One recent morning found Norman Bonck, the Gym Doctor, up to his elbows in the intestines of an elliptical trainer.
Bonck, 29, an Archbishop Rummel High graduate and former nursing student at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond now living in Tickfaw, left New Orleans with his mother after Hurricane Katrina flooded their house on Geneva Street in Bucktown 10 years ago.
Bonck worked as a roofer after Katrina. When he decided to start Gym Doctor, he took a page from his Katrina work experience.
“Roofing work was good,” he said, “until companies came in from Texas with Mexican workers who’d do the work cheaper.”
So, Bonck struck out on his own in gym equipment repair.
Bonck’s son, Malik, was born in December 2013. The new dad started Gym Doctor in January 2014.
“I had experience with a north shore company that fixed gym equipment,” said Bonck, who went to Southeastern for two years on a cheerleading scholarship. “And I worked out all the time.”
“This was a business I could start with no money,” he said. “So, I drove around to gyms and health clubs to offer my services.”
Bonck’s gym equipment repair company is a two-person business: Bonck riding circuit on 50 gyms and health clubs, plus making some home gym house calls, across southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi, and fiancé Mallory Kilpatrick, 27, who grew up in Denham Springs, keeping the books, billing and directing service calls to Bonck in the field.
Bonck’s services include manufacturer’s certification in the repair of some machines. “I offered to work cheap and show up fast,” he said.
Most repairs and maintenance Bonck does on the spot. “If it’s a motor or a computer board, I have to send it off, but I take care of it for the customer.”
“The cardio equipment gets the most use in health clubs,” Bonck said. “Treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bikes keep a gym running.”
At a Snap Fitness 24-hour gym on Baton Rouge’s Lee Drive, Bonck’s patients stop at the passageway to the free weights, the domain of the gym’s serious weight lifters.
“Out here,” Bonck said, one hand sweeping the “selectorized strength machines” on the gym’s main floor, “is where the beginners and intermediates” work out.
“I’d say Norman is very good at what he does,” said Brittany Batiste, manager at Snap Fitness-Lee Drive. “He’s a nice, well-rounded guy who laughs and jokes with you while he works.”
When the telephone isn’t ringing and the demands of 20-month-old Malik aren’t too great, Kilpatrick runs a business shirt company from the couple’s home in Tickfaw. Son Malik sports a white, short-sleeve business shirt that says “Gym Doctor” over where a left pocket might be.
“We were lucky the business caught on fast enough Mallory could stay home with Malik,” Bonck said.
The couple moved to Tickfaw from Kenner in November as Gym Doctor spread east and west along I-10.
“We just got the East Jefferson Wellness Center as a customer,” Bonck said. “They’re part of East Jefferson Hospital. That gave us a big boost.”
He’s also added Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans.
Bonck and Kilpatrick hope to one day own a health club in the Baton Rouge area.
Twenty-four-hour gyms such as Snap Fitness and Anytime have shown they can weather downturns in the economy, Bonck said.
As the economy slowed in 2008, gym customers pounded the treadmills as though fleeing disaster.
“Gym use blew up,” Bonck said. “People were working out to relieve stress.”
For business expenses, Bonck reports gasoline consumption rather than mileage. His small, fuel-efficient car burns $60 a week in gasoline as the Gym Doctor travels from health clubs on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain to New Orleans’ West Bank, east to Bay St. Louis and west down the I-10/12 corridor to Livingston Parish, Baton Rouge and Lafayette.
As Bonck works, he’s surrounded by gym users ranging in age from Brother Martin high school students working out at NOLA Xtreme on Canal Street to workers grabbing an early morning workout on the way home from overnight shifts at plants on the Mississippi River.
The routine of daily rounds is broken by little things like the elderly woman pausing in her workout on a treadmill to ask if Bonck works on ailing feet. She was eyeing the words “Gym Doctor” on his ball cap.
Bonck is familiar with the electrical breaker boxes at gyms where he often finds “treadmills” labeled “threadmills.”
Treadmills are used so much that Bonck has learned to check the wooden decking under the machines’ walking belts before starting a repair.
“You can burn yourself they’re so hot,” he said.
“Need new equipment” is a comment often left by customers on health club websites. The gym rats don’t necessarily mean the equipment doesn’t work properly. People like to get on user-friendly machines whose lighted panels don’t require a pilot’s license.
“Sometimes, they want Bluetooth on the machine,” Bonck said. “Or the television built in instead of on the wall. Some like old-school gyms, others like high-dollar places where everything’s freshly painted and super clean.”
Some gym users want spinning classes led by high-energy instructors. Older customers, whose gym fees are paid by Medicare, are happy with a brisk stroll on the treadmill or stationary bicycle tour de gym.
Bonck and Kilpatrick stay in touch by telephone. “When he finishes a job, he sends me a voice memo, and I do the invoice,” she said.
“We’ve struggled; don’t get me wrong,” Kilpatrick said. “The first six months were rough. There are ups and downs, and we have late payers. We’ve had to go to gyms and say, ‘Hey! We need to get paid.’ ”