Editors' Note: This ongoing series examines the family side of the fitness business where passionate fitness entrepreneurs have instilled the love of fitness to the next generation. This series is not about the achievements of these families (easily found via websites or a Google search). Rather, we present the human-interest story, which, after all, is about interesting humans. The series has been made possible by the sponsorship of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services, Inc.
Cecil Spearman is 85-years-old, legally blind and has survived three bouts with cancer. But with an intellect still sharp as a knifepoint, you’ll find him daily behind his desk as chairman of the board of The Spearman Clubs in Laguna Niguel, California.
Cecil has been married for 57 years to his bride and business partner, Jean. Along with their three sons, the couple own and run the Racquet Club of Irvine, the Tennis Club at Monarch Beach, and the Laguna Niguel Racquet Club – all in Orange County, California. Like Cecil, Jean is still active in the business. The company often ranks on Club Industry's Top 100 Clubs list. Last year, it ranked No. 88 with $6.5 million in 2015 revenue. Rankings for 2017 are not yet complete, but the Spearman Clubs reported $8 million in 2016 revenue.
“My father was a highly successful school administrator, even holding an advisory role in the Eisenhower administration,” Cecil said. “I guess I could have gone into education and had it made, but I was too independent. I wanted to do it on my own. We lived among an affluent population with all those successful business people, and I wanted to be one of them.”
The Spearman Clubs may never have existed except Cecil's father accepted a school superintendent job moved the family from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale, Illinois, where the high school did not have a baseball team. As an avid and skilled youth baseball player, Cecil sought an alternative athletic endeavor — and he was introduced to tennis. He quickly fell in love with the sport, became accomplished under the tutelage of Claire Riessen (former head coach at Northwestern University, father of 1960s and 1970s pro star Mary Riessen) and played well enough to win youth titles all over the Midwest.
Cecil played varsity tennis at Duke University, joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and earned a bachelor's of business administration degree. After a Marine Corp stint, he went into the medical supply business, but he could never shake that tennis itch. He knew he would own his own business someday, and he wanted it to be a tennis club. While working as vice president of American Hospital Supply, he found the right spot in the north suburbs of Chicago, opening the Lake Bluff Racquet Club in October 1972 with his partner, who was the president of American Hospital Supply.
"Our friends told us we were crazy, but I was determined, and I had a vision about how to make it successful,” he said.
Cecil remained in the hospital supply business. In 1973, he joined Bergen Brunswig where he orchestrated a corporate turnaround while still operating the Lake Bluff club from California. He then started his own hospital supply company, which he sold to purchase the Laguna Niguel Racquet Club in May 1984, entrenching him in the club business.
He met Jean, who was a nurse at the VA portion of the Duke University hospital system, on a blind date. They watched the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament on a March night in 1960 (Duke won that night), and they were married Thanksgiving weekend of the same year, barely a month after their shared October 23 birthday.
A few years later, the family expanded in rapid succession with the birth of sons Mark (1961), Steve (1964) and Scott (1966). As the kids grew up, they gravitated to tennis and the club business, which was known as The Spearman Clubs Inc.
Mark, an All American tennis player at Cal Lutheran University who played briefly on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, is the CEO of the Laguna Niguel club and serves as director of tennis. He was the first of the sons to join the company.
What’s it like to work for Dad?
“It’s not always easy, that’s for sure,” Mark said. “There can be conflict, but in some ways it’s like any boss. I saw what was going on, I grew up in it and I always felt I could contribute. I wanted to help.
“There’s no silver spoon,” he added. “He makes us pull our own weight. From my perspective, you always want to please your father.”
Scott, a University of Southern California graduate, is the CEO of the Racquet Club of Irvine. He sold hospital supplies before coming into the family business and echoed his older brother’s sentiments.
“I grew up in the Lake Bluff club, always playing tennis and hanging around the club,” he said. “When we moved to California and bought this club, I did everything – front desk, lessons, you name it. I always enjoyed it.
“It’s not all a piece of cake, though. But we work hard. I always wanted Dad to be proud of me.”
Steve, a CPA and chief financial officer for the company, earned his MBA at Duke and worked as an auditor for Deloitte before joining the Spearman Clubs.
“I always expected to be part of the company,” Steve said. “And while my Duke MBA and California CPA would eventually have opened doors, the family business was an early opportunity to be an owner and CFO at age 27.”
Cecil said: “I knew all three boys would come into the business. And I think they all wanted to. I didn’t tell them they had to, but I did tell them they had to work somewhere else first, which they did. Now, we do it all together.”
Management by objective is Cecil’s style. The company is set up so Mark and Scott run the clubs, and as Cecil is fond of saying, “And I run them.”
Each has to come up with one major objective within the strategic plan that Cecil lays out, then the five goals necessary to meet the objective. They then put their profit plans together – a participatory project for every employee in the company.
“There’s full transparency within the company,” Cecil said. “Everybody knows the plan, including incentives for achieving the plan.”
Jean also has an extensive role in the company, becoming active once Scott went off to college. Not only is she vice chairman of the board, but she also oversees all the landscaping, maintenance and cleaning.
“She does all the things I’m not good at,” Cecil said. “She sees every little thing. She keeps the clubs safe and clean and well maintained and has done it brilliantly for 35 years.”
Jean has more recently taken on another important role: helping Cecil get around as his eyesight has deteriorated due to macular degeneration and detached retinas. He is blind in his right eye and has 20/50 vision in his left eye, which means he does not meet the legal level to drive right now (although an upcoming seventh eye surgery may rectify that), meaning Jean also is his driver.
“The business is challenging,” she said. “As we get older, even more so.”
Cecil added with a laugh, “I’ll be working until the day they put me six feet under. Everybody in the family knows that. In fact, I’m about to hire an administrative assistant so I can manage the company until I’m 90.”
The burdens of being octogenarians don’t stop the Spearmans from planning for the future. The company recently obtained a loan commitment to replace a 45-year-old tennis building at the Laguna Niguel club with a more modern building.
“This will allow us to be as social as a country club while continuing to operate tennis, fitness and swimming,” Cecil said. “We’re in the multi-sport, social, recreation business.”
With 12 grandchildren, will there be more Spearmans joining the business?
“It’s possible,” Cecil said. “Several of them are outstanding tennis players and athletes, and they’re getting good educations and work experience. It may just come down to how eager they are to work in the family business as opposed to being out on their own.”
The Campanaro family of San Diego
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services for their support of this and subsequent articles in this series. Both companies encourage the entrepreneurial spirit represented in investment in the fitness business.
Note to Readers:
If you know of a Next Generation Fitness Family with a unique story to tell who you would like to see featured in this space, please let us know. The family can come from any segment of the industry (i.e., clubs, boutiques, suppliers, associations). Send a note to Chuck Leve at [email protected].
Chuck Leve is a 45-year veteran of the fitness industry and developer of fitness industry associations. Currently, he serves as the executive vice president of business development for the Association of Fitness Studios (AFS). He was the founding employee of the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), where among his accomplishments was the creation and growth of the IHRSA trade show, the largest fitness expo in North America.