hagerstown Suns and the teams they play stop by to train, he says, as do the Miss Maryland contestants when they're in town.

"We've trained Miss Maryland two years in a row, and I hope to do so again this year," he said.

As for the future, Physioc says he'd like to expand, but due to a price war initiated by two competing gyms that are no longer in business, he'll have to wait until he signs up additional clients.

Over the last 20 years in this area, gyms and fitness clubs have come and gone like the latest fad diets, sometimes leaving customers scrambling to get membership money returned.

That won't happen here, says this hometown guy, because Fitness Priority is bonded by the state and run by a fellow who's been working locally, in one job or another, for the past 25 years.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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