A State of Evolution
Ralph Rajs, who joined Leisure Sports in 1990, shares how times have changed for himself and the company.
Stagnation has been the downfall of many companies — inside and outside the health club industry — since the dawn of business. When it comes to running a successful company, it’s those that evolve and grow over time that thrive.
Leisure Sports, Inc. is a great example of a company that is constantly looking towards the future, and reacting accordingly. Founded in the early 1980s in Pleasanton, California, Leisure Sports started out with one club and one brand. Today, it owns and operates 10 locations across four brands, and is a leader in club design, development and management.
Witness to a large portion of this growth is Ralph Rajs, the company’s senior vice president of operations and wellness, who joined Leisure Sports in 1990. At the time, Leisure Sports boasted two facilities, ClubSport Pleasanton and ClubSport San Ramon, and had an additional two locations on the drawing board.
Rajs thought back to when he first interviewed for operations director of ClubSport San Ramon. Even then, at 27-years-old, Rajs saw an opportunity for growth, both for himself and the company.
“When I came up [for the interview] I didn’t have any idea where San Ramon was in California,” he said. “My wife and I had to pull out a paper map. We came up, loved the area and really liked the people in the company. It felt like a great fit, because there was growth opportunity for me and it was the right time in my life — and my career — to try and position myself with a company that was going to grow.”
Ultimately, Leisure Sports did grow, and as the company added on new ClubSport locations, Rajs explained the club’s operations had to evolve as well. “When we had a few properties, each property was kind of operating generally under the umbrella of the corporate office,” he recalled. “But there was a lot of autonomy at the property level [for general managers] to do their own thing — whatever programming they wanted to do, that type of thing. As we’ve grown, we’ve looked to create more consistency and alignment with our properties.”
That included implementing consistent marketing and sales strategies across all brands, in addition to ensuring clear communication with employees and creating a centralized database for the company.
Alongside Leisure Sports’ growth, Rajs explained his leadership skills evolved as well. “When I became the general manager at ClubSport Pleasanton [in 1993], I was pretty young,” he said. “I think I was 29. There was a lot of necessity to work with the management team on better performance. I was very green and stumbled through that horribly. Looking back on it, I felt really bad for how I handled that team at that time.”
Rajs explained that although he had good intentions, his verbal delivery as a leader needed some work. “That year gave me a really good learning lesson on how to deal with people and how to be direct, but kind,” he said. “I learned how I come across to [my employees]. That realization helped me understand how I need to formulate my message so that it’s a little cleaner, a little more mature, a little better received. That was definitely a process.”
Pushing outside his comfort zone has allowed Rajs to grow professionally. “I was the general manager of ClubSport Pleasanton for 12 years, and in that time, I had to continue to find ways to challenge myself, to keep things fresh and exciting,” he said. “So part of that was community outreach. I worked really hard to push myself into the community and become part of the community.”
Now, in his current role, Rajs attributes much of his professional growth to learning from other club operators. “I belong to a REX Roundtable, and that’s been a great learning opportunity for me to meet men and women who are doing the same thing I’m doing, with the same kinds of goals,” he said.
Rajs’ goals include helping Leisure Sports look towards the future of the health club industry, and continue to evolve. “Generally speaking, we’re working on what the small club concept of the future is going to look like,” explained Rajs. “We operate these huge clubs, but it’s very difficult to build those clubs anymore. So you can very obviously see the trend towards the single studio concepts. The big thing we’re working on is: What does that look like going forward?”
According to Rajs, Leisure Sports’ newest brands, The Studio and The Quad, could be the answer.
The Studio in Danville, California, is a high-end boutique club founded in 2010 that offers members innovative group classes, along with the latest fitness equipment. In addition, the club boasts spa services and a lounge area, but on a smaller scale than what would be found at one of Leisure Sports’ expansive ClubSport locations.
“[The Studio] has many upscale finishes and personalized programs for the members,” explained Rajs. “It has the feel of a spa or retreat and the customer service that goes along with that type of experience.”
Similar to The Studio, The Quad in Pleasanton, California, provides members access to multiple programs, including CrossFit, boxing and conditioning, barre and AirFit, and made its debut in 2014. “When we developed this property we were thinking of sort of a fitness mall — one shopping center with individual stores, or in our case, fitness disciplines,” said Rajs. “By bringing them all under one roof it created a strong synergy and fun energy to the club. Plus, it gives members more options — pick one, or choose them all. We enhance the fitness box experience by adding locker rooms and enforce high standards of excellence with regard to cleanliness and customer service.”
Rajs explained that The Studio and The Quad could be the health club of the future for a variety of reasons. “One, because of the increasing difficulty in developing a large club concept, just because of the cost of building, the cost of land, the cost of operations and how many members you need to make it profitable,” he said. “It’s super difficult to make the economics work in large club concepts anymore. Fortunately we have six that are doing quite well and are great, but in order to grow, it’s difficult to do [more of] those.”
Despite the fact The Studio and The Quad are fairly new, Rajs said the reception so far has been positive. “The Studio is doing great and The Quad is doing well,” he said. “It was about understanding what we were offering at the big clubs, what’s kind of hot within the community and industry, and finding the blend between those two things.”
According to Rajs, although The Studio and The Quad are smaller in scale when compared to ClubSport locations, the brands are all complementary to Leisure Sports. “We’re targeting different strata within our community,” he said. “However, if one of the smaller studios is close to a big club, we have to be careful that we don’t have too many redundancies in offerings between the two.”
Rajs predicted the niche studio market would shake itself out fully within the next five years. “Right now, there are so many entrepreneurial ‘mom-and-pop’ shops that are spinning in and out of the different markets, along with large corporate players vying for the same individuals,” he said. “I think we’re really going to see the market shake out a little, and we’ll understand which experience is preferred by the consumer.”
Regardless of how the trend plays out, Rajs explained Leisure Sports is constantly thinking ahead to ensure the company stays relevant. “Future growth and future strategy is something we spend a lot of time on,” he said. “We look at what our company is going to look like in five years and what our clubs are going to look like in five years. We’ve kind of got this internal metaphor that Steve Gilmour, the president uses, that states, ‘Skate to where the puck is going to be, rather than where it is.’ So that’s something that we’ve tried to adapt into our thinking of, ‘Where’s the puck going?’ Because if you’re skating to where it is now, you’re going to be left behind.”
Although much of Leisure Sports’ management team has been there for over 15 years, Rajs explained bringing in new blood has helped the company stay on the cutting edge. “We have this base leadership team that’s been here a long time, but we’ve also been able to infuse new energy and new ideas and new managers into the process,” he said. “So we have this nice blend and sort of historical pull-through, with new ideas and new energy coming from people who haven’t been here as long.”
Looking back to when he started in 1990, Rajs explained it’s been amazing to witness the growth both he and Leisure Sports have experienced. “I’m very active physically, so for me to be able to intertwine my personal interest and my professional life, they really sort of blend together in a way that they’re kind of one,” said Rajs. “It’s actually very cool, and I think very few people are able to do that. So, it’s been amazing to be able to stay in this industry and with this company that long, especially when you see what has happened with some of the other club companies over the span of the same time.”
When it comes down to it, Rajs said Leisure Sports contributes that success to its people. “I’d really like to underscore the team aspect of Leisure Sports and how many awesome people we have working here,” he said. “To be able to work with the friends that I have here for this long has been awesome.”
By Rachel Zabonick