‘Boss Fitness’ used to be a prison jeer—now it’s a growing business

Columbus CEO Magazine

“Everything was designed for me to overcome and be successful. It wasn’t designed to keep me down. I was on this path the whole time.” — James Gullatte, owner, B.O.S.S. Fitness

The first thing you notice about fitness trainer James Gullatte isn’t the size of his muscles—though his biceps burst through a bright blue B.O.S.S. Fitness T-shirt. It’s his smile.

In 2004, after spending 10 years behind bars for a drug-related incident, Gullatte arrived in downtown Columbus with under $100 and a plan: to own a fitness company and help others get in shape.

“It was a part of saving my life and trying to give my grandkids an opportunity,” says Gullatte, 50.

Today, B.O.S.S. Fitness, a two-room gym just southeast of downtown, has five employees and independent contractors. In his book, Results Do Matter: A Journey from Homeless to Million-Dollar Business Success, Gullatte says he has logged over 175,680 training hours with roughly 1,500 clients and has earned over $2 million.

He might be a millionaire, but it took a lot of heavy lifting to get there.

A rough start

Gullatte grew up with a single mother on the west side of Dayton. “There were times when our lights were off,” he says. “We’d heat water up on these kerosene heaters to take baths.”

In the Westwood neighborhood, opportunities were slim. “You either did two things: worked at GM or ran the streets,” Gullatte says.

By age 11, he was stealing candy bars, selling two for a quarter at school. “I remember the first time I got caught stealing,” he says. “Everybody came over, so it triggered in my mind that if you get in trouble, you get attention.”

Despite his potential as a center fielder—he played on all-star teams and made it to the Little League World Series—“No one ever came to the games,” he says. If baseball success couldn’t yield attention, something else would have to.

At 15, he walked off the baseball field and onto the gang-run streets. “You gravitate towards this lifestyle because of the love you feel and the respect you feel,” he says. “You belong to something, and people fear it.”

Stealing candy led to stealing cars and selling cocaine, a drug Gullatte got hooked on—one that led to a life-changing altercation that landed him in prison in Orient. He was 24.

All in on fitness

Gullatte remembers a pivotal moment from when he was in prison. He had just finished a workout. “I was feeling good about what I was doing, and it just hit me,” he says. “It stopped me.”

Do you love yourself?

After pondering that question, he examined his life, and his path changed course. “From that point on, it was about how to love me.” He committed to health, gave up wine and weed, and focused on fitness.

One day, a fellow inmate let him borrow an issue of Flex. “I read that magazine from cover to cover, three straight times,” he says. He didn’t move except to eat. “I read the advertisements, everything. And that’s when I said, I’m going to be a personal trainer.” In the fitness business, he could make money, get girls and stay out of jail. “That’s what drove me at the beginning,” he says, his uninhibited laugh so infectious, you have to laugh, too. “But my quest for information didn’t stop.”

He began reading more, training inmates, gained a following and became known as The Fitness Guy. Inmates, most jeering, called him “Boss Fitness,” and the prison even adopted his training plan.

In 2005, out of prison and working at a Bexley gym, Gullatte began training Sally Crane Cox. Over time, Gullatte shared his story and goals with her. “He’s not just training people because he wants to be buff,” she says. “He’s there to change them.”

At the time, Crane Cox, who owns properties, was searching for a business owner to take a space on North High Street. That space became his first, and in 2012, he moved to East Livingston Avenue.

“James is very clear that his journey doesn’t belong to anyone else, and he completely owns his past and has this laser focus on owning his future,” Crane Cox says. ”[He] repudiates the idea of victimization.”

Today, Gullatte is married and owns two other businesses, one in real estate and one in investments. With seven children from previous relationships, he now has 13 grandchildren, and he wants to help them enjoy the stability and attention he didn’t have.

“Everything was designed for me to overcome and be successful. It wasn’t designed to keep me down,” he says. “I was on this path the whole time.”

Original story appeared in Columbus CEO Magazine October 2020

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