Middle Management

With three locations and counting, RehabGYM is working out

by Mark Pendergrast

rehab_leadIn 2003, Sharon Gutwin opened RehabGYM at Maple Tree Place in Williston. Her innovative plan for physical therapy was to coach patients in exercises they could practice on their own. Now with a second location in Colchester and a campus branch in Burlington, Gutwin is looking to other parts of the state.

Make the most of the best and the least of the worst.”

That Robert Louis Stevenson quote adorns the wall at RehabGYM in Colchester, along with other exhortations that owner Sharon Gutwin has posted to inspire both staff and clients. It exemplifies her pragmatic but visionary attitude towards the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries, disease, and other problems that often result from our all-too-sedentary modern lifestyles. Since the first RehabGYM opened in Williston in November 2003, the business has continually expanded, clearly filling an unmet need for a combination of clinical physical rehabilitation with a regular gym.

In a friendly, light-filled environment, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and a personal trainer simultaneously help a wide array of clients, while others exercise independently. Now in three locations — Roosevelt Plaza in Colchester, which Gutwin refers to as “Roosevelt”’; Maple Tree Place in Williston; and the homey “Campus” branch on South Union Street in Burlington — the RehabGYM features an approach that is still unusual in the United States, earning Gutwin the Vermont Small Business Person of the Year Award in 2008.

Gutwin, 53, didn’t set out to be a business woman. Growing up in western New York as Sharon Barlow, she always wanted to do something in the medical field. When she learned about physical therapy during an eighth-grade career day, that determined her future career.

After earning her bachelor of science in physical therapy from the University of Vermont in 1979, she worked at the Medical Center Hospital of Vermont, gaining a broad experience in virtually every department — orthopedics, neurology, cardiology, infectious disease, and lung problems. “I even worked in the neonatal intensive care unit,” she recalls, “helping a premature baby whose thumb was paralyzed during a difficult birth.”

Married to IBMer Paul Gutwin, she quit in 1982 to become a full-time mother, first to Karl, then Rebecca and Anna, though she sometimes worked per diem to keep her skills current.

In 1992 she went back to work part time at the Sports and Orthopedic Rehab Center (SORC) next to Fanny Allen Hospital in Colchester. The first private PT practice of any significance in Vermont, SORC worked closely with orthopedic surgeons. For the first time, Gutwin collaborated with athletic trainers. She came to appreciate their knowledge about musculo-skeletal rehabilitation.

Life at SORC was good until the merger that produced Fletcher Allen Health Care. Fletcher Allen took full control of SORC, and soon she found that multiplying paperwork took time away from patient care.

Gutwin was developing confidence in a new approach to physical therapy. Patients complained that they weren’t getting much out of their formal PT appointments, which mostly involved hot packs, ultrasound, and a few manipulations. “So I developed mostly independent rehab,” she recalls, “coaching them in exercises to do on their own. Most of them went through rehab faster, with better outcomes. I was shocked. I realized that people needed to take ownership of their health and rehab.”

Some patients asked Gutwin why they couldn’t just go to a gym to do their exercises, but there were no staff at regular gyms to make sure they were doing appropriate exercises and wouldn’t hurt themselves.

In 2002, says Gutwin, SORC physical therapist Cathy Webster expressed a concern to her about the layers of bureaucracy. She said she wished that they could “take this room where we see patients and make it bigger, and we could help them do their exercises there.”

Gutwin responded enthusiastically, revealing that she had a business idea all ready to go. Three weeks later, Webster, who had young children, realized she couldn’t risk her livelihood and her time, she backed out as a business partner.

Divorced by then, Gutwin consulted her brother, Philadelphia businessman David Barlow. He thought her idea could conceivably grow into a national chain of rehab gyms.

Just as she was about to launch it, however, her 18-year-old daughter Rebecca was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer, and Gutwin dropped everything to help her. After a partial mastectomy, Rebecca made an amazing recovery, continuing to stroke for her college rowing team, then going on to triathlons.

In September 2003, Gutwin opened RehabGYM right next to Starbucks in Williston’s Maple Tree Place — in an open, 4,200-square-foot space she had designed, complete with specialized gym equipment and a heated pool with a current against which clients could swim. Her first employees were athletic trainer Mike Landsberg and Cathy Webster, who worked part time. Rebecca ran the office.

“My brother put a small investment into the business, but mostly I financed it with a quarter-million-dollar home equity loan,” Gutwin says. She hedged her bets: Everything she had installed — including the hardwood flooring and pool — was portable, in case the business flopped and she had to downsize.

She needn’t have worried. The doctors who had sent patients to her down the hall now sent them just a little farther away. Unexpectedly, she began to treat children, people with spinal injuries, and the elderly. She created a temporary annex nearby that offered more private treatment.

In 2007 she opened the Roosevelt location, with 11,800 square feet, including two handicapped-friendly pools, exercise rooms, a wide array of gym equipment, and an adjacent Kids’ RehabGYM. In 2009 she opened the Campus location on South Union Street.

She employs 13 physical therapists, two athletic trainers, a personal trainer, and 11 “assistive personnel.” These include two cleaning people sourced through Project Hire from HowardCenter. Last year’s gross profits reached nearly $3 million. “I sometimes feel like I’m at the head of a runaway locomotive,” Gutwin says. “I want to keep it on track and not slow it down!”

A year after helping to start the business, Rebecca was offered a job with the National Security Agency. She turned it down. “My responsibilities had snowballed,” she remembers, “and I was having fun.” She handles all the computer work, website, marketing, bookkeeping, and payroll.

There appears to be a seamless transition between medical clients and regular members of the RehabGYM. About 200 people come for physical rehabilitation and training, usually twice a week. Between formal appointments, they are encouraged to use the gym for a free hour. An additional 100 members — many of whom came initially as medical clients — use the gym, with a free personal trainer available to them.

Gutwin believes in proactive preventive measures and wants insurance companies and legislators to realize that it is cost-effective to pay for supervised exercise before people contract diabetes and other chronic conditions.

Her focus, she says, is on people’s well-being rather than the bottom line. She has funded a scholarship through VSAC for Vermont students who have overcome physical or mental challenges, and offers free exercise classes for seniors — over 60.

“Rebecca’s cancer helped center me on what’s most important,” she says, “which is compassion. Everything comes down to relationships.”

Neal Lime, a former client, testifies that this isn’t just talk. On Friday, July 1, 2005, Lime was driving north on U.S. 7, commuting home for the July Fourth weekend. From behind an on-coming truck, a car swerved directly in front of him. There was no way to avoid a head-on collision.

Lime was in surgery for eight hours. They sewed up his spleen and liver and gave him three transfusions. His kneecap was broken in three places; his tibia was fractured; and his heel bone was shattered into 50 pieces.

“They screwed my foot together but couldn’t do much with the heel,” he recalls, “so they hoped it would mend itself in time.” Surgeons put on an external fixater, from knee to foot, with rods going through his foot and upper leg. They weren’t sure he would walk again.

At the Williston location, Lime began to work with physical therapist Colleen Bruns. He moved from a wheelchair to a walker, but was still in constant pain and required two more operations on his foot. “Right away I got a good feel at the RehabGYM,” he says. “It was airy, clean, and bright; the people were friendly, and it didn’t feel medicinal.”

In February 2006, after working with Bruns for several months, the day came when he was supposed to walk with crutches, using them only for balance. “When I took that first step, everyone in the room, including the staff and other clients, started clapping and cheering. Oh my gosh, I thought, these people really care!”

That attitude was, he concluded, a reflection of the ownership. “After two years going there, I would see all the little things Sharon did for her staff, like passing out free movie tickets or celebrating birthdays.”

He walked out of RehabGYM without a cane. Lime’s daughter Keilani was also impressed. She began to work out at the gym, and when an office staff position opened, she applied and was hired.

Although Gutwin has no immediate plans to take RehabGYM national, she does look forward almost wistfully to having somebody else at the helm so she can be just the visionary planner. “I recognize this business is going to grow beyond me,” she says.

She has already-approved plans for a location in a Jericho community center that would cost $3.5 million and be run by Jerrod Rushton, now the site manager at Roosevelt. But the bank will lend her only $1.8 million, and she doesn’t want major outside investors. Meanwhile, the city of Barre has offered to build a new facility for RehabGYM as part of its community center, with ground breaking scheduled for 2012.

“We’re all in this game of life together, doing our best,” Gutwin says. “And everyone is dealing with something, including physical problems.” •