HOLLAND — Mark Prill has always been involved in physical fitness.
“When I was a kid, my dad gave me a pair of homemade dumbbells,” Prill said. “I worked out at home on a little wooden bench. I wanted to have an occupation which involved fitness, but I didn’t know what back then.”
Today, Prill is the owner of several Powerhouse Gym franchises in West Michigan, but the road to studying muscle mass was not a direct route.
Prill didn’t go to school for anything fitness related; he said he was too scrawny coming out of high school to have seriously considered working in the field. Instead he went to school in Wisconsin where he studied mechanical engineering.
He left the school to work with Roberts and Portor, a graphic arts supply company based in Illinois. It was through this company that Prill came to West Michigan.
“They had a territory open up in Grand Rapids and wanted me to manage their warehouse,” said Prill, who was only 22 at the time. “I had always had the aspiration of running my own business, and this seemed like an opportunity to do so. So I took it.”
Five years later, Prill left the now defunct company for Hart & Cooley, a Holland-based heating and cooling company. He would spend 15 years there doing inside sales.
While at Hart & Cooley, Prill became a member at Premier Fitness in Grandville. That membership rekindled his interest in fitness. He would soon join a second gym, becoming the fourth member of the first Grand Rapids Powerhouse Gym that Mike Eddington opened up on 28th Street.
But this was about more than just pumping iron. Prill also began studying physical training.
In 1997, he was certified as a physical trainer by the International Sports Science Association and began taking clients at Premier. When Premier, and later Aussie Fitness, closed down, he moved his clients to Powerhouse.
Then-manager Becky Owens noticed Prill’s work, and offered him a job with Powerhouse.
“I turned her down,” he said. “I didn’t want to work at Powerhouse. I didn’t think I could possibly support myself doing it.”
But Owens persisted.
“She called like five times. Finally my wife told me to try it out, work for awhile and see if I liked it.”
So Prill left a lucrative job at Hart and Cooley to work as a physical trainer full time.
“It was a gamble, but I had faith something would come along.”
Shortly after he began working at the second Grand Rapids location, on Plainfield Avenue NE, owner Mike Eddington gave him a call.
“He said he was selling the store,” Prill said.
Prill had been considering the possibility of opening a gym on his own, but then Eddington called him with the unpublished opportunity.
“I took my savings, my wife’s savings, virtually all the money we had saved during the course of our marriage and gambled it on this gym … my wife was real nervous.”
Prill quickly went to work at expanding his gym. He brought in new weight machines and added 10 new pieces of cardio equipment. He expanded the pro shop and added a juice bar, then moved out the paintball shop that had been subletting the basement and set up aerobics and karate classes, as well as converting a large storage space into a second gym designed for more serious bodybuilding.
Prill formed a partnership with Jeff Huff, who had purchased the Wyoming store, to allow members the use of both locations. They also shared the marketing costs of the two franchises.
While the two were opening a third location in Kentwood, Mike O’Dowd opened up his Cascade franchise. They struck a similar deal with him, although their partnership with O’Dowd would not evolve into a financial union; they would share marketing costs within the Grand Rapids area and allow members to use all four locations.
Two years ago, Prill and Huff opened up the two original locations for 24-hour use.
“A lot of our customers kept telling me how nice it would be if we were open later,” Prill said. “So I figured, hey, if it worked for Meijer, why not us?”
Recently Prill and Huff purchased two lakeshore gyms, Omni Fitness in Holland and Grand Haven Fitness, and converted them into their fourth and fifth locations. They have also installed a computer system that allows for direct access between all the stores via the Internet.
Last year, the franchises were accepted into the Better Business Bureau.
“We’re not done yet,” Prill said. He also has plans to expand into the Rockford area, Allendale and possibly downtown Grand Rapids. Nationwide, Powerhouse is the third largest fitness chain with 240 locations serving more than 1.6 million members.