Living Big at Windy City

Windy City

Owning a CrossFit gym is hard enough. But have you ever tried owning one from 1,000 miles away?

Currently, Justin Marcis is accomplishing this feat with Windy City Strength and Conditioning.

When Marcis opened the gym in Chicago in 2007, he never dreamed he’d moved to Colorado 10 years later while still running the facility. In fact, Marcis could barely believe he was opening the gym in the first place.

He had been working in the corporate world as an account executive at an ad agency and was completely unfulfilled. So, he started training people on the side and found CrossFit. Knowing it was going to be big, he wanted to be part of it.

“I still remember to this day, it was the day before Thanksgiving. We were supposed to drive to Detroit. I was waiting all day outside the storefront for the equipment delivery and the entire time I was like, ‘What am I doing? I can’t do this,’” he recalled.

But he did. Eleven months after opening, he made his first move of spaces. It was in the third move that he finally landed the 12,000-square-foot facility Windy City is in today. “That was a big transition point for us,” said Marcis. “At the time we tripled our space; we more than tripled our rent. It was like starting the business over again. We took a gamble just thinking we were going to ride the wave, which we did for awhile, hoping we would grow into that place, that facility, and we did.”

As the gym grew, Marcis decided to rebrand to Windy City Strength and Conditioning, while still maintaining it as a home to CrossFit. But the rebranding and facility renovation that happened 4.5 years ago also sparked a desire for something else in Marcis: going back to the way things were when he started Windy City.

“We have a very clear reason why we’re in business,” said Marcis. “Our purpose, cause, passion is helping people live the strongest lives they can imagine. Our niche is community-centric health and fitness focused on the individual experience. We believe fitness is about strengthening and conditioning your body and mind so you can get out there, explore the world, seek new adventures and be the person you were meant to be.”

In essence, the idea can be summed up into two words: Live BIG.

The “Live BIG” motto has ingrained itself into Windy City’s being, but it hasn’t’ stopped there. Dave Regula, the founder and director of performance for TrAk Athletics, carried the same idea to his own business after being a minority partner at Windy City for six years. He found the gym and joined as a member in 2008, becoming Marcis’ business partner shortly after. Regula shared fitness has always been about lifestyle enhancement for Marcis. “It is what we modeled after [at TrAk Athletics],” he said.

Windy City makes efforts to help its members and Coaches Live Big. Whether it’s encouraging members to take a mountain bike adventure from Durango to Moab, simply helping someone be able to play with their kids, or providing a trip stipend to Coaches, the business’ motto isn’t just a phrase. In fact, Marcis has hopes to build programs in the future that climax with something like a peakbagger trip out to Colorado, giving members “Live BIG” goals to work toward.

With this motto ingrained in every single facet of Windy City, Marcis realized about three years ago he too needed to live it out. “I moved my family to Colorado in an effort to be an example. I’m not going to just spout about living big and try to do the things that I value, but actually live it,” he shared.

Marcis had connected with Jack Cohen, the CEO of Dark Knight Ventures and a past member of Windy City, previously for some business consulting. When he had this idea to move to Colorado to live near his sister and enjoy the outdoors, Cohen put him through an exercise to envision his intended future. Then he asked Marcis to write down everything about his current reality. A couple weeks later, Cohen had him bridge the gap, as in what did he need to go from his current reality to the intended future? 

“By beginning with the end in mind and pulling yourself, overtime Justin came up with some things he needed as a leader, as a manager, as an administrator, and frankly as a producer, as an athlete,” said Cohen. “I found Justin to be true to his word, hardworking, open, honest, fair, great integrity. He really means what he says and he says what he means. And he does Live BIG, and he’s blessed with the capacity for vision, and for true love for other human beings.”

Cohen said Marcis had to learn about his own communication skills, and of course he made mistakes along the way, but didn’t get caught up on false pride in the process.

Plus, systems have been a large part of Windy City’s success. Marcis explained managing from far away, he has had to perfect and challenge his systems, from lead generation to retention. Looking outside the fitness industry, he’s taken inspiration from other small businesses that have been successful and recommend other owners do the same.

One thing that has helped, however, is Windy City has always been treated like a business. Regula mentioned both he and Marcis transitioned into the gym business from established careers, so they used their professional relationships to build something sustainable. “Creating a professional culture made a big difference,” he shared.

So while it has been a hard transition since Marcis’ move to Colorado — the past year or so has involved staff changes and membership losses that sent Marcis flying back to the gym every two weeks — Windy City is beginning to find its footing once again, even with its owner miles away. It’s still toting the motto of living big, and is being led by someone who is living that phrase to its fullest.

And despite the challenges, Marcis said he doesn’t regret it at all. While it might have been a little premature to make his 1,000-mile-away move, he would do it again. Why?

“I firmly believe you have to take a chance, because you’ll always wonder, what if?” he said.  

Heather is the editor for Box Pro Magazine. Contact her at heather@peakemedia.com.