John Robert Cardillo

The “Miracle” on York Boulevard

Hamilton Downtown Mosque board director Wahed Al Jabry, left, and Imam Sayed Tora stood in front of the new building in 2014. They were discussing where in the mosque they’ll erect a mirhab, a structure that points Muslim faithful in the direction of Mecca while they perform prayers.

Life has its ups and downs. Nobody knows that more than John Cardillo, the former head of Health Holdings Corporation, which owned a large chain of fitness clubs, and was once listed as one of Canada’s best-managed companies, was extremely successful, and had gyms across Ontario.

Yet things didn’t work out the way Cardillo had hoped. In 2009, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, which had left him no longer capable of presiding over the day-to-day operations of the business. As a result, he sold the chain of fitness clubs. Under its new ownership, the business struggled, and its demise made front-page news across the country.

Finding Out You Have Cancer

John Cardillo finds it difficult to discuss those times. He says, “At one point, things were going great. In fact, in 2008, when I ran the company fulltime, we had our best year during a recession, no less. And then, you find out you have cancer. It’s almost like a death sentence. And, after I sold the company, there was a lot of money owed to me, which I wanted to go to my children for their future. However the new owners tried to get out of paying me by putting the company in receivership. They really made a mess of things, and I was watching 20 years of my hard work go down the drain. It was no longer my company. You can’t imagine how painful that is.”

Those were indeed difficult times for John Cardillo. He says that one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with it all is how the public’s perception of him and his business changed, and it’s not always based on what the facts were. There’s a lot John Cardillo says that people aren’t aware about him and his journey, which is why he’s currently opening up about his experiences.

As an example, john Cardillo says that, as awful as having cancer is, it changed his perspective on life. He says, “I always considered myself a fair business man who worked hard and tried to do the right thing. But, after I got sick, I became even more conscientious about what’s really important in life.”

Specifically, Cardillo cites an episode that happened shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer and decided to sell the fitness business. He was still owner of a property in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, that was supposed to be part of a condo development with a fitness club on the ground floor. When that could no longer happen after the sale of my fitness club, he was looking for other opportunities to redevelop the property. But the opportunity that ended up falling on his lap is something he could never have imagined.

A Strange Business Proposition

John Cardillo, Fitness expert,  says, “Leaders of a downtown mosque approached me to sell the property to them. But, quite frankly, it wasn’t much of a business opportunity for me. After clawing for every penny they could from their members, they could only come up with 40 percent of the property’s value as a down payment. And, because their faith doesn’t allow them to borrow and pay interest, mortgage financing wasn’t an option for them.” Cardillo continues, “So, here I was confronted with an offer that was a bit below market value from a group that couldn’t engage in standard financing practices. Before the cancer, I probably would have politely told them to look elsewhere. But, in this case, I just couldn’t. “What made a rejection of the group’s offer so difficult was their continued outreach to Cardillo, who says the mosque’s representative, Wahed Al-Jabry, lobbied him for about a year. Al-Jabry invited Cardillo to the mosque at their location at the time. John Cardillo met the mosque leaders and many of the attendees of the mosque, and their story ended up having a profound effect on him.

He says, “I looked at their mosque at the time. It was pretty inadequate. They clearly needed a bigger space. And their plans for expansion were scuttled because adjacent properties were no longer available to be purchased. Quite literally, they saw me as their only option. There was no way they could find anything else suitable in that area of downtown.

When Humanity Trumps the Bottom Line

“So, I was faced with a choice. Do I put my business hat on and say no to these good people, or do I put my humanity hat on and say yes? I ended up saying yes.” Asked why he made that decision, Cardillo says, “The cancer definitely had a role to play. It changed my outlook. It made me realize that there’s more to life than the bottom line. But more importantly, I got something out of it as a human being. And that’s what it’s ultimately about. “In fact, Cardillo not only gave the mosque a great deal on the property, he used another property of his to serve as collateral for the interest free mortgage they needed and make the deal go through. Cardillo says, “In business my attitude was always to find a solution to a problem. This was one of those cases that we had to make work. And we did”. Needless to say, the owners of the Hamilton Downton Mosque at the corner of York and Hess are eternally grateful to Cardillo. They have publicly referred to the deal as a “miracle” and they “thanked God” for allowing them to deal with Cardillo and secure the property for their community. The members “shed tears of joy” upon hearing of the deal for a new mosque.

And the mosque leadership is convinced that this new facility will serve as a foundation for the community – especially the children, who will now have an alternative to the temptations of the city’s downtown core.

Even the politicians couldn’t hold back their praise of this deal to build a new mosque. Councillor Jason Farr expressed publicly his joy that the mosque could stay in downtown Hamilton and continue to serve its members.

It’s a Catharsis

Cardillo is asked why he’s willing to start talking about some of this publicly. He becomes somewhat pensive and says, “You know, I’ve been through a lot. When I sold the fitness business, and it was in the hands of people who clearly had other ideas for the business than I did, which impacted the business negatively-I somehow got a lot of the public blame for their actions. Some time has passed now, and  I feel it’s important to discuss what really happened from the perspective of setting the record straight”.

“The opening of the mosque was reported with some fanfare, but my name was left largely out of it, partly as my choice. But, when life hits you hard, and you struggle to get back up, sometimes talking about some of the good around you, and some of it that you’ve been a part of, it feels good. And if others can benefit from stories and examples like these, all the better. It makes life that much more worth living, in my opinion.”

John Cardillo is Canadas premier fitness entrepreneur, and pioneer of the HIT3 exercise and Shredded Nutrition Program.

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