One of the owners of a Springfield indoor climbing gym is taking steps toward a new career that she says won’t impact operations at the business she helped found in 2016.
Audrey Pauls, co-owner of Zenith Climbing Center LLC, is moving in August with husband Everett to Champaign, Illinois, where she’s been accepted to the University of Illinois College of Law.
The couple own the gym with Audrey’s sister, Jamie Strong.
The move means Pauls is exiting her vice president of marketing and events position with the Ozark Chamber of Commerce, where she’s worked since 2018. She plans to wrap up work at the chamber by mid-July.
Since she announced her law school plans late last month, Pauls said she’s had numerous people ask her if she’s selling the gym at 3534 E. Sunshine St., Ste. 3.
“No, of course not. That’s my baby. I’m almost offended when people ask,” she said with a laugh. “The gym is my life, and I could not sell it.”
She said Strong will maintain daily operations at Zenith, while husband Everett will work remotely.
“My husband is still going to be super involved, just as much as he is now,” she said. “Almost everything he does right now can be done remotely.”
Pauls said she’s sad about leaving her role at the chamber but knew it was necessary to pursue a law degree.
“I’ve been planning this probably for about a year and a half,” she said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. My grandfather (Thomas Strong) is a lawyer and he’s always inspired me, so I think that’s one thing that made me want to pursue this path.”
Strong is a founder of Springfield law firm Strong Garner & Bauer PC.
Pauls’ departure is the latest in a series of movements in recent months at the Ozark chamber. Greg Williams started May 3 as the chamber’s new president and CEO.
He replaced Anna Evans, who exited as the organization’s executive director in March. Pauls served as interim director since Evans’ exit.
Williams said when he started Pauls was upfront with him about her law school plans. He said she would stay on board until next month to help train her successor.
“She’ll provide some tremendous training, guidance and counsel leading through mid-July, which we not only need but greatly appreciate,” he said.
As the search for a new vice president of marketing and events commenced last month, Williams also began interviews for a manager of operations and member relations.
Roughly 12 applied for the part-time role that will manage the office but also recruit new chamber members, he said.
Williams said Pauls’ position, which is full-time, had about 25 applicants. He expects to make hiring decisions for both jobs by no later than June 11.
Pauls said her experience juggling the job at the chamber and business ownership will serve her well in Illinois. She’ll continue to be involved in all big decisions at Zenith, including personnel, she said.
“I’ve been working a full-time job for the past almost three years,” she said. “Even though I’ve been local, I haven’t been able to give the gym my physical time to be there working on the floor. From my perspective, it’s going to be very similar to what I do now, which is overseeing and answering questions, that sort of thing.”
The pandemic led to usage limitations at the gym, which also closed for nearly two months last year. That contributed to revenue decreasing about 20% in 2020, she said, declining to disclose figures.
She said the total was around what the owners expected, which was helped by roughly $10,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act grant funding through Greene County.
The business also received funding from both rounds of the Paycheck Protection Program, totaling around $60,000, she said.
“Overall, we’ve been very fortunate,” she said, noting membership has held steady at around 500 since early last year.
Despite the roughly six-hour drive between Zenith and Champaign, Pauls said her husband will visit the gym at least monthly and stay for several days at a time. She said her husband handles product ordering and marketing for its online gear shop and updates the website.
The gym employs nine and contracts with five others for yoga classes.
“We’ll travel back and forth as much as we possibly can,” Pauls said, noting the couple are selling their house and moving to an apartment in Champaign.
However, the Ozark native doesn’t intend on the Illinois move being a permanent one.
“When I graduate law school, I’m not planning on moving away,” she said. “I’m hopefully planning on moving back home to the Springfield area.”
Pauls said she’s unsure what area of law she wants to pursue. She’s just excited about her big professional shift.
“What I’ve done at the chamber, it has been a really fun and rewarding job,” she said. “And, of course, I love owning a business and that’s not going to change at all. I just feel like life is short, so you’ve got to do as many things as you can.”
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