indicatorWomen in Business

Resilience: the key to success for female fitness entrepreneur

From ‘underdog’ to thriving business owner, a female fitness entrepreneur shares how she’s built a strong and healthy business.

By ATB Financial 17 November 2023 6 min read

Taking a stand

It’s every new kid’s worst nightmare. 

When she was 16-years-old, Sandra Bueckert Davison became the target of her high school bully after moving to Edmonton with her family from the suburbs of Toronto, Ontario. 

The now 57-year-old Calgay fitness entrepreneur knew she was facing a defining moment. 

“[The school bully] pulled my arm behind my back and she pinned me there … in that moment I knew I had a decision to make. I could have someone repress me or I could stand up. And that’s what I did.”

Standing up for herself would prove to be the first step towards a hobby that would eventually become a passion and ultimately a lifelong career spanning more than three decades and hundreds of clients. 

Soon after, Sandra found herself in her high school’s basement, spying on the football players as they worked out. 

“I would watch them lifting weights and after I would sneak in and do what I saw them doing. I would mimic them.”

She began noticing changes: her posture improved, she developed arm muscles. Others around her began to notice too, and compliment her. 

Becoming an expert in her field

This boost of confidence led Sandra to join a professional weight training gym. Other than the owner’s wife, she was often the only other female in a room full of friendly “giants.”

It was the best training ground she could’ve asked for – and Sandra was hooked. Soon, with the encouragement of her fellow gym members, she began weightlifting competitively. 

She placed first at both junior provincials and nationals and then trained for two years as a senior where she placed first as well, becoming the top athlete in her discipline. Her days of being the new girl in the crosshairs of the mean kids were long gone. 

Not only that, the skeleton outline of a career had also begun to form.

From casual pointers to professional advice

“I was training to compete and people were coming up to me, just like I did (to the bodybuilders) when I was a kid, and saying “Sandra, how do you make your abs look like that?’ and ‘How do you make your arms look like that?’ ‘Can you show me a couple of things?’”

She began working with a couple of individuals who wanted to get fit. They told others about their success, who in turn told others. Soon, Sandra had a healthy roster of clients.

Fresh from business school, an idea began to form in Sandra’s mind. She was going to open her own personal training studio.

Taking a chance on a strange new world

The fitness landscape looked very different in the 1980s than today. Aerobics ruled the world, with Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons dominating the scene.  Personal training was highly specialized and a luxury available only to the very rich or very famous.

But Sandra saw a niche. 

She approached ATB to apply for a small business loan to help her finance the launch of her gym. She wasn’t sure what kind of reception she would receive.

“There I was, pitching my personal training business in a city full of aerobics and boxing gyms.” 

To her delight, ATB was willing to back her and provided a $5,000 loan. This gave her the ability  to purchase more equipment to train clients out of her studio. And like that, One on One Personal Fitness Instruction was born.

“They showed up for me in a unique way. I put together a plan and presented it to [the advisor] and he backed that twenty something-year-old kid. He believed in an underdog.”

In her recently published memoir, Resilience: You Are Not What Happened To You, Sandra writes about what a boost of confidence this was during one of the biggest milestones in her business. 

Advice for women entrepreneurs

Personal training slowly began gaining traction in the public eye, while referrals and results kept Sandra’s company booming. Her business continued to grow. 

But how to keep the customers coming? Early on, Sandra differentiated herself from competitors through her treatment of clients.

Just like the world of physical fitness, when it comes to business success, you get back what you put in, Sandra says.

She credits her mother’s strong work ethic—working two jobs to raise four kids after emigrating from their home country of Jamaica when Sandra was young—as her inspiration.

She also keeps her purpose front and centre.

“For me, personal training is bigger than just working out. My clients are lifting their norepinephrine, their dopamine…that means when they leave here, their mood is elevated, they can focus, plan, and accomplish much more. It’s a pretty big high to be the person behind that.”

Time for a comeback

When COVID pandemic emerged in 2020, forcing gyms to close and relegating entire populations indoors, Sandra, like many other business owners, was worried. 

The fitness industry bottomed out in a matter of months in what would be an eventual 42% industry decline across Canada. She had her staff and clients relying on her.

So, she got to work. 

“I figured out how to rise to the occasion. I went out and bought up fitness equipment all across the city so I could deliver it to the homes of our clients, then our staff could work with them online.”

At just the right moment, ATB reached out to explain what small business loans were available and ask if she needed help. The loan was a lifeline that made for a lot less sleepless nights.

“We pivoted online and ATB was the bank that reached out to me to ask if I was in need of that assistance? In that moment they were a lifesaver. When I was down, it was ATB that picked me back up.”

The online approach worked so well, against the odds, One on One Personal Fitness Instruction grew during the pandemic. 

“We were rusty in the beginning but as we got better and better, we became a touchstone for our clients during a very difficult time. “

Use your inner worth as a business strength

For Sandra, the business ownership journey has been about bouncing back from the tough times. Whether facing preconceived notions about her talents or her business acumen, she continues to draw on an inner sense of worth.

“Being a woman of colour, people have seen my skin colour and walked out on me,” she says. “I’ve had people believe that because I was a bodybuilder, I was not an intelligent individual. I've had all sorts of assumptions made about who I am. It takes a lot of persistence  to run a successful personal training business in a male dominated industry. So those stigmas? Bring them on, I’ll thrive.”

To do this in a small business setting, an owner – and especially a woman entrepreneur – needs confidence, Sandra says. So, keep your wins top of mind, and learn from your losses. 

But entrepreneurs also need to be prepared, do their homework, and take advantage of the advice and support that’s offered, she adds.

“If you are a small business owner that’s looking for funding, plan, organize and put together an impeccable business plan.”

She adds financial services like those at ATB branches can help fill in knowledge gaps.

“Definitely connect with ATB, go in, sit down and speak with someone and find out what it is that they need from you. Listen and work with them and they will work with you if they see what you’re doing is viable.”

Looking for more advice? 

ATB offers entrepreneur products and services at every ATB location province-wide. If you want to dive deeper and access in-person experiences for entrepreneurs, such as events and networking opportunities, you can visit one of our three Entrepreneur Centres, specifically dedicated to helping entrepreneurs build and grow their businesses.

Need help?

Our Business Support team will be happy to assist.