Julia Collins, the owner of Ypsi Studio, on growing up in Ypsi, taking risks, and being successful when people thought you’d fail

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Almost ten years ago now, local entrepreneur Julia Collins decided to disregard the advice of many and open a small fitness studio in Downtown Ypsilanti, right next door to our local strip club. Well, it turns out that she was right. Her business, Ypsi Studio, has continued to grow since its initial launch, and, right now, Julia is considering another significant expansion. Following is my recent interview with her. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

MARK: Let’s start by talking a little about what brought you to Ypsi in the first place… Where were you living prior to coming here, and, when you came here, did you have any sense that you’d put down roots and stay?

JULIA: My dad had just passed the bar in 1962, upon graduation from the Cleveland School of Law. He and my mother packed their three kids up, moved to Ypsi, and he found a job on the line at Ford. I was a few months old. Then, my mom moved us to the UP (where they were originally from) when they divorced. I lived there eight years. And, when I graduated from high school in 1980, I came racing back to Ypsi to attend EMU. I don’t know that I planned not to leave, but the relationships I formed 30 years ago had survived, and I stayed. I raised my kids here, and I fucking love this town.

MARK: Your dad got a law degree and then started working the line at Ford… There has to be a story there, right?

JULIA: HA! Yes… and, man, my dad could tell it so much better than I can. From what I can gather, after law school, they were young, had three small kids, and were poor as church mice. In an effort to both provide for his family and get to know people in town, he worked on the line. Very early on he met a young, politically active guy who encouraged him to run for Justice of the Peace in order to get name recognition. And it worked. He beat another Irish American lawyer and opened a small practice not too long after that.

MARK: Is your dad still around, and in Ypsi? And I’m curious as to what kind of law he practiced…

JULIA: He certainly is. I’ve heard him say about his practice… “Personal injury paid the bills, but criminal defense was what I liked doing.” He was the Ypsilanti Township District Court Judge from 1984 – 2008. He’s retired but does some subbing and mediation to keep himself busy. He wasn’t really ready to retire… Being busy suits him.

MARK: So, let’s see if I have the timeline right… You were born in Cleveland in ’62, moved to Ypsi pretty much immediately, stayed in Ypsi for ten years, spent eight years in the UP, and then came back to Ypsi at 18, in 1980… Is that right?

JULIA: You got it.

MARK: Would I be right to assume, given that your dad continued to live here after his divorce, that you still spent time in Ypsi, even when you lived in the UP?

JULIA: Yes, every Summer we were in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area.

MARK: I hear stories about Ypsi being rough in the ’70s. What was your impression as a kid?

JULIA: Well, you know, I have a child’s perspective, so it seemed pretty sweet… The Tigers won the World Series in ’68, and Motown is the music of my childhood… But, in hindsight, there were riots just 20 minutes away. And Arborland opened, virtually killing downtown businesses. And, a serial killer, who, coincidentally, shares the same name as my father, was abducting and murdering coeds. So, yeah, not so rosy.

MARK: Damn, that’s got to kill your business when you’ve got the same name as the local serial killerJohn Norman Collins. How’d your dad handle it? Did he start emphasizing his middle name? Assuming, of course, that his middle name wasn’t Norman?

JULIA: I’m sure that my father would have colorful and embellished stories about that time… but, you know, he was very well-known, about 15 years older, and darker than JNC. And, dad’s middle name is Berchman.

MARK: Back to the Ypsilanti of the 1970’s, is there any truth to the rumor that Depot Town was run by rival motorcycle gangs before the Frenches took it over and made it safe for burger eaters and antique shoppers?

JULIA: You know, I was too young to know a lot about the Depot Town of the 70’s. When I worked at The Alibi in the early 80’s, Bill and Sandee were young, and their kids were little. It’s true we didn’t have a student clientele. For the most part, bikers and blue collar workers came in to shoot pool. It was mostly a “shot and a beer” bar with about five menu items that were served in baskets. I also know that my parents were concerned when I started working there. That’s putting it mildly. It was a blast, though. I have very close friendships from that time. But, when we revisit that time now, yeah, it was pretty wild. As Bill began the growth of Aubree’s, which is what The Alibi had evolved into, the employees were excited. We definitely watched Depot Town become a cool place.

MARK: Did you graduate from EMU? If so, what’s your degree in? And what did you do for work upon graduation?

JULIA: I didn’t graduate from EMU. I was traipsing through at a glacial pace, majoring in psych. I’m a distracted, reluctant student, unless the subject really blows my skirt up. I was a young dummy without the confidence to get a kinesiology degree. The summer after my first year in school, I worked at the Sheriff’s Department. It’s the job after that, though, where I formed the most significant relationships – with my employers, co-workers and future husband. That was The Alibi. The longest lasting relationships I have came from working there. I later got a paralegal degree from Concordia, and worked for many years in law offices.

MARK: And you went right from law to entrepreneurship? What made you decide to take the plunge, or was it a gradual process… doing personal training on the side for a while, as you continued to work as a paralegal?

JULIA: Kinda sounds crazy when you put it that way, but, yes. I’d been working on getting my personal training certification during my last job – which was a terrible fit for me. It was my way of slowly digging at the wall of my prison cell with a spoon… I got laid-off due to “lack of work,” and saw it as my opportunity to get going in a different direction. I was fortunate to have a very supportive husband, and got started with an internship at EMU that resulted in me getting my indoor cycling certification. It’s there that I met the creator of willPower & grace®, Stacey Lei Krauss, and she showed me that being a fitness instructor could be a legitimate career. Each little experience laid the foundation for the next bigger one. I couldn’t be happier with the way things turned out.

MARK: So, how are things going at Ypsi Studio?

JULIA: Wow… Well, of course, the business owner always thinks things could be better, but, by so many measures, things are fantastic right now. My team of instructors is just top-notch. (I have subs that would be the best at some clubs.) My desk staff is tight and consistent. We’ve recently made some changes to the schedule that people like. And we’ve just added some electronic conveniences for our members that make check-in easier. So, yeah, we’re getting rave reviews right now, and our member satisfaction is at an all time high. And members that have accomplished “firsts” are all over the place right now: 5ks, 1/2 marathons, marathons, triathlons, century bike rides – it’s crazy and wonderful!

This summer is undoubtedly the best summer we’ve had in my eight years in this business. And our members are largely responsible for that. Most changes that occur here are because of them. The relatively small size allows me to ask how I can improve the quality of their experience, and they tell me. And, most importantly, I hear their ideas and make them happen…. within reason of course.

I’m going to let you in on a poorly kept secret… I’ve been working on a business plan to expand into the space next to mine. While we love small, intimate classes, where everyone feels comfortable and safe, we also realize that some workshops and classes really need more space. And our super popular willPower & grace® and yoga classes are bursting at the seams. Moving into the space next door would also allow us to offer classes in things like ballroom dancing and Tai-chi. This expansion may even involve a sauna. We’ve had a great deal of enthusiasm for the project from employees, members and even some outside investors who like the idea of having the business grow. I’m feeling pretty psyched about the whole thing right now.

MARK: Would it alright for me to ask just how much this expansion might cost, and what options you might have, in case the outside investors that you’ve already talked with don’t work out? I’m just really interested in how non-tech companies capitalize their growth… I mean, do you think that you could secure a bank loan? Have you tried? And, more broadly, do you think there may be a need for an organization like the Port Townsend LION (Local Investing Opportunities Network) group… which I’ve written about on my site in the past… that acts as an intermediary between local entrepreneurs and community members with money to invest? Also, while we’re on the subject of fundraising, I’m curious to know your thoughts about newly evolving online tools, like Kickstarter.

JULIA: As open as I’ve been, I’d prefer not to discuss the specifics when it comes to fundraising. I’m uncomfortable being so public about that part of the business at this point. It will, however, be rolled out with the plan… in full detail… I promise! As for bank loans, I’m confident that I can secure one, and I feel positive about the response from our initial investors, who are enthusiastic about this opportunity. I must have missed your post on the LION group. I’ll check it out. As for Kickstarter, it’s not a good fit for what we’re thinking of doing, but we’re looking into other platforms that might be.

MARK: You mentioned before that you “fucking love this town.” Why? What is it that you love about it?

JULIA: There are so many reasons – as I’ve said, some of the richest, most sustaining relationships I have are with people from this town. I’ve been here so long and probably surprised people by becoming a business owner/booster for Ypsilanti. And yet, I’ve never had someone come up and say “WHAT!?! YOU own a fitness studio? Didn’t you used to do shots and smoke cigarettes with me at The Spaghetti Bender?” To the contrary, I get “Wow, that’s very cool! What a great addition to the downtown – keep up the good work.” And my kids have had teachers, principals, and coaches that I’ll run into on the street that, without fail, will ask after them (neither being valedictorians) and remember them fondly. It’s like a really small town with no judgment. I also love the way businesses evolve with support from the community. It really warms my heart. And by the way, I love my house and neighborhood, so that really helps. Shout out to HESNA!

MARK: When you first decided to open an exercise studio in downtown Ypsilanti, did anyone try to talk you out of it? If so, what were their arguments?

JULIA: Yes! My first location was between Deja Vu and Pub 13, and the reaction was more. “HA! Good luck with that, you’re not going to get anyone from Ann Arbor/Saline/Canton to come.” That got old real quick. ]\\\’The assumption that anyone from out-of-town is afraid of Ypsi… Anyway, they were wrong. Did we have people that were uncomfortable walking past the bus station? Yes! Did some of the never come back? Sure. But, you know, I simply did the best I could to make people feel safe, and make it worth the trip. That’s all we could do. We had good instructors, a charming space, people were comfortable there, and we quickly outgrew it.

MARK: How has your perception of Ypsilanti changed, now that you’re a business owner?

JULIA: Hmmm… There have been some eye-openers for sure. I’ve been disappointed sometimes by the tendency of some folks in Ypsilanti, even business owners, to lower the bar. You’ll hear things like, “That (fill-in-the-blank-with-something-high-end or super-cool) would never work in Ypsi.” I just think “Why?” “What makes you think there aren’t people in Ypsilanti who would love a posh gourmet food store, or a fantastic shoe and handbag place?” It can be a dream crushing experience for an entrepreneur. On the other hand, I know I’ve tried to be as supportive of local businesses as I possibly can, and feel supported by the business community. I’ve always had a policy of discounting the purchase of any local businesses’ employees because it’s just good business to be supportive of each other. And we’ve had folks from Ann Arbor, Belleville and Canton say they’ve explored more of Ypsilanti because they started out at the Studio. That makes me really happy.

MARK: What’s Ypsi missing downtown?

JULIA: Oooh, you mean if I had a magic wand? I was in Denver recently and there was a very little place with old-fashioned gourmet cocktails, dessert wines, glorious desserts, and, I think, charcuterie boards. Wonderful! Wouldn’t that be nice? So great for ending the night out. Or, a gourmet food and wine shop where you could get those perfect little additions for entertaining. [I exercise so I can eat what I like ;) ] I also think someone could make a mint with a beautifully run, drop-in daycare. And I love the idea of a great shoe store. But that would be my husband’s nightmare. The thing is, there are so many artistic, clever brains around here… I’m sure there are ideas I can’t even begin to imagine, that I’d say “Wow!” about…

[Photo courtesy Tracy Grosshans.]

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12 Comments

  1. bee
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Julia is amazing. The studio had already moved to Michigan Ave by the time beezy’s opened, but Julia was [and continues to be!] a beacon of sassy positivity when folks were saying the same crap to me. Oh Washington street…

  2. Sammie
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    If she’d listened to conventional wisdom Ypsi Studio would have offered poll dancing classes. We all owe Julia a debt of gratitude for going up against the commonly accepted narrative and bashing it to pieces. Same goes for Bee. They’re worth more to our city that a truckload of Dave Curtises.

  3. Lisa Woods
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I graduated from high school with Julia and I have to say what a great article this was. I knew she would succeed at whatever she decided on. It is amazing how all of our little side roads take us to exactly where we are supposed to be in life.

    Great article about an amazing woman…still. Much Love and continued success.

  4. lisa stumbo fowler
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    This is an excellent article. Julia Collins and all the Collin’s have been Dear Friends of ours for so many years. This girl is a motivator. I am proud to call her, My Friend.

  5. Rob Hess
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Julia is a tremendous inspiration and a total ass-kicker! I have seen firsthand the ways that the community she fosters at her studio changes people’s lives. We are all so much better off because you followed your dream, Julia. Keep killing it, you do Ypsi proud.

  6. Shanna
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    I am enriched by being one of those lasting, sustaining friendships begun at the Alibi and nurtured through the years. I am so thrilled to watch Julia blossom into her life. It is gratifying to see such a great person become exactly who she wants to be, and lead others to that same confidence and strength. Love you gal!!

  7. Clarinda
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    I, too, enjoy a sustained friendship with Julia and have known her for over thirty years. I, like Shanna, am gratified to have seen Julia find her joy by helping others find theirs. Love here dearly!

  8. Glen S.
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    The Ypsi Studio is a fantastic place, and a much-appreciated addition to downtown Ypsi!

    Thanks to Julia for everything she does … and thanks to Mark for the profile.

  9. Marla
    Posted August 20, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    Wow Julia, awesome article. I remember doing Jazzercise with you and Kathy way back.. My sister-in-law and her daughter go to yoga at your studio and love it.

  10. Posted August 22, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    I must respond to all the generous and kind comments. When I became a fitness professional it seemed pretty sweet, I won’t lie. But the responsibility that comes with that is enormous & I take it really seriously. I feel the same way about how my business works to make my town a better place. I am sincerely touched by the warm, supportive comments here. Thanks for the cyber back slap, it makes me want to do more – and I will. XO

  11. Robert
    Posted August 25, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I love stories about people who succeeded when so many were trying to discourage them. It is just more proof of the fact that most people are idiots and should shut the fuck up, or be ignored. Inspired people should follow their dreams, and forget what the thoughtless masses of ignoramuses out there think or say.

    More power to Julia and all other people like her! Bless them for setting the example and standard that the rest of us should at least have enough sense to respect and learn from.

    It is only that spirit which has any real chance of properly revitalizing the economy.

  12. Jen
    Posted June 11, 2014 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Ypsilanti is such a strange town. Ypsi Studio caters to the yuppies that don’t like to acknowledge that there are people of a different socio-economic class living in Ypsilanti. Regarding Julia, I have seen her be EXTREMELY rude to people that she feels are below her station in life or that cannot offer her something she feels is of value to her.. I wonder if people were paid to leave positive comments…because the majority of people I know that have dealt with her (this includes relatives of hers) find her difficult, arrogant, obnoxious and self-righteous. Plus, she is always complaining about SOMETHING (including the lack of business at Ypsi Studio). I was shocked to read that Julia loves Ypsilanti. I have only heard her complain about Ypsi and/or spew some sophomoric pseudo-classist political garbage that she doesn’t even understand (her husband is even more idiotic). She is also extremely loud, so I have overheard quite a few of her conversations. I have also seen her be extremely rude to servers at various restaurants and have overheard servers complain about her (which was extremely funny to hear in my native tongue (Vietnamese)). I was shocked to see that she worked as a server/bartender (which is why I mentioned her being rude to “the help”).

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