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Mr. Comeback

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  • | 11:07 p.m. March 8, 2012
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When John Pierce won the Mr. America bodybuilding contest in 2010, he was ready to parlay his fame in the Bonita Springs gym he had just acquired.

Indeed, the body builder came in fifth place in the Mr. Universe contest seven months later.

But shortly after the world competition, a routine scan of Pierce's lower back revealed a slow-growing cancerous tumor in one kidney. The news came as a shock to the 44-year-old athlete who had been meticulous about his diet and only participated in drug-free competitions.

Pierce's story is a cautionary tale for entrepreneurs whose businesses depend on their well-being. “I never had health insurance,” says Pierce, who says he was so health-conscious he thought he could do without it.

“It was a major shocker,” says business partner Anthony Poer.

Despite the cancer, Pierce and Poer turned a struggling Gold's Gym around, renaming it New Image Fitness. They did it by heavily promoting the gym with no contracts and monthly fees as low as $10. “It's still an old-school gym with clean service and customer service,” Pierce says.

Pierce says his gym has benefited from what he says is the impersonal service at competing chain gyms that hire young employees with little experience. Think about it: Would you rather train with Mr. America or some guy with a clipboard?

Formerly a struggling Gold's Gym, New Image Fitness now has 10 times the number of customers it had when Pierce and Poer took over a little more than a year ago. “The gym was getting ready to close,” says Pierce. “I bought the assets.”

Although he declines to say how many customers he has today for competitive reasons, Pierce made a big splash in the neighborhood by holding a membership drive and giving away a Mercedes convertible car to one lucky winner.

Still, Pierce's cancer loomed over the growing gym and he didn't want to promote his Mr. America image until he had fully recovered. Fortunately, the surgeons removed the cancerous tumor late last year without the need for chemotherapy or radiation treatments. “I was back after a week and I was supposed to be out for a month,” Pierce says. Adds Poer: “His recovery blows everyone away.”

On a typical day, Pierce wakes at 4:30 a.m. and is at the gym working out at 5:30 a.m. He trains until 7 a.m., then trains clients for three hours before turning his attention to gym business. From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. he trains more clients before going home to eat dinner, usually chicken and broccoli. He's in bed by 9:30 p.m.

With the cancer gone, Pierce and Poer plan to add another 3,000 square feet to the 14,000-square-foot gym, and they're mulling a plan to open more gyms. “But not where you expect to find them,” Pierce says cryptically.

And now that he's cancer-free, he's planning to market his Mr. America victory more prominently. For example, Pierce is working on developing a line of nutritional formulas called Mr. America Nutrition, which will also be known by its acronym, M.A.N. “We're working with a lab putting the formulas together,” he says. “We've trademarked it.”

The nutrition includes protein powders with no sugar added and protein bars with his name on it. He's already promoting the products on his website, “How many people can make fat-free protein pancakes?” Pierce asks, laughing. “I can!”

Pierce is also headed back to competition. His next event: the Mr. Universe contest in Miami in June 2013.


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