Harringtons Keep Healthworks in the Family

For Mark Harrington, president of Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women, every day is Father’s Day.

Harrington is one of the lucky few who get to go to the office and work with his adult sons. Mark Harrington Jr., 32, is Healthworks’ executive director, and Matt Harrington, 29, is the Boston-based company’s strategic projects manager. Matt also is the president of Healthworks’ new high-value, low-cost club, GymIt, which opened in May.

Although Mark Jr. is older, he’s been with the company a little more than a year. Matt, on the other hand, joined in 2007.

“You’re kidding,” Mark Sr. said in a conference call with Mark Jr. and Matt, not realizing it had been four years since Matt came on board.

“Does it seem a lot longer than that?” Matt asked.

“It seems like yesterday, Matt,” his father replied.

It must seem like yesterday when the Harrington boys would join their father on family vacations at health club trade shows every spring. So in a sense, they have grown up in the industry. The Harringtons now join such father-son tandems as Alan and Steve Schwartz with TCA Holdings/Midtown Athletic Clubs, Chicago, and Curt and Rick Beusman with Saw Mill Sports Management, Mount Kisco, NY, as leaders in longtime, family-owned health club businesses.

“It’s a very difficult business,” Mark Sr. says. “Being single-family owned for 33 years, I think we’re one of a handful of health clubs that can say that, that they’ve been family owned for that period of time.”

Mark Sr. has had conversations with his sons over the years about joining the company, but he says he never tried not to pressure them to do so.

“It’s a perfect situation with both Mark and Matt in that their skill sets match up so well, it’s remarkable,” Mark Sr. says. “They have great mutual respect for each other. It’s been a dream to mesh and to see that we could provide other opportunities to keep both parts of the business going.”

Aside from GymIt, which is a coed club, the five for-profit and two nonprofit Healthworks Fitness Centers are women-only, and that limited some of the possibilities for the Harrington sons to grow within the company, Mark Sr. says. Nonetheless, Matt has done just about everything in the company leading up to his current role, from sales to marketing to handling the clubs’ cafés.

Matt graduated from Colby College in Maine and spent some time working outside the health club industry in real estate—where his father made a name for himself in the business world—before joining Healthworks.

“It kind of got to a point in my past career where I needed to make some decisions as to whether or not I wanted to continue with it at a higher level or try something else out, and I decided to make the switch,” Matt says.

Mark Jr. spent more time outside the industry than his younger brother did. After graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont, Mark Jr. worked 10 years as a consultant on IT projects that often took him overseas. According to his father, computer science is Mark Jr.’s first language.

“This probably wasn’t the goal for me for a long time, and then recently as I evaluated my future, I chose to come here,” Mark Jr. says.

Mark Sr. adds: “[Mark] had the luxury of working in business and management for a period of time before he came in. Matt learned a lot of his trade while he was here. They’ve dovetailed into the company remarkably well because they both like to do different things. They’re both very confident and skilled and work together so well.”

Of course, joining a family business is not as easy as it seems. To get some ideas, Mark Sr. reached out to Steve Schwartz—his fellow Rex Roundtables mate—on how best to handle the situation. Schwartz was the director of development for Hyatt Hotels and an associate in a hospitality industry consulting group before joining his father at Midtown Athletic Clubs, for which he is now the CEO.

Schwartz met with the Harrington sons at a trade show a couple of years ago and jokingly told them every reason why they should not be in the family business.

“It was a great conversation,” recalled Mark Sr., 62. “It answered the biggest question that was still out there: What is the exit strategy for me? How long could I manage the business? And how long can I really keep the energy and drive to keep the business where it should be?

“It almost wouldn’t be fair if one of [the Harrington sons] was in and one of them wasn’t to continue it, but with both of them in, it really resolves that. It’s created a tremendous amount of energy within the company.”

All kidding aside, Schwartz did outline the positives and negatives of fathers and sons working in the same business. His advice: Don’t go into a family business lightly.

“You’re mixing potentially very volatile issues,” Schwartz says. “And it can be tremendously valuable and rewarding or extremely destructive. Everyone needs to approach things thoughtfully, openly and directly. It’s very easy to have a romantic honeymoon vision of how family business is going to work. There are always speed bumps in the road. My job I felt with the Harringtons was to make them think about those speed bumps.”

Schwartz praises the Harrington sons for the job they have done and the job he sees them doing in the future.

“I have a lot of respect for them. They’re very good kids,” Schwartz says. “And Mark is a wonderful guy. Their relationship and their talents will allow Healthworks and GymIt to thrive and grow under this leadership team.”

That respect extends to those who have worked in the company, too. Hannah Karass spent 20 years as vice president at Healthworks Fitness Centers.

“It’s clear that Mark Jr. and Matt Harrington bring an innovative perspective to both the Healthworks and GymIt brands,” says Karass, now the president of Core Solutions International, a health club industry consulting firm. “They are a trio of original thinkers. It’s terrific to watch the Healthworks organization grow and evolve.”

Mark Sr. was the senior vice president and national director of retail leasing at JMB Realty around the time he and his then-wife, Patty, started Healthworks Fitness Centers. The first club opened in 1978 in Salem, MA. The second club opened in 1986 in Cambridge, MA. By that time, Mark Sr. says, he began to phase out of the real-estate business while concentrating on expanding Healthworks.

Patty Harrington managed the Salem club and kept the books for the company. Although Mark Sr. says she is no longer involved with the company, Mark Jr. and Matt continue to lean on their mother for advice.

“Her experience in the industry is definitely great and longstanding,” Matt says. “She’s always a great resource and sounding board and really an inspiration to Mark and me.”

The five high-end Healthworks Fitness Centers have an average membership of about $95 a month. The company also operates two inner-city centers in Dorchester, MA, through its nonprofit organization, Healthworks Community Fitness, for women with low income. One of the centers is located at the St. Mary’s Women and Infants Center, a home for pregnant teens and homeless women.

Earlier this year, the St. Mary’s center was in danger of closing its doors for the rest of the summer before an anonymous donor swooped in to keep it open, a story that drew national attention on MSNBC.com. The center received an additional $1,300 in donations from that report, Mark Sr. says, and the Healthworks organization also recently received support from The Boston Foundation.

In 2010, Healthworks Fitness Centers for Women generated $23 million in revenue—a 10 percent increase from the year before—and is No. 44 on Club Industry’s Top 100 Clubs list this year. The company, which reported 500 employees and 16,000 memberships at the end of last year, expects to grow its revenue by another 10 percent this year, largely due to GymIt.

The GymIt club is located in a former Healthworks Fitness Center near Boston University. GymIt now occupies about 18,000 square feet of one floor of the building that had housed the Healthworks Fitness Center, which was relocated into a nearby business district.

Ironically, Mark Sr. says, Healthworks at that location had been having trouble competing with the lower-priced student recreation center at Boston University. Now that GymIt is in its place, at $19 per month, the club is attracting Boston University staff, faculty and alumni who now find GymIt a better option price-wise, Mark Sr. says.

So far, membership at GymIt is ahead of expectations, Matt says.

“The members are just really excited to have an option like this in the area,” Matt says. “It’s a no-frills, fun environment. Even though it’s no frills, it still has all the top equipment you’d see anywhere and some really nice design elements, so you don’t feel like you’re in a low-cost place.”

GymIt has one more advantage, too, Matt adds.

“We’re all excited that we finally have a place to exercise at ourselves,” he says.

But the Harringtons will not be able to work out at the newest club in development. Plans for another high-value, low-cost club—for women only—is expected to be announced soon.

Over the next few years, Mark Sr. plans to remove himself from the day-to-day operations and work more on strategic opportunities for the company. That way, he can sit back and watch his sons carry on the family business.

“It’s a dream to work with both Mark and Matt and see them on a daily basis,” he says. “There’s no question that it is full circle. To watch your children work as adults and to appreciate their talents, sometimes you sit back and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing! Where did this come from?’”

Perhaps he could start by looking in the mirror.

Suggested Articles:

Harvard Business School Professor Steven Rogers shared tips for creating strategies for growth in the fitness industry by sharing examples from some of the…

Annbeth Eschbach, CEO of exhale, shares why she created her boutique studio brand and how she plans to grow her business in New York and beyond.

<p>Preview video: Eric Affeldt, CEO of Club Corp, Dallas, shares his thoughts on the future of luxury clubs, how they are changing, how they compete with…