Standing on the steps of Georgetown University with a fresh law degree in hand, Mitch Wald may have had a successful legal career laid out before him. Instead, Wald tossed his degree to the side, grabbed up his tennis racket and out of all things started giving tennis lessons in a quest that has led him to a prosperous and successful career in the fitness industry.
The Big Solution
Wald, the COO of the Maryland Athletic Club & Wellness Center, never played a team sport for his high school in New York or for his alma mater, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Regardless, Wald knows that the key to any great business is the development of an outstanding team.
“It’s always been about taking a group and producing results,” Wald said. “That’s always been fun for me. Working with a group of people that are committed and passionate has been what gets me up in the morning. I really enjoy trying to get people to work together well and get people of a like mind that have the same passion. It’s not easy to do, but I enjoy it.” For Wald, the key to producing such a successful staff starts with his legwork. “Even for front-line positions, you’re going to go through two or three interviews at a minimum to make sure you find the right person to be at your front desk.”
A lot of people may appear to be qualified for a position – they may have a keen understanding of fitness, marketing or accounting – but they lack a love of people. Wald said a love of people is the most important entity fitness professionals can possess. “You have to start with someone who really cares about people,” he explained. “We need to hire people that care about their staff and their members. I know that’s trite, but if you miss that, I don’t care what they know or what they do, it won’t work.
“We expect our GMs to know the business and know sales and housekeeping. If they don’t have it, we have the ability to teach them the business. I think all of those things are trainable. The thing that isn’t trainable is caring about people.”
Wald, 63, spent 20 years working for the Skyline Club in Northern Virginia. During that time, Wald built a team determined to succeed. When the club, owned by Smith Club Management, was purchased by Sport and Health in 2002 Wald’s team took many of the senior positions. “The relationships I built at Skyline, the team and the success we had was enjoyable,” Wald said. “When I moved to Baltimore and told people I worked for MAC, they knew what I was talking about.” The key to the markets knowledge about the MAC in Baltimore was attributed to the branding by owners Tim and Liz Rhode.
Growing From One to Two
When Wald was brought into the MAC his job was to expand the company. In January 2006, the MAC had one club in Baltimore. “I’ve always said the hardest thing in my career is going from one club to two,” Wald explained. The MAC was ready to engage the Baltimore market on a deeper level by opening more clubs. During an expansion, most clubs will expand slowly from one club to two clubs and so on. However, the MAC didn’t follow those same guidelines.
“The one to two is really hard because it changes the dynamics of everything,” Wald said. “The challenges are having people that have been working at one club for a long time and then bringing another baby into the house – in this case, twins.” The success of the expansion Wald completely attributed to the influence the Rhodes’ have in their business. “We made some missteps, but I think we made a really good infrastructure to secure our growth.”
Wald and the MAC have great plans to continue their growth. They don’t see themselves leaving the Baltimore market, but they have a desire to touch more people and be more convenient.
Their plan sets them up to develop a couple more flagship clubs and several smaller clubs around the Baltimore area. Wald explained that if a member is a member of one of the flagship clubs, they are able to use all the clubs. However, residents would have the ability to be members just to the smaller clubs near their neighborhoods.
Wald speaks humbly about his success in the fitness industry. Although he has spent almost 30 years in the industry, he doesn’t claim to have all the secrets. What he does know: a program used by the MAC has been one of the single greatest programs he’s ever seen.
The program called “Healthy Start,” created by Legacy Managment, a licensed program out of Virginia, was implemented solely as a physician referral plan, but has spurred into something greater for unhealthy citizens in Baltimore. “It was founded on a principle that made it easier for people who had not exercised or were returning to exercise,” Wald said. “It’s basically 60 days for $60 with supervision from a nurse and our fitness staff.”
“Healthy Start” allowed the MAC to perpetuate their system of wellness they introduced to Baltimore almost 14 years earlier. Wald said the program has been so popular that it has been about 25 percent of their sales. “About 75 percent of the people enrolled in the program have become members,” Wald said. “Once people finish the program we want them to feel like independent exercisers. We want them to stay with us, but sometimes they don’t. The goal is to get them here and get them started and hopefully they stay with us. We see that as our real way to grow our company, with that program.”
In the Beginning
One of Wald’s strengths that helped him reach the level of COO was the ability to follow his passion. A lot of people that graduated from Georgetown Law probably developed long legal careers – Wald was the exception.
Even at a young age Wald knew what he wanted and was already thinking outside the box. He grew up in Brooklyn and Queens, N.Y., but knew he didn’t want to stay there forever. He searched out a great school that would give him the knowledge he would need in the future, but bring him out of the city.
After graduating from Miami University, he discovered a love of tennis while attending law school. “The tennis boom was on and I learned to play and teach tennis at the same time,” Wald said. After practicing law for a couple of years his passion took hold of him and he had to follow. “I quit practicing law and started instructing tennis,” he continued. “I was offered the head tennis pro job at a club and after two years of that, the GM of that club quit.” The year was 1979 and Wald was about to be offered his first GM role at the Skyline Club.
He spent about six months toying with the idea of being a GM. Wald’s true passion was centered on tennis and he didn’t want to lose the ability to teach. However, he found over the six months that the owners weren’t hiring anyone else and he had picked up many of the roles of the GM. “I found myself doing a lot of the work so I eventually said yes.”
When Sport and Health purchased Skyline Wald had spent 20 years in the industry. He took on the role of COO at Sport and Health for two years before he decided to look elsewhere in the industry. “I did some things with corporate fitness and started up a company that tried business to business on the Internet,” Wald explained. He wanted to stretch his legs and see what else was out there, but ultimately he realized he loved working in the club.
“I got a call in 2004 from the owners of Sport and health and they wanted me to come back as the CEO,” Wald said. “I came back and spent two years there.” It was at that time that Wald really got to experience the development of a team.
He had spent years developing different teams for the Skyline Club, but now he was looking at developing teams on a corporate level and he loved it. When Wald decided to leave Sport and Health the second time in late 2005 it was a move that he had never looked to before. “I had some opportunities in the past to move around, but my wife and I had always said no,” Wald said. “Now we were saying yes. I sort of anticipated ending up in a bigger city like New York or Chicago, but the owners here, Tim and Liz, told me they had decided to grow their company.” The challenge sparked Wald’s interest. He knew growing a club was one of the most difficult tasks, but he also appreciated the commitment to fitness and wellness that his friends, the Rhode’s had – the job was a perfect fit.
The journey has been one of great successes for Wald. He has two great children, Chelsea and Jake, and wife, Penny that have encouraged him the whole way. Over the years he has found other passions around fitness and lifestyle such as cycling and wine – he and his wife have pursued both hobbies together and have enjoyed sharing their experiences in many locations around the world. Staying active and working are two major aspects of Wald’s life – he never sees himself retiring. “I’ve quit working before and it wasn’t for me,” Wald said. “I don’t bring my work home very often, but I don’t believe you can separate the work from the person.”
Moving into the future Wald said he sees some great possibilities for the fitness industry. “I think our industry is right in the sweet spot,” he said. “Coming out of the recession people are really going to have to take care of themselves. Health insurance companies are going to be a little more interested in people being healthy and well. If we stay professional and keep doing good work, I think the opportunities are endless. I can’t imagine a better industry to be in over the next several years.” -CS