Sioux Falls Business Journal
June 3, 2015
By Jodi Schwan

Photo: Elisha Page / Argus Leader

Things are going so well at GreatLife Malaska Golf & Fitness that about a month ago CEO Tom Walsh suggested they might be able to cut back to half-days.

By that, he meant working “12 to 14 hours a day,” Walsh joked.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not involved with something, regardless of if it’s weekends or holidays,” he said. “It’s been a blast, and we’ve got a fabulous team. And the response we’ve gotten from the community has been overwhelming.”

Since launching in Sioux Falls in late 2013, GreatLife has grown rapidly. And it’s about to get a lot bigger:

  • GreatLife’s signature fitness center, Woodlake Athletic Club, has opened a major expansion.
  • GreatLife’s new clubhouse opens at Willow Run Golf Course this week.
  • Work has started on a project in southeast Sioux Falls to combine a GreatLife fitness center with a large athletic training facility.
  • And GreatLife is in negotiations to expand nationwide – from the Black Hills to the Omaha area to as far as New Orleans, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

“It’s become more than a business proposition,” Walsh said. “It’s become a quality-of-life issue. For many of us, it’s become a true mission. We’re impacting the lives of so many families … that we’re really making a difference in their lives.”

It’s also starting to make business sense. GreatLife has grown to 6,700 memberships representing 13,000 to 14,000 individuals. Many of its golf courses are setting records. And a growing number of businesses are partnering with GreatLife to offer more services.

“We just signed up our 19th golf course,” GreatLife president Donn Hill said. “And the only thing keeping us from signing up more is just time. We’re actually providing a really good service to the smaller towns and golf courses around Sioux Falls in that they are seeing people they’ve never seen before. Their business is up. Everybody that was with us last year is with us this year and has signed extensions.”

Bakker Crossing Golf Course doubled its best April ever this year. The GreatLife model, which includes unlimited golf and fitness, is key, Hill said.

“I looked out at the second hole at Bakker (at sunset) and there was a couple with three kids … walking with clubs. And that’s just great. They’re only going to play three holes, but they can do that,” he said.

“You don’t make as much money per player. We just have more players.”

Signature center opens

GreatLife also includes access to nine fitness centers. The flagship isWoodlake at 4600 S. Tenns Lane, which recently opened a 30,000-square-foot addition.

“An anchor fitness facility in a market this size is important for what we do,” Hill said. “It gives us visibility. If we had just done small fitness facilities or planted them in golf courses, we would be limited. We’re in the fitness business.”

The expanded Woodlake includes 10,000 square feet of fitness and another basketball court, quadruples the child care area, includes hot yoga, a juice bar and adds an indoor pool and whirlpool.
Walsh calls it “over the top.”

“It’s absolutely fabulous,” he said. “The pool area will blow people away.”

GreatLife added 160 parking spots, but that wasn’t enough. The plan is to start running shuttles during peak times between Empire Bowl on Westport Avenue.

The expansion includes space for Orthopedic Institute and Sioux Falls Specialty Hospital, which are planning to offer clinical services, physical therapy and educational seminars.

GreatLife members will have access to health screenings and injury evaluations, among other services.

“A lot of times, we can make healthy suggestions or modifications,” said Brad Pfeifle, vice president of sports medicine and rehab services. “Sometimes, it’s the technique they’re using creating overuse issues, and we can modify or correct that in the fitness center.”

OI also will offer physical and hydrotherapy because the swimming pool will be kept at a warm-enough temperature.

“This addition of hydrotherapy as a treatment here at OI is very exciting for us,” Dr. Pete Looby said.

“We do such a volume of surgery, a lot of people are elderly and have limited mobility, and the opportunity to get those people into the therapy pool will be really a game-changer.”

Programming will start Monday.

Combining training, fitness

The relationship between GreatLife and OI will broaden through a facility with D1, a Nashville-based business that operates more than two dozen athletic training facilities nationwide.

“OI has been seeking a partnership to build a large facility like this D1 facility for many, many years, and our efforts have finally come to fruition,” Looby said. “They always partner with an orthopedic group in the communities they come into. It’s an elite training facility offering classes and individual training instruction for athletes. That’s their emphasis: Training athletes to be better athletes, and that dovetails nicely with our athletic training at OI.”

The 40,000-square-foot facility is under construction on the northwest corner of 69th Street and Southeastern Avenue and is scheduled to open next spring.

The model is “train like an athlete,” Pfeifle said, adding that also can apply to people who participate in “weekend warrior” activities.

“It caters to other people to have an opportunity to train like an athlete, so there will be boot camp-like training, but it’s very specialized. It’s a form of training Sioux Falls really hasn’t been introduced to. It’s a very high-end level.”

The facility turned out to be in a location where Walsh was interested in starting a GreatLife, so the two facilities will be connected by a common lobby. D1 will concentrate on elite training, and the GreatLife facility will be a 14,500-square-foot fitness center. That’s equivalent to about three of GreatLife’s strip mall fitness centers.

“They (OI) felt having a fitness center attached so parents, if they wanted to work out, or take their participants into our fitness area, it would be a great opportunity,” Walsh said. “And that end of town is exploding. It’s a place where GreatLife needed to be.”

There is the potential for more partnerships, Pfeifle added.

“The vision is very big. But I think when you have that vision, things continue to grow, and I think everybody’s on the same page as to what this thing can actually look like in two, three, four, five years. It has huge momentum right now. There’s a level of excitement among all the partners.”

Growing business partnerships

As GreatLife has grown, it has added numerous business partnerships. An arrangement with Dakotacare allows more than 11,000 people using the insurer to take advantage of some form of GreatLife benefits, ranging from discounts to unlimited fitness memberships.

“We’ve had a tremendous response from our clients, from our members and a tremendous amount of excitement over the opportunity,” chief marketing officer Greg Jasmer said. “We’ve looked at these potential opportunities in the past, and there really hasn’t been a good fit until GreatLife came along. Their mission really aligned with our mission, and it’s just been a very good partnership. We’re working to do this to try and improve the health of both our memberships.”

The program mostly covers the Sioux Falls metro area but recently expanded to Mitchell and will grow with GreatLife as the organization adds fitness centers statewide.

Another partnership that started earlier this year links GreatLife to tanning business Year Round Brown. For a monthly fee, GreatLife members can add unlimited tanning at five Sioux Falls locations as well as Brookings and Watertown to their membership packages.

“Tanning and fitness have always gone hand-in-hand, but it seems like the fitness companies don’t do tanning well and the tanning companies don’t do fitness well,” said Zach Neugebauer, vice president of Year Round Brown . “It made sense for us to do what we’re good at but partner and share synergies.”

The two businesses also are building side-by-side in a new strip mall at Benson Road and Career Avenue. The center is scheduled to be open by October, and the two businesses will share an interior door.

“We’ve been really happy,” Neugebauer said. “I’ve learned a lot from them in a short period of time. They’re very good at putting partnerships together and making it a win-win.”

And GreatLife isn’t done.

There are plans for more fitness centers – Walsh is pursuing the lease for an empty building on the Citibank campus – and potential big expansions in other markets.

“We’re in negotiations in the Black Hills market, Omaha, New Orleans. That will all happen in the next 12 months,” Walsh said. “And the Phoenix area and the Salt Lake area in the next 12 to 18 months.”
All those GreatLife facilities would have reciprocity, so members could play golf or use a fitness center in any of the markets.

“It’s finding a real need, things that can make a difference in people’s lives,” Walsh said. “We’ve been pretty successful in our business lives that now … it’s making a difference in people’s lives.”

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