Local Gym Owner Hopes Second Chance Will Make it Work

Editor’s Note: Make it Missoula has partnered with the University of Montana’s Online News class, taught by Lee Banville, to create a Citizen Journalism feature that’s all about local views, stories, and issues. We’re excited to provide them with a platform so they can objectively explore and report about the topics they think reflect the lives and times of Missoula and its citizens.


The faint odors of rubber and sweat filled the warehouse. Piercing guitars and funky bass-lines throbbed out of one elevated speaker, clashing with the shouts of one muscle-bound man.

“We move as a group! Don’t quit! Don’t quit!”

His commands were directed a dozen fit young men, members of the Maulers, Missoula’s semi-pro hockey team, and the latest guinea pigs in Mike Scialabba’s ongoing fitness experiment.

The Missoula Underground Strength Training gym

Mike Scialabba hopes his new gym has found the secret to success in the highly competitive fitness industry.

Scialabba, owner of Missoula Underground Strength Training, said that to succeed in the local fitness scene, you have to “find a niche and carve the f***ing s*** out of it.” As 11 young hockey players sat breathless in the turf-laden warehouse, it became apparent that Scialabba has found his niche… at least for now.

The U.S. fitness industry is growing almost as fast as the average American’s waistline. Shrewd gym owners are riding Americans’ chubby coattails to impressive growth, with revenue from gyms, health clubs and Pilates and yoga studios increasing by 11 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to industry research.

While the industry is flourishing nationwide, the trail to financial success is littered with misguided and ill-prepared entrepreneurs. According to Scialabba and others, the fitness world can be dangerously fickle, as fads routinely gain momentum, dominate the industry, and then evaporate as quickly as they emerged. Ride the wrong wave at the wrong time, and watch your business crumble.

Scialabba knows that all too well.

He seems to possess all the attributes a successful trainer and gym owner needs — an affable personality, manic work ethic and open mind. He honed his training skills at Gold’s Gym in Missoula, conducting 45 to 50 one-on-one sessions per week and earning $40 an hour.

Scialabba built a loyal following in his five years at Gold’s. He thought his success would continue when he opened his own studio.

He was wrong.

Scialabba opened the doors of Strength Advantage — located above First Montana Bank on Higgins Ave. — in January of 2008. By October, his business was failing and he was scrambling to pay his bills. He closed shop, put all his equipment in storage and tried to regroup.

“I kind of threw myself right into a financial disaster,” Scialabba said. “It was poor planning. I was over-ambitious, under-prepared, over-arrogant and quickly humbled.”

Luckily for Scialabba, he learned from the demise of Strength Advantage. When the economy slowed down after 2008, he said, clients were no longer willing to pay $40 for each one-on-one personal training session.

Scialabba adopted a new business plan: find a large building at a cheap price and use it to train multiple clients at the same time. He could charge less for each client and still make money. After driving around Missoula and searching Craigslist for eight months, Scialabba finally found his sanctuary.

“We rented a dirt-cheap, s***y warehouse by the train tracks, so there was a really low overhead cost, and we just poured a little money into it and made it look awesome,” Scialabba said. “We used the one-on-ten training model, and as we were doing that and celebrating our success, other gyms were closing their doors and owners were filing for bankruptcy.”

Rent for the 7,500 square foot warehouse is just over $2,000 per month (the same space downtown would cost five figures per month), and he and his three staff members are each able to train up to 10 people at a time.

Maulers forward Viktor Steenson, a player recruited from Sweden, said the group training method has been effective for the team.

“Even though it’s a group workout, he tailors everything to the individual,” Steenson said. “If you need to take it easy one day, he’s not going to be that hard on you. But the first thing he said to us is, ‘If you’re going to be here working out, you have to work hard, and if you’re not willing to do that, I’m not going to waste my time.’”

Steenson added that Scialabba’s credentials, which includes bylines in Men’s Fitness and the unofficial title of “Missoula’s Best Personal Trainer,” make him an easy coach to trust.

While his clients are happy now, other small business owners caution Scialabba not to become complacent.

“That’s the thing with small businesses — you can’t get stagnant,” said Luke Reiker, co-owner of Strongwater, a local kayaking business that has managed to flourish even in the slow economy. “You’ve got to keep it fresh. You’ve got to try the new products and you’ve got to stay on top of everything.”

Scialabba seems to realize this.

“I think big gyms are always going to make it…the small gyms, they rise and they fall every year,” he said. “Every single year, I see a new gym go up, then fall apart… (To survive) we have to do things like be crazy passionate, crazy ambitious and crazy in love with what we do. And that’s what makes us different. People see it as soon as they walk in the door.”