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Shaping up Utah, one gym rat at a time

Business profile » With a balanced approach, Utahn Brent Cook has built a Salt Lake valley fitness empire.

By Michael C. Lewis

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Jun 28 2012 01:01 am • Last Updated Jun 29 2012 02:25 pm

When Brent Cook was handing out towels in the basement of an old gym to earn money while a student at the University of Utah some 40 years ago, he had no idea that it might lead to anything.

“I wasn’t smart enough to have any vision,” he says, laughing.

At a glance

Take a look at The Gym

For hours and amenities at The Gym at City Center, visit www.thegymatcitycreek.com or call 801-656-2092. The gym is at 51 S. Main St., Suite 308, Salt Lake City.

Typical.

The man whose humble beginning has blossomed over all those years into a vast fitness legacy in Salt Lake City is nothing if not self-deprecating. By his account, he not only lacks vision, but he’s “not a very good businessman,” either. He’s “maybe not the greatest operator” and “has no discipline.”

And yet, Cook owns and operates one of the most palatial fitness clubs the state has ever seen, The Gym at City Creek.

Watching the evolution of exercise » It’s the latest and most ambitious venture for a vibrant and charismatic man who has spent most of his life dedicated to running fitness clubs all over town — watching the evolution of exercise habits and holding his own with family businesses in an era of corporate competition.

“I love it,” he says. “I just love it.” Gee, as if you couldn’t tell.

Cook leads visitors around his new place with all the energy of a first-grader showing his mother his new school, right down to explaining how he picked out the paintings on the walls himself, during his many travels around the world.

Here’s the spinning room!

And here’s the pool!

This is where we lift weights! Oh, and check out the yoga studio!

Along the way, he teases and cracks jokes, laughing a high-pitched, staccato laugh that sounds maybe a little like a hyena with hiccups.

You hear that laugh a lot, too, like when Cook tells how tennis players using the rooftop courts kept “trying to take out Moroni,” the angel statue atop the LDS temple, back when his Metro Fitness club was at the old Crossroads Mall across the street.

“Came close,” he says, giggling. “There were lots of yellow balls over there at Temple Square. Didn’t make people happy.”

From Crossroads to Gateway and back again » Still, the gym and Cook have survived.

Cook moved his Metro Fitness club from the Crossroads Mall across the street to the ZCMI Center in 1993 and stayed there until moving to The Gateway when the old downtown malls were destroyed to make way for City Creek. It’s still there, too.

And all along, Cook and his wife, Fran, also have been running the popular Sports Mall in Murray.

At a glance

Take a look at The Gym

For hours and amenities at The Gym at City Center, visit www.thegymatcitycreek.com or call 855-411-4383. The gym is at 51 S. Main St., Suite 308, Salt Lake City.

Cook has been operating fitness clubs since 1976, after getting his start in the business opening gyms around the country for the late fitness entrepreneur and University of Utah booster Bob Rice, at whose European Health Spa Cook started handing out towels as a student.

“He’s pretty much amazing,” says Kolten Jensen, who helps manage the training and sales at The Gym. “The greatest thing is he really adds a lot to the culture here. It’s more like a family than a sweat shop.”

Not only has Cook survived the rise of corporate competitors such as Gold’s Gym and 24-Hour Fitness, but he has witnessed the transformation of fitness equipment — from silly contraptions such as the old vibrating exercise belts to the ultramodern iFit machines of today.

“I thought the step classes were going to be an absolute bomb, and they came on like gangbusters,” he confesses. “I did pick up on Zumba, though.”

The 69-year-old Cook even has taken two of the popular Latin-themed dance fitness classes, he says, though “I stay in the back corner and I put a wig on.”

‘Because it was there to be done’ » Wig or no, Cook certainly doesn’t fit the muscle-bound stereotype of a gym owner.

He grew up as an “Army brat,” settling with his family in Utah in fifth grade, later attending East High School. He graduated from the U. with a degree in speech pathology and audiology and a minor in philosophy. Over the years, he developed an enchantment with Buddhism while traveling in Southeast Asia and acquired a love of his customers’ stories as much as their memberships.

He’s been married for more than 40 years, with three biological children and two adopted from Korea, all grown.

“What makes him so successful is he’s a very balanced person,” said Cathy Brunken, the daughter with whom Cook now runs The Gym, along with her husband, Stephen Brunken. “He was very hands-on with us, raising us — to the point where my mom would open up the Sports Mall for him early in the morning, and my dad was actually the one who would do our hair and get us ready for school and fix us breakfast and handle all of that. The energy has definitely has been there, my whole entire life.”

Cook says he constructed the sprawling, 55,000-square-foot The Gym mostly “because it was there to be done” — despite the traditional challenges operating gyms in urban downtown centers, where nighttime business often falls off a cliff.

He takes a great deal of pride in being a local fitness institution, too, even if his management style is perhaps a bit less lucrative.

“If you don’t have a passion for what you do, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s the passion for the business that keeps you going, that keeps you involved. I happen to love the business. It’s not for the money.”

He adds: “Our margins in our business are a lot less than the chains, because we put so much into the space. We didn’t need 55,000 square feet. We could have probably done this in 40. But we’ve created something with 55. Will it affect the bottom line? Of course. That’s just the way it is.”

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