Driving the dialogue

Local gym owner Pondeli Hajioannou shares backstory of Bensalem Business Directory

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Connecting the community: Pondeli Hajioannou, owner of Philadelphia Private Gym, is the founder of the Bensalem Business Directory. Representatives from malls, banks, schools, eateries and other local businesses can establish an open dialogue at weekly, monthly and annual gatherings about how they can support each other. Source: Philadelphia Private Gym

Small business owners don’t always have it easy. Just ask Pondeli Hajioannou.

The year was 2008, and the recession was hitting the Bensalem community hard. Hajioannou, owner of Philadelphia Private Gym, watched as nearby shops closed left and right. He knew something needed to change. No one was helping small business owners, so they needed to help each other.

Today, Hajioannou is the proud president of the Bensalem Business Directory, a nonprofit organization currently boasting 165 members. From traditional companies to malls, banks, schools and eateries, business owners from across Bucks County and even New Jersey can establish an open dialogue at weekly, monthly and annual gatherings about how they can support each other.

The story of the Bensalem Business Directory and the drive behind it really began inside Philadelphia Private Gym, located at 2636 Bristol Pike. A personal trainer since 1984, Hajioannou has worked with models, professional athletes and celebrities throughout his expansive 30-plus-year career, making him attuned to what clients like and don’t like in the gym setting.

While tinkering with gym equipment in his home one day, Hajioannou experienced a revelation. What if his clients could exercise without passersby staring through massive front windows? What if the client didn’t have to wait for machines and had the entire space to themselves?

After considering locations in Center City and on the Main LIne, Hajioannou determined Bensalem would be the best fit for the area’s only private gym. He began building up the 4,000-square-feet of dead space, which housed a nightclub in the ’70s, from scratch, constructing a weight room, showers and anything else found in a typical gym.

But he didn’t want Philadelphia Private Gym to be “typical.” Access to the space is only granted by appointment, meaning it’s never overcrowded and clients can enjoy one-on-one training sessions as early as 5 a.m. with his wife, competitive bodybuilding champion Marian Almario-Hajioannou.

“She still rocks the six pack,” he said of the 51-year-old mother of four.

Despite early success since its opening in 2000, Hajioannou was nervous at the time of the recession. Businesses across the area were closing, and he feared his beloved gym would be next.

“No one was doing anything to help us,” he reflected.

Though Hajioannou was part of the Lower Bucks County Chamber of Commerce, he craved a more intimate setting to converse with fellow business owners. According to him, he could help a client “build the body of a goddess.” But walking up to someone in a crowded room to shake their hand? That’s another story.

Rather than suffer through the stress of networking on such a large scale, Hajioannou took matters into his own hands after receiving powerful advice from Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo — “If you don’t do it, no one else will.”

In 2009, Hajioannou invited a handful of local business owners to Philadelphia Private Gym to figure out how they could help each other survive those trying economic times. Monthly meetings were held for the next two years, which saw the formation of a board of directors, the creation of bylaws, a logo and a website, and the election of Hajioannou as president. But after five years, it had become too much and Hajioannou stepped away from the organization he created.

“My ego got in the way,” he explained.

After taking some time to reflect, he decided to try again. Just as he redefined the meaning of a gym, Hajioannou crafted the unique foundation of what’s known today as the Bensalem Business Directory, drawing inspiration from what did and didn’t work with other organizations.

Unlike his first group, the Directory encompasses businesses in Bensalem as well as those in the surrounding communities. Also different is the fact that government institutions and nonprofits are welcome to join. According to Hajioannou, one-third of all businesses in the country are nonprofits, so it just wouldn’t make sense to exclude them.

This time around, Hajioannou shied away from the idea of a board of directors. Rather than have a select group of people running the show, he explained how the members volunteer to assist when needed.

“Without their help I couldn’t do this,” he said.

For businesses interested in joining, Hajioannou explained how they simply have to click the “Join Us” link online. Membership is free for the remainder of the year, and if the owner decides to continue with the organization, it will cost $60 for the following year. If an owner is unsure about joining, they’re welcome to attend a weekly breakfast at Golden Corral in Bensalem for $7.99, or a monthly meeting.

In addition to these regular get-togethers, Bensalem Business Directory hosts multiple annual events, including a picnic at Neshaminy State Park, a business expo at Neshaminy Mall and a holiday dinner, which will be held this year at the Bensalem Country Club. In total, members end up meeting at least 70 times throughout the year.

Business is good: The Bensalem Business Directory hosts annual events including a business expo at Neshaminy Mall, a picnic at Neshaminy State Park and a holiday dinner, which will be held this year at the Bensalem Country Club. Source: Bensalem Business Directory

For the first time, the Directory will also sponsor and run the car show portion of the Bensalem Fall Festival, which each year draws approximately 25,000 people.

At its heart, Hajioannou wants the Directory to hold a sense of comfort for its members, some of whom hail from as far as Marlton, New Jersey. Basically, anyone who sees the value of Bensalem and the business community is welcome with open arms. ••

For more information on the Bensalem Business Directory, visit bensalembusinessdirectory.com/home.html. For more on Philadelphia Private Gym, visit philadelphiaprivategym.com/#top.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com