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 generous sponsorship of Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services, Inc.
In 1976, the racquetball craze was taking off in various places around the country, so fitness fanatic and former bodybuilder Frank Eisenzimmer decided to travel with a partner from his Gresham, Oregon, home to San Diego, one of the racquetball hot spots, to find out more about new businesses called racquetball clubs. The entrepreneur and altruist returned home with the bug to build one of his own. And he just so happened to own an empty piece of property in Gresham that seemed to be the perfect spot for it.
A year later, Frank, who was a firefighter by trade and a contractor by avocation, opened the Cascade Athletic Club with 10 racquetball courts, an indoor track and exercise equipment in 24,000 square feet right there on that parcel of land in Gresham.
Frank didn’t need to look far for help in this bold endeavor. His wife Myrna, a legal secretary who had been Frank's high school sweetheart, kept the whole operation organized. Son Mark, then just 19 years old, was involved from the beginning, building the construction trailer and selling memberships. When Mark married his own high school sweetheart, Debbie Ruby, a year later, she joined the crew, working the front desk, selling memberships and handling the pro shop, among many other roles.
The Cascade Athletic Club was – and still is -- the definition of a family business.
“Frank always wanted to build something,” said Myra, who has been married to him for 61 years. “Even when he was a fireman for the City of Portland, he would help people build things since his 24 hours on/48 hours off schedule gave him the ability to do other things. He did everything – built decks, poured concrete, everything.”
Mark had learned the building trade following Frank all over town doing building projects, and sisters Kristy and Karen even worked in the club at the beginning, handling front desk, snack bar and a variety of functions until life took them in other directions.
To keep the times in perspective, the club opened with 950 racquetball members and 25 fitness members. And things kept rolling, sort of.
“We were okay for a while, and then we hit the ugly business days of the early '80s,” Mark said. “Interest rates were over 20 percent, a recession hit everywhere, and we hunkered down. We didn’t make any money, and Mom and Dad paid themselves nothing.”
Lean days, to be sure, and certainly not enough to support two families. The Eisenzimmers hung in there. After all, persistence and commitment were part of the family DNA.
“We did whatever needed to be done,” said Myrna. “We couldn’t afford to hire a lot of help, so we just did it all ourselves.”
This all-in concept of a family business made the generational transition significantly smoother than many other situations, where handing off the business baton can be awkward and emotionally painful for the patriarch.
Not so for the Eisenzimmers.
“Dad got the business started and ran it in the early days,” Mark said. “We had a partner for the first year, and fortunately, we were able to buy him out.”
But in the early days, the Eisenzimmers were in survival mode, handling the daily opening and closing of the club, doing the janitorial and operational functions, as well as taking on all the business responsibilities. When times allowed, Mark and Debbie were paid $5 an hour, but Frank and Myrna still took no salary. Perhaps Frank's early childhood prepared him for hard work. He was born in North Dakota as the son of a meat cutter. When Frank was 10 years old, his father, Frank Sr., moved the family and extended family to Oregon. By the time Frank left high school, he was quarterback and captain of the football team, and he was lifting weights that he made from concrete and water pipes.
Eventually, the economy turned, and during the next four years, they added seven indoor tennis courts, a swimming pool, another gym and then four more racquetball courts. The business was finally making some money.
In 1987, the family opened a second club about seven miles from the original club. The new club was a 30,000-square-foot facility, primarily offering swimming and fitness but no racquetball, an eye toward the growing popularity of multi-purpose facilities.
The decision to open a multi-purpose facility spoke to the family's fundamental belief in fitness, the concept, rather than reliance on specific sports or activities. The irony, of course, is that it was racquetball that sparked the imagination of Frank, who had been a handball player and part-time bodybuilder.
The family opened a third club, a 24,000-square-foot fitness facility in 1997 about four miles in the other direction from the original club than the second club. Although the clubs were close in proximity to each other, they all serve different markets, often defined by distinct demographics and traffic patterns.
“We tried to discourage competition by dominating our market,” Debbie said. “We were very conscious of protecting our flanks.”
The entrepreneurial moves by the family to expand the business likely wouldn’t surprise anybody who knows Frank. Cascade Athletic Club wasn't the first gym he had owned. When he was in his 20s, he opened his first gym in the basement of his house and sold memberships to it. He even built the equipment used in the facility.
The competitive landscape today is far different than it was when Frank opened the first Cascade Athletic Club location. Big boys of all sizes and shapes have come to town: L.A. Fitness, Crunch, Planet Fitness and a slew of small studios. But still, Cascade more than holds its own.
“Our original club is so big, it allows us to compete in a different way,” Debbie said. “It’s a family focus, indoor and outdoor, with a water park, summer programs, group exercise and true sense of community. It’s our differentiating factor.”
The baton was passed to Mark and Debbie when Frank retired from the club business at age 50 to focus on another one of his passions: political activism with an emphasis on promoting term limits, among other things. In fact, it was Frank who first raised concerns about what he said was the unfair advantage that YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers and other non-profit entities had related to property tax exemptions. He began fighting to force those entities to pay property taxes on their fitness businesses.
Throughout the years, the Eisenzimmer family community has also grown. Mark and Debbie’s older son Greg now has 22 years under his belt running the original Gresham club.
“The club was our family life growing up,” said Greg, who put in his time doing sales at the first three clubs. “We’d come home, sit around the dinner table and talk about the club. Most families don’t bring their work home; we did it every night, and it just seemed normal.
“And of course, we knew I‘d work in it. Why wouldn’t I? It was fun, we were helping people, and it was the family life. While it is exciting to be involved in the family business, it is more exciting to be part of a company and industry that takes an active role in improving the lives of our members.”
Mark and Debbie's younger son Jake currently handles sales at the fourth Cascade club — Fisher’s Landing — in East Vancouver, Washington, a Portland suburb. For him, it was also a foregone conclusion that the clubs would beckon him. Majoring in business at Western Oregon University was the stepping stone to a life in which he always knew he would go to work for the family.
“From first grade on, I’d be at the club after school playing basketball or racquetball and just being a kid running around the club all the time,” he said. “The club was in my blood and still is.”
As the Eisenzimmer family and their business evolved, so has the fitness industry. The changing dynamics of the fitness consumer has presented challenges, but to date, they have only served to reinforce the fundamental concept of Gresham Athletic Clubs.
‘The industry has tended to advance the notions of minimal staffing, virtual classes and single purpose,” Debbie said. “This is quite different from the service model we’ve come from and always believed in.”
Mark said that the clubs serve multi purposes for a valid reason, pointing to the opportunity to be a family, community experience.
“Dad might want to lift weights, Mom might want to take a class, junior wants to play basketball, and his sister wants to swim," he said. "It’s a model the new clubs can’t match. Dad’s vision 40 years ago set us up for success now.”
The future of fitness, according to the Eisenzimmers, is delivering what people want by helping them understand the fitness goals and needs with a focus on the healthy lifestyle aspects of membership.
“We need to make it fun but also make it effective,” Mark said. “We want people to become lifetime exercisers – in any way they choose. If we can accomplish that, we’ll always have customers.
“As a family, we’ve always had this one common goal. It has brought us all together. We live together. We play together. We’re really blessed.”
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Sports & Fitness Insurance Corp. and ABC Financial Services for their generous 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.