Editors' Note: This ongoing series examines the family side of the fitness business where passionate fitness entrepreneurs have instilled the love of fitness to the next generation. This series is not about the achievements of these families (easily found via websites or a Google search). Rather, we present the human-interest story, which, after all, is about interesting humans. The series has been made possible by the generous sponsorship of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services, Inc.
The life of a military kid can only be understood by other military kids.
“I’ve moved 23 times in my life,” Jennifer Urmston-Lowe, who was born in 1969 at the Marine Corp base in Quantico, Virginia, said with a laugh. “Thirteen of those moves were in the first 12 years of my life. I guess you could say the abnormal became normal.”
Jennifer's multiple moves were due to the military career of her father, Marine Colonel John Urmston. John died in 2012 of complications from Parkinson's disease, but not prior to building a distinguished military career and making his mark—and that of his family—in the fitness industry.
For almost 30 years, John served the United States in active and reserve duty. During the Vietnam War, he commanded three companies. In the reserves, he commanded an 1,800-person Marine battalion and held numerous staff positions of importance. His last three-year duty assignment was as a colonel at United States Central Command, better known as the war-fighting center for the Middle East.
After leaving active duty, John took a job in sales and marketing in the consumer products industry before joining Nautilus Sports Medical Industries (the “original” Nautilus) in 1983. At Nautilus, John's combination of passion for health and fitness, his debate and sales skills, and his military training paved the way for him to move from vice president of marketing and sales to general manager to chief operating officer and, ultimately, to president of the company.
“Fitness was always a central component in our lives, ” said Jennifer, who was the oldest of John’s three children and started running with her dad in the mornings when she was nine years old – a habit that led to Jennifer ultimately becoming a life-long fitness enthusiast and personal trainer. “As we grew up, Dad used to take us to industry conferences and trade shows to the point that fitness was simply ingrained in who we are.”
The travel even included trips to the original Nautilus headquarters at Arthur Jones’ estate in Deland, Florida, complete with crocodiles, gorillas and snake pits.
While working at Nautilus, John became tight with Glynne Simpson, whose business insured the 1 million-square-foot Nautilus factory. At that time, Simpson decided that with the explosion of the health club business meant an opportunity existed to extend insurance to health club operators, so he enlisted John to help him put together a program in 1985 that ultimately became Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. (SFIC). SFIC would eventually become a big part of John's and Jennifer's lives, but first, John and Jennifer took a detour into club ownership. When John left Nautilus in 1995, the Urmston family opened a fitness studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, and one year later, they opened a second studio in Huntersville, North Carolina.
During the two years of studio ownership, John also worked as a consultant in the fitness industry. He and Jennifer were helped in the studio business by second child David (himself a Marine) and youngest child Lisa.
“It was great having everybody together,” Jennifer said, noting that those two years created even stronger bonds in the already tight family unit, which also included mother Carol. “Eventually, however, marriages and other life interests got in the way, and we ultimately sold the clubs.”
In 1997 after the Urmstons closed their studio business, Simpson lured both John and Jennifer into joining SFIC full time.
Dad and daughter turned out to be a good fit. John was the visionary, big-picture thinker. Jennifer was the detail person, whose business degree from the University of North Carolina, trainer experience and clarity of understanding the business of her customers led to them helping SFIC grow to insuring more than 11,000 fitness facilities.
“I learned a lot from Dad,” said Jennifer. “The most important lesson was ‘leadership with compassion.’ Beyond that, once I acquired the knowledge I needed on the insurance side, we were good to go.”
That SFIC itself was and is a family business became vital when John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010. As John gradually succumbed to this progressive disorder of the nervous system, Simpson, his son-in-law Steve Shelton, and Jennifer took on some of John's responsibilities at SFIC.
Simpson's father had died of Parkinson’s so he understood the toll that Parkinson's takes on people, including the loss of movement and speech.
“The Simpsons were incredibly beautiful to me,” Jennifer said. “When Dad got sick, they treated me like one of the family. We had to gradually start assuming his roles, doing what he did, being in meetings he would have been in, making decisions he would have made.”
As news of John’s illness spread throughout the fitness industry, people would call, express their concerns, and almost always have a heart-felt story to tell about John’s generosity, Jennifer said.
“Of course, it made me proud that so many people have such fond memories of Dad,” she said. “But I won’t lie. It was tough. Not only are you losing a parent and a mentor who you work with every day, [but] he was our platoon leader. Everything we dealt with, we dealt with it together.
“I remember my first trade show without Dad was incredibly difficult. I stayed in my room rather than go to receptions and have to face the industry to answer the same questions about Dad over and over.”
It didn’t take long, however, for the huge outpouring of love to stimulate Jennifer’s outreach to the point that she could put not only her dad, but also generational fitness, into context.
“Multi-generation fitness families love the industry for what it is and what it does,” she said. “We love fitness. We believe in it and its value to society. We’re not going anywhere. We’re committed to it. It’s more than just a day’s work or making a living – it’s our family’s legacy.”
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services for their generous support of this and subsequent articles in this series. Both companies encourage the entrepreneurial spirit represented in investment in the fitness business.
Note to Readers:
If you know of a Next Generation Fitness Family with a unique story to tell, who you would like to see featured in this space, please let us know. The family can come from any segment of the industry (i.e., clubs, boutiques, suppliers, associations). Send a note to Chuck Leve at [email protected].
Chuck Leve is a 45-year veteran of the fitness industry and developer of fitness industry associations. Currently, he serves as the executive vice president of business development for the Association of Fitness Studios (AFS). He was the founding employee of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), where among his accomplishments was the creation and growth of the IHRSA trade show, the largest fitness expo in North America.