EDISON, NJ–Work Out World (WoW) has changed the name of the eleven fitness clubs it operates in New Jersey, capitalizing on the name of a foundation started by its owners.
A Google search for “Jersey Strong Foundation” leads one to JerseyStrong.com, a website pitching their gym business, which was recently renamed “Jersey Strong.”
Launched in 2007 as the “Work Out World Foundation,” the nonprofit rebranded in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
By the end of November 2012, Stephen P. Roma, his wife Mary Roma, and their son Stephen S. Roma, changed the name of the foundation they formed on a shoestring in 2007, to the Jersey Strong Foundation, according to an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax filing.
Since 1992, the family has run the chain of gyms formerly known as WoW.
Stephen P. Roma “launched a minicomputer service business in New Brunswick” in the early 1980’s and retired from the industry in 1996 “to begin working full time in the family business,” according to a Bloomberg executive profile.
The family said their nonprofit, now a 501(c)(3), would only make contributions to preselected charitable organizations, according to the filing, which added that it doesn’t accept unsolicited requests for funds.
In 2007, the Romas started the WoW Foundation with $10,000 “received from a company wholly owned” by them, according to the nonprofit’s initial federal tax filing.
According to the filing, the nonprofit was established to “make physical training facilities available to handicapped or physically challenged individuals,” while achieving “physical training for [the] handicapped.”
The foundation had no expenses, and worked no hours to advance the “primary exempt purpose,” of their nonprofit, according to the 2007 tax filing. The foundation was still worth $10,000—its only asset—at the end of that year.
Five years later, after the Jersey Shore sufferred a devastating blow from Superstorm Sandy, the nonprofit showed signs of activity for the first time.
The Romas recalled how fellow residents of Jersey shore communities bonded with one another amid Sandy, according to JerseyStrong.com.
“It changed the way we view their business and the communities we serve,” said Chief Executive Stephen S. Roma.
“It prompted us to change our business model, start the Jersey Strong Foundation and ultimately change our brand name,” added Roma. “It’s no longer just a catchy tagline or slogan.”
Roma said the name change reflects “why we do what we do … why our business even matters in the first place.”
The company’s promotional literature promises: “The Movement Is Underway,” and that the company believes in “Keeping Jersey Strong” enough to have “changed [its] name to it.”
The foundation does not have its own website, only a page on the gym chain’s site, which heavily promotes trial memberships.
Since 2008, the three Roma family members were each working an average of five hours per week for the foundation, and did not accept any compensation, according to IRS filings through 2015, the most recent available.
The foundation’s original $10,000 remained on the books for half-a-decade until 2012, when activity picked up and the nonprofit changed its name.
By the end of that year, it was valued at $25,573, according to an IRS filing.
The filing highlighted contributions, gifts, and grants totalling $29,925, including $12,500 that Stephen P. Roma and his wife in 2012 kicked in personally.
Eight recipients accepted contributions from the Jersey Strong Foundation in 2012:
- The Food Bank of Monmouth County received $5,000 to feed displaced families.
- Mary’s Place by the Sea received $5,070 for hurricane damage repair.
- The Lavallette Elementary School received $500 for hurricane damage repair.
- The Lavalette and Point Pleasant Beach Police Departments received $500 each.
- The Lavallette Fire Department, Ocean Fire Company 1, and Point Pleasant Beach Fire Department each received $500.
- Saint Mary by the Sea received $500.
- Middletown Disaster Relief received $500.
“Just like our commitment to helping people rebuild, restore, maintain and enhance their bodies,” said then-CEO Stephen P. Roma, according to a press release issued at the time. “The Jersey Strong Foundation is committed to helping rebuild, restore, maintain and enhance the Jersey Shore — one day at time, together.”
“In honor of the unrelenting rebuilding effort, the Jersey Strong Foundation is offering a special on new memberships for Work Out World’s gyms in NJ,” added the release.
WoW offered “Sandy Relief Memberships” explaining that “the Jersey Strong Foundation, [was] formerly the Work Out World Foundation,” connecting the sale of new memberships to Superstorm Sandy, and citing the need for solidarity.
Then, in 2013, donations from WoW members at various locations added up to $7,359, while the Romas kicked in slightly more than $32,000, according to an IRS filing.
And by the close of 2014, the foundation was worth nearly $100,000, bolstered by a $52,607 payment by Stephen P. Roma and his wife, according to an IRS filing, and a $28,000 donation from Color Me Rad of Salt Lake City, Utah.
While Hub City-based New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was approved for a future payment of $2,500 in 2014, the foundation paid nearly $30,000 to four charitable organizations including:
- Spring Lake’s Costal Habitat for Humanity ($400)
- the Scleroderma Foundation of Massachusetts ($4,992)
A grant to Mary’s Place by the Sea in Ocean Grove for nearly $22,000 was the largest of the year, aside from a “future payment” of $44,000 to the Food Bank of Monmouth Ocean County that was also approved, according to the IRS filing.
Finally, in 2015 the Roma’s matched their previous donation, throwing in $52,000 more to the nonprofit.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
“If interested we will reach out to discuss this further,” said a Jersey Strong employee in the communications department.
Club Industry, a trade magazine, reported that the “branding overhaul … will include new equipment and interior gym designs.” But “membership plans and pricing will stay the same,” added the publication.
The magazine also pointed out that the company was not completely transparent when it comes to its finances.
According to a Club Industry report last summer, WoW was not listed as one of the 100 top health clubs of 2017, because it “declined to provide [financial] information.”
However, it was included along with nearly 30 fitness clubs, as one of the “Top 100 Caliber Companies Not on the List.”
“Every year, several companies who deserve to be on the list decline to provide their information, and we are unable to secure accurate estimates from other sources,” wrote Club Industry. “The following companies likely should be on the list but are not for this reason.”
NJ-based Retro Fitness was also among one of the outfits the magazine thought deserved to make the list.
One member said the rebranding was a way to sell more T-Shirts, adding he didn’t think it would result in a spike in new membership contracts.
But some suspect that the name change may have been inspired by a lawsuit against a Boston-based gym that purchased the rights to use the name “WOW! Work Out World.”
The defendants apparently purchased rights to use the name from Stephen P. Roma and allegedly “engaged in breach of contract, common law fraud, intentional misrepresentation, and negligent misrepresentation in conjunction with the operation and closing of [their] physical fitness facility,” according to the class action lawsuit.
WoW was established in 1992, according to Reference USA, a provider of business data, and has 100 to 249 employees, while its sales volume is as much as $20 million.
The company spent a half million on rent and leasing, and a quarter million on advertising, according to the business and consumer research website.
The WoW closest to Hub City, located in North Brunswick, an outpost the family operated for many years, apparently never reached the success level the Romas had hoped for.
“The North Brunswick WoW was not doing well,” said a manager at the UFC Gym Frankie Edgar in North Brunswick, which replaced the shuttered WoW on Route 1 North last June.
The new tenants remodeled the entire building, which is still owned by Stephen P. Roma, according to both property records and the manager.
Aside from being the largest UFC location in the Garden State, the gym is endorsed by NJ native Frankie Edgar, an American mixed martial artist and former UFC Lightweight Champion.
Edgar is set to oversee the gym himself and make celebrity appearances, as he did at its grand opening last year.
“I’m excited to be able to bring UFC-style training to my home state in the form of our UFC GYM,” said Edgar in a release.
Asked if Edgar owned the namesake franchise in North Brunswick, both the manager and a staffer said he did, while the manager noted that Edgar owned only half the franchise.
“Frankie Edgar epitomizes Jersey Strong as a champion, a warrior and a gentleman,” said Stephen P. Roma, in a release before the new UFC opened. “It’s an awesome opportunity for us to partner with Frankie and open this gym.”
At the ten other Garden State WoW’s, WoW signage has been swapped out with new Jersey Strong signs that omit the word gym.
However, other signs note “Formerly Wow” next to “Jersey Strong” two words trademarked by Stephen P. Roma.
While Stephen P. Roma personally holds about eight active trademarks associated with fitness businesses, foundations, or products like shirts featuring WoW art work, he’s let a handful of others expire over the past 25 years, according to public trademark data. (One registration models the icon that was on the fun house in Asbury Park, NJ.)
Yet, it’s evident he believes investing in the gym business will pay off.
A large banner in Menlo Park Mall advertised a “$0 Enrollment Fee” through the end of September, for instance, urging people to “Join the Movement.”
If the nonstop investment in advertising campaigns provides any hint–it’s simply business as usual. Still, the Romas keep alive the perception that they’ve changed their business model as well.
“There’s something going on, maybe a corporate restructuring?” suggested one Jersey Strong employee who said he sensed a change coming.
Dave is an award-winning business reporter who has authored over 200 articles for New Brunswick Today.