When the Miami Lakes Athletic Club opened 40 years ago, there weren’t many other places in the new town where residents could socialize.
The club on Bull Run Road just off Main Street was more than just a place to compete before up to 250 spectators on one of the numerous tennis or racquetball courts.
Guests could have a sandwich, enjoy a cocktail or maybe even smoke a cigarette while meeting friends before or after a racquetball match.
That sport was the craze of that era, as pickleball is becoming today.
Owned by The Graham Companies, the club is one of the properties in the firm’s hospitality division that include the Miami Lakes Hotel on Main, ML Steaks + Sports restaurant and the Miami Lakes Golf Club.
Two of the division’s staffers – Annette Prior-Perez, 59, and Dave Gergely, 70 -- are also marking 40-year anniversaries with the company and have witnessed the evolution of the athletic club they helped launch.
Their bosses say their contributions – with customers, colleagues and the goodwill they foster on the job -- are key to the company’s success.
“She’s an invaluable asset for us,” said Anthony Artiles, general manager of the athletic club. He has worked with Prior-Perez for six years. “What she brings to the table as an instructor, co-worker and manager, the reach she has through the years, is something we can’t calculate or fathom.”
As for Gergely, “You can almost say Dave is ‘Mr. Miami Lakes,’” Kenny Fill, director of golf at the golf club said about its golf sales coordinator. “He loves what he is doing, and the customers can feel that.”
Prior-Perez also ran the children’s summer camps for 12 years. In 2006, she joined management, and four years ago became assistant general manager.
She has starred in club fashion shows and appeared in costume at Halloween parties.
Prior-Perez said the company allowed her to work full-time and part-time, to enable her to raise children Ashley, 31, Felicia, 29 and Arrison, 23, with her husband Carlos Perez, who works at UPS.
“I love what I do,” Prior-Perez said. “I have a passion for fitness.”
She knows multiple generations of families, some of whose kids she hired to work their first jobs at the club.
She recalled teaching a high-impact aerobics class when all five of Don Shula’s kids were taking it. The family lived on the golf course then and the company’s hospitality businesses once bore the Shula brand.
“It was a fun time over all the years,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
She kept her certification and will teach Silver Sneakers classes for an instructor who will be away. The elders are her favorite students because “they appreciate you,” she said.
Gergely’s sense of humor and encyclopedic knowledge of sports were put to good use, first as program director at the athletic club, when he ran basketball, volleyball and racquetball leagues and special events.
He transferred to the first Shula’s Steak House, and worked at the restaurant on Main Street too, greeting guests and sharing stories about the Miami Dolphins’ perfect season.
As director of sports entertainment, he hosted events that drew customers to Shula’s Steak 2: Monday night football with Dolphins cheerleaders and Don Shula’s TV show, which taped there and aired before the Monday Night Football national TV program. Gergely also warmed up crowds before retired Miami Dolphins players Jim Mandich and Jimmy Cefalo hosted their respective shows.
Prior-Perez says her longtime friend could be a standup comedian.
Gergely joined the golf course in 2012, where he helps charities raise money during tournaments by challenging players to beat him on shots.
“Communication, number one,” Fill said about Gergely’s skills with golfers. “He has a way to make sure they are relaxed, puts a smile on their faces, asks where they are from, and he’ll have a tidbit to share. He makes people feel welcome.”
Gergely also excels at customer service.
“We have some groups that have been coming here for more than 50 years and have known Dave for 40 of those 50, and he goes out and plays with them on their last day,” Fill said. “He reaches out to them a couple of times during the year to make sure they’ll be taken care of when they are here.”
And if he sees a golfer practicing good etiquette, say filling a divot they’ve torn from the tee box or fairway, “he’ll give them a pass for a discounted round,” Fill said. “He’s as genuine as
they come. The company’s motto is, ‘We embody raving fan service.’ If you look that phrase up, you’d see a picture of Dave.”
Both have had other jobs to compare to what they found in Miami Lakes: Prior-Perez was a fitness instructor in Doral and worked in accounting and reservations at Eastern Airlines, while Gergely was a stockbroker, teacher and coach.
“I’ve made lifelong friends,” Gergely said. “I’ve worked with Hall of Famers in football and work for those athletes’ charities. I like it here. Miami Lakes has anything you want. I’m close to everywhere and thank God I found a place like this.”
They say the way the company treats employees has kept them there for most of their careers.
“It’s not a corporate, cutthroat atmosphere,” Prior-Perez said.
Letting evacuated employees stay at the hotel during hurricanes or the monogrammed quilts that are sent to families when new babies arrive exemplify what she says is the company’s supportive philosophy.
Said Gergely, “It’s the saying, ‘Find a job you like, and you’ll never work a day in your life,’” he said. “It’s kind of been like that for me. The Graham family just had a habit of making everyone feel welcome and special for how they contributed. And that means a lot to people, and that meant a lot to me.”
Artiles says the club will keep evolving, perhaps to survive another 40 years.
After the racquetball courts were removed, the bar was closed and cardio machines filled the ground floor.
Personal trainers and instructors became certified, childcare was provided and serving families in town became the gym’s way of attracting athletes and those who aspire to becoming fit.
“In our case we cover it all,” Artiles said. “From Silver Sneakers to the kids’ programs such as basketball that each quarter draws 250 young players from as far as Miramar to Kendall, to summer camps.
“We easily have 30 corporate memberships, firefighters and police and teachers, for people who come after work,” he said. “We’re welcoming to everyone, no matter their level of fitness.”
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the club’s older clients.
“We saw a lot of cases where Silver Sneakers members were really hit hard when we closed, and we knew members whose health deteriorated rapidly without the social interaction with their friends here at the club,” Artiles said. “[Before having to close] we had members who’d come to Silver Sneakers in the morning and then would hang and socialize for hours, drinking coffee in the afternoons,” he said. “We were very happy to welcome them back.”
The club’s inclusive culture of serving kids, their parents and grandparents is rare in the fitness business, unless you include YMCAs, he said.
Coming to the club by the end of the year: A new locker room with a steam room and a sauna. There is a new dance/kickboxing class that has been popular, and staffers are getting certified in pickleball to prepare for leagues. Outdoor courts will be resurfaced.
The longevity of staff and personal trainers, many with more than two decades’ experience and role models like Prior-Perez and Gergely, contribute to the club and hospitality division’s success, Artiles said.
“Members enjoy seeing the same faces, and it comes from what they feel about what their children are being taught,” he said.