DENNIS Rixon has been the fittest bloke in town for the past 35 years and he’s now taking a well-earned holiday.
He sold his successful Fitness Plus business to Jamie and Rebecca Trindall a few weeks ago and, for the first time in years, he’s going to put his feet up and have a decent break.
Last Friday, Dennis flew out of Tamworth for an extended overseas vacation to catch up with two of his three sons George, who’s taking a gap year in London, and Jack, who’s working in South Carolina.
The youngest, Max, is in Year 10 at McCarthy.
Taking time out to reflect on his years in the industry, Dennis said he had no regrets about choosing fitness over a legal career.
Born and raised in Inverell, Dennis began his studies of arts/law at university, but after partying through the year and failing miserably, he reassessed his career options.
His dad got Dennis a job on the local council, and he and another bloke built paling fences for a while, but the keen footballer and fitness fanatic had a yearning to get into the fledgling gym industry.
At that time there was only one gym chain in Australia, the John Valentine Health Club, a Canadian firm – and Dennis literally “pestered” his way in.
“They had a gym at the Hilton Hotel, so I applied for a job there,” Dennis said.
“I kept pestering and pestering them, and in 1976 I started with them as a fitness instructor.
“They had separate men’s and ladies’ days then, and I used to work Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. In between that, I’d lay by the pool at the Hilton.”
He was the envy of his mates, who all felt the young kid from Inverell had landed on his feet with a gig like that.
Dennis worked with the John Valentine organisation for three years until he and a mate decided to set up a gym at the Gold Coast.
The best-laid plans often don’t pan out, and when his mate’s marriage broke up, their business partnership floundered.
“I had the arse out of my pants and on the way home from the Gold Coast called in at Inverell and saw my parents,” he said.
With every intention of going back to Sydney to work in a gym, he found himself in the office of Brian Perrin, the then secretary-manager of the Tamworth and District Workmen’s Club.
One thing led to another and the club agreed to set up a gym, down underneath the squash courts and the swimming pool.
It was an immediate success and within weeks, Dennis’s “callisthenics” classes were attracting up to 80 people each evening, every night of the week.
As the only fitness centre between Newcastle and Brisbane, Dennis realised he was onto something that could really take off.
The arrangement he’d made with the club was he would take ownership once the equipment was paid for – and that happened very quickly.
Classes were segregated, which was the culture of the time. Men and women just did not exercise together – perish the thought!
“There was a huge hue and cry when when I made the suggestion we mix the classes ... a lot of angst ... and people were quite upset that we did it,” Dennis said.
Back then, it was a very black time, fashion-wise, too. Women were dressed in all black (leotards and tights) and the gym was a fairly colourless landscape, Dennis said.
“Colour came into it in the mid-1980s and different trends emerged ranging from g-string leotards to the Olivia Newton-John look – headbands – you name it, I’ve seen it all come and go,” he said.
“We have dress-up nights here occasionally, and some of the crew wear the old ’80s gear. I think the girls get it from their mothers.
“These days people mostly just wear shorts and T-shirts or tights.”
In late 1984 Dennis went to Canada and worked for Super Fitness for six months, then came back to Tamworth and set up The Physical Factory upstairs in the Centrepoint Arcade in 1985.
He operated that until 1990, sold it and moved to Coffs Harbour for a few years and then opened another Physical Factory gym in Hannas Arcade, Armidale, selling it a year later.
He worked as a consultant with some resort gyms on the coast and in 1991repurchased The Physical Factory, and the following year moved that into the Fitness Plus premises in downtown Peel St.
“I remember my mum coming here to visit one day,” Dennis said.
“To her, a real job was working for Telecom or the bank, and she was sitting here in my office and said she wanted to have a talk to me.
“At first she complimented me on the success of the business, but in the next breath said: ‘Son, when are you going to get a real job?’
I guess I never did.”
Despite never getting that real job, Dennis has certainly made his mark on the fitness industry in Tamworth, and further afield and has seen the industry progress from simple callisthenics classes with the odd set of dumbells, to the variety of classes offered today.
“The exercises now are all fairly formulaic. Most gyms utilise the Les Mills Organisation, a big international company that choreographs classes,” Dennis said.
“They provide all the music in a syndicated set-up.
“Beforehand, when you went to an aerobics class, each class would be different with every
“Every three months they update the music and it’s been incredibly successful.
“When I started at the Workies, we had a few benches, dumbells and a few bars, which now you’d regard as pretty primitive.
“The electronic equipment these days – how good is it?”
Dennis believes in our modern times, there will always be a place for the fitness industry in people’s busy lives.
“In these automated times, people need to come and do some exercises before they sit at their desk and work all day,” he said.
“The average joes who want to keep fit would have been out chopping wood in another era, or operating machinery.
“We’ve got 12-year-olds to 90-year-olds who come in to Fitness Plus and they do it as a lifestyle choice, not so much a fad.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I never thought I’d stay in it this long.
“As I’m a casual person at heart, the shorts and T-shirt have been my uniform for longer than I care to remember.
“Also, because this is a recreational thing, people are usually in a good mood. It’s not like an office environment and I’ve made a lot of friends in the industry. I enjoy helping people and relating to people.”
During our interview, Dennis greeted or farewelled each gym member by name as they passed through the doors, so maybe the personal touch and caring enough to remember people’s names, is the secret behind his longevity in the business.
Whatever it is, whether it’s been a real job or not – Dennis Rixon has loved every minute of his three decades in the industry.
He’s looking forward to the next few months’ holiday and then returning to the city he’s adopted as his home to begin the next chapter of his life.