- Sabai Thai Spa
Healthy Businesses Run by Sisters
Best friends and business partners, these sister duos find joy and fulfillment in running a health-based business together.
Twice the fitness fun
Identical twins Marnie and Rena Schwartz both got a double degree in kinesiology and education, both married chiropractors, both were part of the dance teams for the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto Raptors, and both are moms of four-year-old daughters (born 10 days apart) and two-year-old sons (born 12 days apart). Really. With all that synergy, starting their own business, Vibe Dance & Fitness Studio, was inevitable.
In university, they realized their dream was to open a non-competitive dance studio, where the focus would be on health, not medals. ‘There needed to be a place where kids who are different shapes and sizes, who have different abilities and interests, could come and feel like they’re number one,’ explains Rena. The studio opened in 2002, and they now have 100 part-time staff and one full-time manager.
Marnie and Rena get great daily workouts from teaching energetic dance classes 30-plus hours a week. Still, the sisters make time for exercise outside of work hours with weekly one-hour kick-boxing classes and personal training sessions. ‘They are so different from our usual dance workout,’ says Marnie. ‘Being able to use your body in different ways is what fitness is all about.’
Their workdays generally go from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., and they keep fuelled up with snacks such as microwaveable edamame and pre-portioned fruit and veggies. ‘You have to plan for snacks,’ says Marnie. ‘When we get home from the grocery store, we force ourselves to wash and cut up the produce and divide it into individual servings, so everyone can just grab and go. We say to our kids, ‘Okay, it’s an orange-peeling party!”
When asked if they ever didn’t get along as kids or teenagers, Marnie says, ‘Oh no!’ at the same time as Rena says, ‘Never. Never!’ As adults, they may briefly squabble over a work decision, but it has been remarkably smooth sailing. ‘Owning a business together is the ultimate in loyalty, respect and teamwork,’ explains Marnie. ‘We like to say we divide and conquer.’ They both handle the creative decisions, such as choreography; Marnie works with their accountant and Rena does the marketing, advertising and client communication.
‘We don’t feel we have to go back and redo what the other one did, whether it’s a conversation with a parent or deciding on a costume,’ says Rena. ‘Working together has made our relationship stronger and better.’
East meets West
Shortly after immigrating to Canada from Thailand in 2001, Neata Auttapong Goutier, along with her husband, registered massage therapist Jacques Goutier, opened the Sabai Thai Spa.
Today, she owns a chain of three spas with a staff of 30, and a fourth location is in the works. (All are in the Greater Vancouver Area.) Nisita Auttapong, drawn by her big sister’s rave reviews of her new country, came to Canada in 2008 and worked in all aspects of the business before becoming the spa director at the West Vancouver location.
The spas offer treatments influenced by traditional Thai healing approaches and ingredients, such as Thai massage (a practitioner guides you through deep, slow stretches) and herbal wraps (which use Thai ingredients such as lemon grass). Fittingly, ‘sabai’ means ‘well’ in Thai. ‘Health is the number one thing in life,’ notes Neata. ‘When you are healthy, you can do anything you want.’
The sisters carve out at least an hour a day for fitness, whether it’s an intense hike, yoga, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. ‘We like to work hard and play hard. I think you should challenge yourself every day, and that includes exercise,’ says Neata.
Nisita lives with Neata and her husband, Jacques. The family prefers home-cooked meals such as chicken or fish steamed with vegetables and spices, like ginger and cumin. ‘You feel healthy and have good energy when you eat like that,’ says Nisita.
Part of the reason their business relationship works is that they use a kind of sibling shorthand, says Neata. ‘With family you have an advantage because you already understand each other, and that reduces the time it takes to get things done.’ They occasionally disagree over details but since they make a point of starting fresh each day, nothing festers. And their shared goal of growing a business brings great satisfaction.
‘When we were little girls in the countryside in Thailand, we used to lie side by side and look up at the stars and talk about how we would have a business together,’ says Neata. Adds Nisita, ‘We made it happen!’