Rich Heruska, humble son of a postal worker and a custodian, the first in his family to go to college, isn't normally an I-told-you-so kind of guy.
But he has plenty of ammunition if he wanted to brag.
For one, the venture he and a business partner founded in 2010, AirHeads Trampoline Arena, an entertainment center and party place for kids, has exceeded all expectations. The first one opened in the Carrollwood area of Tampa in August 2010. Two more, one in Largo and one in Orlando, opened in 2011. Sales at all locations doubled last year, though Heruska declines to release specific revenues.
Back in 2010, however, when Heruska was fresh off a real estate business crushed by the recession, few saw wisdom in entering an unproven kids-themed business. Many people in Heruska's life, including business mentors, friends and his wife, all voiced doubts.
They are doubters no more. “One of the most rewarding things in the beginning,” says Heruska, “was having the initial naysayers in on a Saturday and see 20 birthday parties and 1,000 people in here.”
AirHeads, Heruska points out, is more than a kids entertainment zone. Adults can sign up for jump sessions, and a growing side of the business is corporate clients who seek business team-building sessions. There's also a cafe with Wi-Fi, and a game room.
The three AirHeads locations have more than 100 employees, who all go by flight-centric names, like “attendants.” The business model is to have managers run the individual locations while Heruska and his longtime business partner, Steve Johnston, handle large-scale growth. A future move to franchising is a possibility, says Heruska.
Heruska and Johnston launched AirHeads mostly out of necessity. Their previous business, Tampa-based Home Discovery, grew quickly in the early 2000s when it brought a 2% real estate commission model to the then-booming housing market. Revenues doubled every year from 2001 to 2005, and the company grew from three to 300 employees.
But Home Discovery essentially collapsed in the downturn. That's why Heruska and Johnston sought a business opportunity a little more recession-resistant.
Plus, Heruska and Johnston had young kids. That meant they were well hooked into the children's birthday party circuit, which, they discovered, is mostly a mishmash of choices. Few birthday party facilities, if any, says Heruska, offered the Disney-style top-notch trio of excellent service, products and cleanliness.
“It's a competitive business,” says Heruska. “So to us it's more than entertaining kids. The parents have to be satisfied, too.”
Heruska grew up in Brick, N.J, a Jersey shore town about halfway between New York City and Atlantic City. His dad, the postal worker, sometimes held two jobs. Heruska loved sports growing up, and for a time his life's ambition was to be the next Chris Berman, the ESPN sportscaster. But going to college, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, was a transformational experience in Heruska's life. He met Johnston at USF, and the duo launched a student meal plan debit card business together. Heruska also met his wife, a fellow USF grad, at an alumni event.
Heruska's free time revolves around his wife and two young sons, and the occasional trip to Key West or overnight to Orlando. Most of his other time is spent on AirHeads.
“I never want to lose touch of what the customer wants,” says Heruska. “I don't want to get caught up in the growth of the business and lose track of what made it successful in the first place.”