Fitness experts Chris and Melissa Conti moved nine times during the first 10 years of their marriage just to stay in the industry.

They had been in Atlanta for two years when they faced another move—the company they worked for was going out of business.

Instead, they stayed where they were and opened their own business in 2000. Innovative Fitness in Kennesaw provide fitness solutions from conception to completion.

By 2004, they were ready to expand. They contacted the UGA Small Business Development Center, housed at Kennesaw State University, for help.

Drew Tonsmeire, area director of the Kennesaw SBDC office, helped the couple develop a financial forecast for expansion, which included leasing their current space and eventually the space next door, nearly doubling their area to 11,0000 square feet.

“Leasing proved to be the better choice at the time given their cash flow and growth projections,” Tonsmeire said.

Melissa handled business operations while Chris oversaw sales. In 2013, Melissa participated in SBDC GrowSmart, a program designed to help existing small businesses expand. The program would help more than she expected: After Chris was killed in an accident, Melissa had to take over management of the company. She relied on lessons learned through GrowSmart to help her navigate the changes.

“When Chris passed away, we had been doing this together for 19 years,” Melissa said. “He was my best friend, business partner, everything.”

“GrowSmart helped Melissa think strategically,” Tonsmieire said.

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In memory of Chris, Innovative Fitness created a grant program in his name. The first Chris Conti Memorial Grant—a fitness center design, consulting and new equipment—was presented to the Goshen Valley Boy’s Ranch, a local nonprofit serving 42 foster youth in Waleska, Ga., on July 30, 2020.

Tonsmeire says Innovative Fitness has one of the best reputations in the industry.

“A long-lasting business like this can be about leaving a legacy,” Tonsmeire said. “That’s what Melissa has focused on, an enduring legacy. She’s become more intentional and focused, from marketing to the community to how to give back.”

The focus helps Melissa maintain a healthy culture and business.

“Our sales have grown 200 percent since we started working with Drew (Tonsmeire),” she said. “There are 14 of us on staff, and last year we hired a full-time PR and marketing specialist. It benefits a business greatly to have a more intentional focus, which Drew helps provide.”