From the October 2000 issue of Startups

You can often catch Alex Valladares approaching women at supermarkets. But his wife need not worry: It's part of his job-scouting out locations for Lady of America by finding women who are eager for the women-only fitness centers. Accumulating 11 centers since 1994, the 34-year-old franchisee boasts, "I've mastered the ability to open a location."

This confidence came in handy in the beginning, as Valladares started out with "pretty much nothing." Born in Cuba, he came to Florida at age 14. After earning a degree in accounting and working in that industry for a year, he realized his aspirations lay elsewhere-leading him to a Lady of America franchise show, where, he says, "there was immediate chemistry between me and the company."

Valladares, with only $5,000 of his own money, persuaded his mother, Berta Aedo, to invest $55,000-her life's savings-to help with the start-up costs of his first six centers in Miami. The venture proved profitable almost instantly: Pre-opening sales totaled $14,000 in monthly income, or 600-plus memberships. This success set the groundwork for the continual growth of his network, which branched into Puerto Rico in 1997.

What's Valladares' biggest challenge? In these days of record-low unemployment, Valladares cites obtaining and sustaining competent employees. But, he adds, "I take pride in how I train them to serve members and sell memberships." It must be working: Last year's sales for all locations reached nearly $5 million.

But money isn't the only reward. Valladares is in love with the concept itself: providing a place where women can exercise without worrying about their appearances.

Make The Call

Lady Of Ameica, (800) 833-5239, www.ladyofamerica.com.