Linda Bennett and Jodi Bennett Hunt: Spirit of Gainesville nominees
Published: Sunday, September 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, September 3, 2013 at 11:27 a.m.
Linda Bennett opened the Sun Country Sports 23 years ago with business partners Mike and Debra Wilkinson and Ozzie Mensah and is now the sole owner. Her daughter, Jodi Bennett Hunt, grew up at the center, starting as a 9-year-old student and, after graduating from college, becoming the director of marketing and operations. Together, they offer two locations in the Millhopper area and western Gainesville to give the community a unique family business.
About Linda Bennett and Jodi Bennett Hunt
Occupation: Owner & marketing director of Sun Country Sports
Years in Gainesville: 35+
Spouse Linda - Phil Bennett;
Jodi - Brian Hunt
Children Linda - Jodi & Jessie;
Jodi - Bennett
Sun Country Sports Center is a fitness facility for kids filled with gymnastic equipment, a swimming pool, a three-story indoor playground, rock climbing wall, dance studio and exercise equipment. With its after-school programs, summer camps and birthday parties, kids can participate in gymnastics, cheerleading, martial arts, dance and other activities. There are also programs for adults and families.
When Linda first started the company, Brown's Gymnastics was the only gymnastics school in Gainesville. Her husband told her she should open a gymnastics school since she taught preschool gymnastics in Cleveland. However, she took the idea to the next level.
She had a vision to offer something different, and when they opened, they didn't open as a gymnastics school, they opened as a sports center just like they are now. This has never changed, they have just grown and built.
The center started with a 10,000-square-foot building and six children attending — two of hers and four of the Wilkinson's. Now Sun Country has two locations totaling 55,000 square feet and about 1,500 children.
However, she didn't do it alone. In addition to her business partners, she was mentored by former gymnastics Olympian Ron Galimore and collaborated with competitor Rita Brown, who owned Brown's Gymnastics.
Linda believes that to be strong and to be a better business person, you need to collaborate with others. The ideas just don't come. They come from talking to people and building relationships.
Linda treats everyone in her staff like family. Many of her employees are college students who don't have families close by, so they come to Linda for help. They knock on her door with cut fingers and head colds, and she takes care of them.
And this is why she calls her business unique. It has a family atmosphere with employees she'd trust to teach her own children. It has the “flavor of a good, hometown family business” .
Jodi initially became involved in the marketing and business aspect of Sun Country as a stepping stone to find another job, but fell in love with the center and never left. She states that she has become very passionate about the business and the gym.
As Sun Country has grown in Gainesville, Linda and Jodi have been equally involved in the growth of Gainesville through community service to non profits and active Chamber members. Linda, Phil, her husband and Jodi, her daughter and Sun Country's marketing director are all graduates of Leadership Gainesville and have also sponsored several of their employees. They participate in Gainesville activities and support many other local businesses.
Jodi is an active triathlete and is active in many sports organizations. She is also an active member of Alachua County Emerging leaders, Chamber of Commerce and serves on the March of Dimes executive board. She is married to Brian Hunt and is new mother of Bennett David Hunt.
Since the beginning, the March of Dimes has benefited from Linda's and Jodi's commitment to community service. Linda and Sun Country Sports have conducted Cart-Wheel-A-thons to raise money for March of Dimes, hosted overnight sleep overs for children prior to March for Babies on Saturday and brought their gym bus out for after walk kids activities.
Linda provides and coordinates the “victory vans” for March for Babies to ensure the safe return of all 6,000 walk participants each year. Finally Linda, Jodi and Sun Country Sports Center conduct their annual Howl-A-Palooza, an annual safe fall events for kids in October, where all of the proceeds are contributed to the March of Dimes. It is certainly a win win for everyone. The kids have a great time dressing up in their costumes, enjoying Sun Country activities, hay rides and more and the March of Dimes benefits from the event sponsorships and proceeds.
Through Linda's and Jodi's vision and leadership, Sun Country Sports Center is a premier sports center for children's youth activities developing gymnastics and other sports skills and promoting physical fitness and activities overall. They inspire and encourage other women's entrepreneur efforts in Gainesville, and they contribute leadership and thousands of dollars to local charities.
In 2011 Sun Country Sports was recognized as the March of Dimes North Central Florida Corporate Volunteer of the Year for their leadership and many contributions of the March of Dimes. This is only one of numerous awards Linda, Jodi and Sun Country Sports has received.
Health and fitness are key components that make up the overall fabric of what is the Spirit of Gainesville. For 23 years Linda, Jodi and Sun Country Sports have introduced and nurtured this passion to thousands of area youth. For their success as local business women and their many contributions to Gainesville, I cannot think of another who most represent and deserve the Spirit of Gainesville Entrepreneur award.
Nominated by Betsy Trent