Originally from Wisconsin, Debbie Ponczoch, Owner of Naples Progressive Gymnastics, spent the first half of her professional life in financial services. While still working for Merrill Lynch, Ponczoch also began working part-time as a gymnastics coach. In 1987, she and her husband, in search of warmer weather, relocated to the Sunshine State. Ponczoch shared the story behind her entrepreneurial journey and how her love for teaching kids and watching them grow has contributed to the success and longevity of her business.
“My daughters started doing gymnastics at Naples Progressive Gymnastics before I even became the owner,” Ponczoch said. “The original owners found out that I taught in the past and asked if I’d be interested in teaching a couple hours per week. For me, it was a great stress reliever and something I really looked forward to.”
In 2006, the original owners, who started the business in the late 1970s, wanted to sell it. One of the co-owners asked Ponczoch if she’d be interested in buying the business. They reached an agreement and by January 2007, Ponczoch and her late husband, James, were the new owners of Naples Progressive Gymnastics.
“It was scary to leave my job with Merrill Lynch, but James and I did a lot of soul searching,” Ponczoch said. “Our youngest was almost done with college. We paid off our mortgage and had no car payments. We had no debt, so we both thought it was a great time to have a business of our own. We took out a home equity line of credit on our house and went for it.”
Ponczoch retained a majority of the employees. In fact, some are still with her today. She did however, over time, evolve the business to be more customer-centric. Whether it’s a situation where two parents get divorced, resulting in payment issues, or a struggling family needs to setup a payment arrangement, Ponczoch and her team are more than willing to accommodate most requests.
We asked Ponczoch about challenges and what her growth strategy entails. “A year after we bought the business, the housing market started its downturn,” she said. “We lost a lot of clients because they couldn’t afford extracurricular activities. We also had to cut back on staff and do a lot of things on our own. Those were some trying times, but we stayed focused and got through it.”
Ponczoch continued, “In terms of our growth strategy, we’ve done a lot of advertising, but we also donate to many of the local elementary, middle and high schools, as well as non-profits. If the schools are doing a spring fling or a fall fundraiser, we’ll donate gift cards for them to use to raise money. We also pride ourselves on hiring good staff and making things as easy as possible for our customers.”
For Ponczoch, the joy of working with children and having a positive influence on their lives is what she enjoys most. Through safe and structured classes and instruction, her students are developing much more than just gymnastics skills.
“We’re teaching life skills,” she said. “The kids learn time management and how to focus. They’re also using every muscle in their bodies when they train. They become fit and prepared for many of life’s obstacles. I’ve been able to watch a lot of my kids grow up. I have one girl, who’s a graduating senior this year, who started with me when she was only three years old. We’re also starting to get second generation students. It’s very gratifying.”
Looking ahead, Ponczoch will continue to position the business for her daughter to take over daily operations. In terms of size, she’s happy with the amount of registered athletes she had, pre COVID-19, and would like to get back to and sustain that number. For Ponczoch, it’s more about providing quality instruction.
What advice does she have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Make sure it’s something you really enjoy, especially in the beginning” she said. “It quickly becomes a 24/7 job. As an owner, you also have to be willing to work all the different positions – whether that’s maintenance or answering the phones. Above all, you have to love it. If you don’t, it becomes difficult to keep going when times get tough.”
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