WEST HARTFORD — D'Mario Sowah was building a following at New York Sports Club in Blue Back Square when he thought of a way to drum up more business: split exercisers in group classes into two competing teams.
Sowah, like many personal trainers, was an independent contractor. He was paid a portion of his hourly fees, and not a salary, so the more people who chose his classes or to train with him one-on-one, the more he earned. By his last year at New York Sports Club, he said, he was earning about $40,000 a year.
With this team program, Sowah wanted to rent space from New York Sports Club and keep all the enrollment fees, and when management didn't agree, managers said he could run the classes somewhere else.
Sowah opened Akua Ba Fitness in a small space in Blue Back Square at $1,500 a month with the help of a client, the developer of the massively successful new urbanist commercial center.
As Sowah, now 33, tells the story of how he went from a troubled teen to a business owner, mentors and trading on connections to the right people come up again and again.
Most important was the principal of the adult education program, where Sowah received his GED after dropping out of high school early in his sophomore year.
"I didn't trust anything, anyone," Sowah said, remembering his attitude when he started the classes. Sowah says his mother emigrated from Ghana to the United States when he was so young that when he rejoined her in New York at age 12, he didn't remember her. His mother, who had married a U.S. citizen and therefore was able to then sponsor Sowah for a green card, died in a car accident when he was 14.
Sowah said he didn't get along with the uncle and aunt who were his guardians, and he moved to Vernon to live with his grandmother.
Akua Ba is Twi for "Welcome." Twi is one of Ghana's languages.
Sowah fathered a child at 17, and at 18, had a minor brush with the law (charges were dropped). He said he failed the math portion of the GED twice before passing.
Sowah says his painful life "journey allowed me to have a deep connection to humanity."
He had wanted to be an actor, but the adult school principal, who invited him to his home and to work out at a gym as his guest, encouraged him to become a personal trainer.
"He did more for me than he ever knows," Sowah says of that mentor.
Sandy Klebanoff, former mayor of West Hartford, signed up with Sowah as a personal trainer just before he struck out on his own, and continued with him for a short while at Akua Ba.
"He has a way of making you do things you didn't think you could," Klebanoff said. "He's a great motivator, he just is. I got stronger, much stronger."
She recommended him to her husband, and to many friends. Klebanoff left the gym partly because it had no showers, so she couldn't work out before work, and partly because she hurt her back.
Sowah said the connections Klebanoff made for him helped build his reputation, but his offer of free training and nutrition advice to Fox 61 meteorologist Joe Furey in exchange for publicity also helped increase his visibility.
Sowah took on several more personal trainers as independent contractors, but the Blue Back Square space had a lot of barriers to growing his business: the lack of locker rooms; the fact it was so small you couldn't hold a group class and a personal training session at the same time; and, most of all, he only got paid if people showed up for sessions or classes. New York Sports Club had an exclusivity deal that forbade him from charging membership fees.
Two years ago, Sowah said, his landlord wanted to raise the rent to $8,000 a month, far more than the gym could support. At the time he had about 60 active clients. He said he had a difficult time finding a new space in West Hartford, with several places falling through, before settling on the new nearly 10,000-square-foot space in a shared industrial building near Quaker Lane.
The state Department of Economic and Community Development lent him $300,000 to build out the space and buy machines. Since Sowah does not own a house to put up as equity, and only had $50,000 of savings to put into the project, a loan of that size would have been difficult to get in the private market. The state also gave him $50,000 for the project through the Small Business Express program. Sowah said his gross revenues in 2014 were more than $500,000.
Sowah said since opening Nov. 1, the gym has grown to 100 members. He hopes to have 190 members by the end of the year.
One of those new members is Mohan Menon, who started Dec. 10 after a friend told him about the place. He works out twice a week with a personal trainer.
"The trainers are very knowledgeable," Menon said.
Sowah now has trainers as employees rather than contractors, and is looking to hire his first female personal trainer. He currently has four trainers and three part-time front desk staffers. The gym's membership is about 75 percent women, he said.
He also specializes in people from their 50s to their 80s. "We're not a jock place," he said.
Akua Ba charges a $49 initiation fee and $159 a month, which gives you a 20 percent discount on the $62 hourly charge for personal training. Sowah still does about 15 to 20 hours a week of training, but only for longtime clients.
Akua Ba is at 121 Talcott Road, West Hartford, 860-967-0561. It is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays, Saturday 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., and Sunda, 8 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Weekend hours may expand after the gym's grand opening Feb. 5.