Chicago — When Bally Total Fitness announced last month that it had appointed 24 Hour Fitness Chief Operating Officer Michael Sheehan as its new chief executive officer, no one was more surprised than 24 Hour founder and former chairman Mark Mastrov.

Mastrov, in an exclusive interview with Club Industry's Fitness Business Pro, praises Sheehan, who worked for him at 24 Hour for seven years, and gives kudos to Chicago-based Bally for the hire.

“It's definitely an unprecedented move within our industry to see a senior leader from one firm move into the CEO spot of another, with the two largest footprints in the country,” Mastrov says. “I was surprised to see Mike leave and take the Bally's job, but he's a huge talent, and Bally is lucky to have him. He's a phenomenal operator.”

Mastrov adds that the industry has had difficulty bringing people from outside the industry into high-ranking company positions and getting them to quickly understand and learn the industry. Bally, Mastrov says, does not have that problem with Sheehan, who also will serve on Bally's board of directors.

“You've got a guy who's been there, done that,” Mastrov says. “They picked a talented young man with a lot of upside who's very passionate about health and fitness, who can talk and speak the language of a club operator as well as a boardroom. It's a rare skill set in our business. In my opinion, it's a good sign for Bally because Mike's extremely talented.”

Mastrov would not comment about his own departure from 24 Hour, San Ramon, CA, in January, but that announcement and other recent moves at 24 Hour clearly indicate a changing of the guard under CEO Carl Liebert, who came to 24 Hour from an executive position at The Home Depot and had no prior fitness club company experience.

Several executives who worked for Mastrov at 24 Hour have branched out to key positions at other club companies. Last summer, Ben Midgley was hired as president of Planet Fitness/World Gym after working as an executive for 24 Hour for nine years. In February, Mike Feinman, who was the Dallas-based vice president at 24 Hour and was with the company for six years, became the new chief operating officer at Gold's Gym International. In May, Martin Stein, who spent more than 20 years at 24 Hour in various management positions before leaving at the end of 2006, was appointed chief operating officer at Global Fitness Holdings, which owns and operates Urban Active Health and Fitness Clubs. Five other high-ranking executives left 24 Hour this year, bringing the total of key departures from that company to 10.

Sheehan began his CEO duties at Bally on July 1. Bally has not had a CEO since Barry Elson stepped down as acting CEO on May 31, 2007. Elson had taken over for Paul Toback, who was ousted as Bally's chairman and CEO in August 2006. Don Kornstein, who had been serving as Bally's interim chairman, is now serving as Bally's non-executive chairman of the board.

Sheehan's appointment may be a sign that Bally is coming out of its hibernation after emerging from bankruptcy last September. The biggest news Bally made since becoming a private company was its settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year involving a lawsuit against Bally on financial fraud charges.