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Behind the Scenes

After 33 Years, Owner Turns Over His Keys to the Club

Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville, TX, has been in operation since 1977. Matthew Wagner, who has owned the club since 1980, recently sold it to Iron Works Health Club. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Wagner.)

The day of the member thank-you party last week at Nautilus Health Center in Huntsville, TX, the main air conditioner broke.

Such was the life for the club's owner, Matthew Wagner, who threw the party after announcing he had sold the club to Chuck and Susan Miller of nearby Iron Works Health Club. After 33 years of club ownership, Wagner is walking away—but not before replacing two compressors.

"In a small business environment, one of the keys is being on location and being able to take care of those day-to-day details," Wagner told me last week. "Over the years, my passion ebbed a bit and I didn't enjoy the day-to-day as much as I used to. One of the things that was very important to me was to find individuals who had the same passion for it that I thought I had years ago. [The Millers] personified that."

As of last Friday, Wagner had completed the sale. But don't feel too badly for him. Armed with a doctorate in kinesiology, Wagner is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, and with two years to go before he's tenured, he's been busier than ever at the university. Oh, and he's only 55.

Matthew Wagner

That's right, in 1980, at the ripe age of 22, Wagner bought Nautilus Health Center, which had only been in operation for three years. Wagner had worked there for about a year or two, and after the manager quit, the owner was going to shut the club down. With the aid of a partner, his family and the bank, Wagner bought the club on "a wing and a prayer," he says.

Wagner's gumption reminds me of a young Joe Cirulli starting out in Gainesville, FL. Cirulli has gone on to have a stellar career, and he was our Lifetime Achievement Award winner last year.

"That guy is me but times 10," Wagner says of Cirulli. "He was an influence on my career in many ways."

The other connection is Nautilus. Cirulli knew Nautilus founder Arthur Jones personally and spoke at several of his conferences. Wagner says back in the 1970s, if a club bought equipment from Nautilus, the owner could name the club Nautilus, too.

"I believed in Arthur and his principles, as eccentric as he was," Wagner says. "In my opinion, the guy really knew what he was doing."

Wagner never really considered expanding Nautilus Health Center, a 15,000-square-foot club with two swimming pools and 2,100 members, into multiple clubs. Huntsville is a town of about 38,000, and a good portion of the population comes from the university and the state prison.

"[Huntsville has] a lot of inmates that aren't going to become members of the club," Wagner says.

Through it all, Wagner has seen it all. He met his wife at the club. He also has spoken at industry trade shows, including Club Industry.

Of all the success stories at Nautilus Health Center, there have been tragedies, too. Two members in Wagner's 33 years have had cardiac episodes at the club and later died.

"Both of their families thanked us for all we did," Wagner says, "because they felt that their loved ones would not have been around as long if they hadn't been working out with us, which was huge to us, obviously."

Mainly, though, Wagner will miss helping people get healthier and the impact he and his staff have had on improving their lives. And aside from the air conditioners breaking or the whirlpool needing fixing ("If you have a MacGyver on staff, you'll do well," Wagner says), there are so many positives to owning a health club.

"It's been a ride, that's for sure," Wagner says. "The highs are high and the lows are low, but I wouldn't trade it for the world."

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